Having already built a weighty reputation that comes with managing one of the world's fastest container terminals, Gulftainer's quest to be amongst the top global operators is charging full steam ahead.
The Sharjah-based terminal operator, Gulftainer Company Ltd, is keen to continue impressing its customers with its ‘productive, economic and flexible performance record'.
With a long-term contract with the Sharjah Port Authority to operate and manage two container terminals on its behalf - namely Sharjah Container Terminal (SCT) and Khorfakkan Container Terminal (KCT), located on the eastern coast of the UAE - Gulftainer's significant track record speaks for itself.
We need to continue to invest in capacity to stay ahead of the demand that is growing at a dramatic rate.
The growth in the throughput of the Sharjah and Khorfakkan terminals over the years since Gulftainer took over management of the facilities in 1986 has been remarkable. Last year, container volumes in both Khorfakkan and Sharjah reached an impressive 2,173,867 TEU, up 8% on 2006.
It's comes as no surprise, therefore, that when questioned about whether he hopes that this phenomenal growth will continue, Peter Richards, director and general manager of Gulftainer, cannot help but laugh.
"I think the answer is yes," he says, matter of factly. "Volumes at both our terminals have increased substantially recently, and we expect this increase to continue at a far greater rate this year."
In the thriving sea freight industry of the Middle East, Gulftainer certainly has its fair share of serious competition. With so many terminals upping the ante in the region, how does the terminal operator ensure that it keeps up with other big players such as Dubai and Salalah just around the corner? "The one thing we have learnt is that we need to continue to invest in capacity to stay ahead of demand," admits Richards. "Demand is certainly there and it's growing at a dramatic rate."
In order to cope with this growing demand, Gulftainer and the Sharjah Port Authority have been immersed in a multi-million-dollar upgrade project to increase the capacity of both container terminals.
KCT has already benefited from a first-phase development in 2006, which included 400 metres of quay and the installation of four Super Post-Panamax cranes.
The second phase of development, due to be completed later this year, includes an additional 400 metres of quay. An 800 metre breakwater will offer maximum protection to the new berth while at the same time providing the easiest possible access for 8000-plus TEU capacity ships that will speed up the port's turnaround times. When the new Phase 2 berth is complete, six new ship-to-shore Super Post-Panamax gantries with Tandem Lift Spreaders will also be installed.
Not to be outdone, SCT also saw the arrival of two new Post-Panamax gantry cranes a month ago, which are currently being set up on the quayside for operation in the very near future.
For Gulftainer, the expansions are all being driven by the need to provide a faster and more efficient service to its customers. Richards believes that in order to stay successful, the port needs to remain an economically viable option - with high crane productivity rates and quick vessel turnaround times essential to minimising costs.
"Ships are getting bigger and carrying more containers, so our facilities have to be able to cope," he points out. Indeed, one of the biggest container ships to berth at SCT, the ‘APL Argentina', calls regularly at the port as part of a weekly service.
Despite its vast capacity of 4000 TEU and 40,000 GRT, the vessel recently worked at an impressive productivity rate of over 115 moves per hour at the terminal.
When it comes down to impressive productivity rates, Gulftainer is a world leader. Considered to be the fastest container terminal on the ‘East/West trades', KCT recorded a personal best with the call of the ‘CMA-CGM La Traviata' in April last year, clocking up record vessel performance figures of 237 moves per hour (mph).
As Richards is keen to point out, such figures are not simply ‘one-offs', as Khorfakkan also enjoys the reputation of having the most consistent productivity performance of any major container terminal worldwide.
One of KCT's major strengths has been the fact that it is an accessible gateway to the UAE markets, bypassing many of the ‘landside infrastructure challenges' caused by road congestion in the region. The location of its Sharjah Inland Container Depot (SICD) enables containers to be distributed efficiently and quickly to all parts of the UAE.
"Strategically located away from the major infrastructure bottlenecks of the UAE, the site offer a convenient accessible site for customers to pick up containers rather than going all the way to Khorfakkan to present their documents," Richards highlights.
The 18,000 TEU capacity SICD was set up in 2003 to cater for the containers arriving via Khorfakkan for the local market, and is situated between the two major east-west highways that provide quick access to Khorfakkan, Sharjah and Hamriyah Ports, Dubai and the northern Emirates.
Richards himself has witnessed the shift of businesses away from the UAE's bustling city centres towards more accessible sites on which to develop logistics centres to support the region's thriving sea freight industry.
