Our co-Founder Liji Nowal spoke with Geeta Uppal, Maritime Industry Expert and Head of Ocean Freight of a very large corporation, where they discussed the industry, and how much it has changed. We promise you, this is an exciting one.
a member of a legendary race of female warriors believed by the ancient Greeks to exist in Scythia or elsewhere on the edge of the known world.
Geeta Uppal was awarded ‘WOMAN PROFESSIONAL OF THE YEAR’ in the country at the prestigious MALA (Maritime & Logistics Awards) function held in Mumbai on September’15. Having cut her teeth in media and computers – she finally applied to, what was then, one of the best container Shipping Lines in the world - P&O Containers. Needless to say, there were hardly any women in the batch of 22, and out of the 2 women, Geeta was the only one who chose to stay!
Love of a good challenge and perseverance has been the defining trait of Geeta – and within two years, she started to handle trade. That was a turning point for her - as people who were given such positions usually had at least 8-10 years of experience.
Her drive and her passion for the industry ensured that she successfully held various trade positions for Europe, Far East, US, & South America.
When Pricing was delegated to India for the first time, she was chosen to head pricing for the region, this being a huge milestone because the organisation was delegating something close to their heart. She was entrusted with the cost economics of the Europe trade, personally a major achievement for her. For 2 years, she nurtured the Indian subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, where she was handling these countries and their pre-port, HQ in Bombay. She moved on to handle Middle East, South Asia, and Africa – and then to the US Trade Lane – her favourite Trade Lane.
Geeta, during her stint in the industry, has been part of the largest and best in the Container Shipping Industry and Freight Forwarding. She has travelled extensively within regions like U.S., Pakistan, South America, Africa and the Far East, and has great relationships with all stakeholders in the industry.
Hers is an extraordinary story – of passion, leadership, vision and hard work. Here she speaks of her work, of the industry and the issues close to her heart.
Tell us about one thing that has excited you this year.
We’ve achieved automation in an unimaginable space - we have ensured that Road Transportation Process is 100% automated. The transporters submit their jobs to the portal. It then gets converted to an invoice. It either gets approved or rejected through the portal and then they get their payment. All the allocations are done via our ERP. They get the information directly via the portal on their app. And we have now enabled electronic POD on smartphones.
In shipping as well, we have managed the entire payment cycle digitally, again the payment for the shipping line is made online.
Tell us a little more about your current role. You have always been excited about this role.
Currently, I manage a huge spend of approx. 2500+ cr. I was invited to join the organisation, where I am now, as they wanted to create a new value system and create the entire division, ground up.
We designed everything in the supply chain from scratch. This included: the Procurement Process, the allocation Process & Trade-Lane Management culture. And I won’t stop here. There is still a lot more work to do.
What skills have you gained in all the years you have worked in this industry?
Over the years, my volume of work quadrupled and it has been interesting. When working for a Very Large Container Shipping company, I was one of the first few people invited to join the South Asia Trade Desk and handled the Trade for entire Americas.
I learned to manage large volume in a very structured way. I’ve worked where the organisations' belief was to push you to go beyond your boundaries. Even when the volumes doubled the number of resources available was still the same. This taught me how to manage incredibly large volumes with a lean team – and to build scalable & sustainable processes.
I was handed the role of a General Manager for a large Forwarder, heading procurement for South Asia, reporting directly to Head Quarter, handling the entire unit. I got the chance to do something completely different: freight forwarding. I also handled trade lane management, very sales oriented role, keeping in mind the profitability I had to bring to the organisation I worked for back then. This helped me gain insights into managing a complete P&L.
Having experience in most of the regions, how do you define the difference between the Far East Trade and the US Trade?
The Far East is a complex trade lane because of so many options- North China and South China. But a unique trade lane to work in is the USA. This is because they are quite regulated. They have many laws to adhere to, where you have to be very careful with their regulations and have a special skill set to be able to handle it well. It is not a trade that everyone can do. The Far East, of course, is very complex because it is very vast. But, once you have the hang of it, you should be able to handle it.
What are your thoughts on GST that has been made mandatory in shipping?
The biggest shocker is that they have GST on Freight. Nowhere in the world do they charge GST on Ocean Freight. Recently, I’ve been asked to join the Indian Merchant Chamber of Commerce Industry on the board. Why would the government want to include additional paperwork and administration burden?
Most of the shipping lines are trying to implement GST compliant invoices, but there are only a few of them who are able to do it well. The complexity of the invoice needs to reduce. The government needs to look at a couple of components such as the lack of a credit note. Though there are only 8 items to comply with, even those can be quite complicated to do so. Only then you get your set off credit back. That is something that liners are struggling on.
What Challenges do you see in EXIM trade?
We need to catch up: in terms of the infrastructure of road, yards, and connectivity. You can have the best of gadgets, but if you don’t have access to it, what is the point?
In our industry, Automation has lagged behind. There are few companies who have invested far ahead in technology. Even though we have MNCs in the industries, automation has not taken off to the extent it should. The shipping industry as a whole is way behind compared to other industries in automation. Paperwork still exists.
Recently we received an award at South Gujarat Award Function and I made a speech saying, “As a manufacturer, our expectation is that we automate to work 24/7? Whether it be customs, terminals, or shipping lines, People have accepted the traditional things. This is where I see a disruption in technology is really affecting us. And this is a change that the industry needs to think about. This is an issue globally in the Industry.”
Logistics needs to catch up with other industries! The speed at which the world is moving, in terms of digitisation, networking, consolidation, and the drive for profitability. They especially need to ensure that they do not compromise on the service level. Customer centricity is of paramount importance because you are not only serving your customer but are also serving their customers as well.
Technology is changing rapidly. A product that you are willing to wait one week for, you now want it within the hour. Consumer pattern and cycles are changing the world over. How do you deliver something 24/7 if your logistics doesn’t work 24/7? The entire supply chain is going through a massive shift.
By 2020, only those who have embraced technology to serve customer 24/7 and ensure timely deliveries, will have a competitive edge & will survive.
So what personal challenges did you face during all your years in the industry?
I don’t see anything as a challenge. I just accepted what came my way and assimilated it to the best of my ability. Whatever has come my way, will be the best thing that has happened to me. Because if they have asked me to do this, then I’m sure they think I’m capable of doing it.
Entering a male-dominated industry is not something everyone gets in their career. So if they have sent it to me, then I’m sure I can handle it.
One thing I have kept as a mantra in my life is that I’ve never accepted no as an answer. If ever there is something that is not possible, then there is a solution to make it happen. If someone says this cannot be done, I question them and ask why can’t this be done? And if this cannot be done, then we ask what the next best solution to fix this is.
I have personally supervised a stuffing of a container in the old CFSs in the Mumbai Port Trust. People said that it could not happen, but my boss asked me, “Why are you accepting that this cannot be done? Go stand there and make it happen!” Not only did I make it happen, but I made it happen better.
I’m lucky that right at my nurturing stage I’ve received this knowledge that helps me even today. I will not believe that something cannot happen.
What advice would you give to the enterprising women and men who are reading this?
“All throughout my journey I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve done. That’s why I feel like I have never worked a single day. If you do something you love and follow your passion, then you are not actually working. My companies gave me the freedom to make decisions, & go wrong sometimes.”
Of course, have a passion for what you do. If you don’t do that, it will always be a compromise. Find your passion, pursue it, and execute that. That’s the only way you’ll be able to live a fulfilling life.