"In last three to four years, there has been an increasing need for businesses to look to build sites outside the traditional city centre locations because of cost and congestion," he explains.
"Those areas are often on the outskirts of Dubai and Sharjah, and these moves are often to our benefit due to our geographical position."
The company has already laid down plans for future facilities in the same location. "Because of the pace of expansion and change, we can already see ahead to a time when we will need to look to develop further facilities and purchase a greater area of land to cater for demand in the next few years," he adds.
What is driving this enormous demand in the region? Certainly both terminals have benefited greatly from the ideal strategic location for the main east-west shipping lanes.Major shipping lines such as United Arab Shipping Company, APL, Maersk, CMA-CGM, DSR Senator, NSCSA and Hanjin-Senator have realised the cost and time efficiency related benefits of using Sharjah or Khorfakkan, for example, as a hub port for transhipment to the Gulf, Indian subcontinent and East Africa.
As well as attracting more shipping lines, Gulftainer has been witnessing an increase in shipping routes. Last year, for instance, KCT welcomed an additional weekly service call from South America, as the French shipping line CMA-CGM and Chilean shipping line CSAV began a container service from the east coast of South America to the Middle East.
SCT also expanded its weekly container service for exporters and importers to and from the subcontinent - Mumbai (JNPT), Karachi and Mundra as well as Muscat.
"All lines have services into Sharjah from all parts of the world, including the Gulf, Iraq, Indian subcontinent, Asia and the Americas. We also have a wide range of major business coming from the Far East and Europe to this region," says Richards.
Richards describes his own experience of Gulftainer's phenomenal growth as "exhilarating". When quizzed about the secret of the company's considerable success, he quickly points to the team effort involved.
"Anyone who works in a business like ours knows that very little is done on the individual level. The nature of the business means that it's a team effort," he emphasises. Richards took over the role of overseeing Gulftainer's operations in August 2006, taking the mantle from Barry Coughlan who had led the company for 30 years.
Amongst Gulftainer's many achievements, Richards has been pleased with the growing yet "modest footprint" that the company has been making globally.
The operator has been witnessing an increased interest from other international gateways to bring its expertise to their corners of the globe.
"A large number of lines, operators and countries were coming to us asking for advice or discussions to get involved in their countries and facilities," he explains.
"We took a decision two and three years ago to expand our existing footprint overseas by sharing the strengths we have and working with other regions in a constructive way to improve what they are trying to do."
Gulftainer's global ventures have included a joint effort with Sharjah's Al Marwan Group to manage all stevedoring and warehousing at the Port of Moroni in the Comoros Islands, located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Eastern Africa.
The company has already made a major difference to ensuring faster and more efficient cargo operations at the port.
"We have been operating there jointly with Al Marwan for nearly two years, and are hoping to start work on the smaller port of Mutsamudu later this year," says Richards.
Gulftainer also has a close working relationship with Kuwait Port Authority (KPA) since 2002, focusing on improving the performance of its Shuwaikh Terminal up to international standards.
The strategic advice provided by Gulftainer to KPA on port operations and development has helped the terminal to achieve a huge improvement in throughputs in both 2006 and 2007.
With plans to extend its services and lend its expertise to more global locations, Gulftainer's growth, expansion and expertise is set to continue to attract interest worldwide. "This year we will be announcing other ventures in Turkey and probably Doha, Qatar as well," he adds.
Back on home ground, Richards is quick to credit Gulftainer's host country and its buoyant economy, as the root of its success. In particular, he points to the progressive policies of the leaders of the different emirates in promoting business growth and working towards improving the region's infrastructure systems.
"I think it's very important that the region's wealth is invested in developing better infrastructure," he emphasises. Richards remains both optimistic and contemplative of the future for both the regional shipping industry, and Gulftainer itself.
"Infrastructure progress will inevitably need close attention but the governments are doing a lot to improve on that," he enthuses. "The UAE is a great area in which to do business. We are in an environment which is conducive to the opportunities to do well, thanks to the framework the leaders have set up."
The port operator also shares what Richards terms an "excellent relationship" with Sharjah Port Authority, a partnership that has clearly driven the success of both KCT and SCT.
And with over 30 years of success in the sector, Gulftainer has a lot to look forward to in the future. "There is a lot of competition in this area, and we have to continue to deliver an excellent service," Richards concludes.
"We have tried to anticipate what our customers have wanted and we are now seeing the results of that in a big way. Clients are now choosing our gateway over our competitors' because of the unique merits of what we are able to offer."
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