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Officers and staff at the recent 15th anniversary of China Shipping Manila Agency, Inc

THE YEAR was 1998. Asia was struggling to regain its footing after being walloped by the worst financial crisis it had ever spawned that began a year earlier.

As the so-called Asian tigers – Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand –grappled with an economic slump from which all five would take years to recover, their neighbor the Philippines watched and went about with its business at its own pace. Of the developing Southeast Asian economies, the country was the least affected by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis even though it shared the same bleak outlook for the region.

It was in that setting that a start-up operation staffed by fewer than 10 people set up shop in Manila’s Malate district, braving the rough, uncharted waters in its bid for a piece of the country’s competitive container shipping market.

Fifteen years later, China Shipping Manila Agency Inc. (CSMAI) looks back to those early days with relief. Marking its 15th anniversary this month, CSMAI tells PortCalls that since the end of the Asian financial contagion, it has been smooth sailing for the firm.

CSMAI hopes in the long run the “nice and steady” growth it has achieved would translate to significantly better cargo volume and revenue.

The company offers container transport both for inbound and outbound cargoes and other related services to and from the United States, Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East, Africa, and within Asia.

CSMAI’s principal, China Shipping Container Lines (CSCL), operates a worldwide service and has a dedicated feeder service from Manila directly calling at the Chinese ports of Ningbo, Shanghai and Qingdao.

“There is a variety of goods that we cater to, such as raw materials for manufacturing, machinery, and foodstuff for imports and mineral ores, fresh fruits, garments, furniture and fixtures, and electronic products for export. As the Philippines is basically an importing country, about 70% of cargoes we handle are imports,” said CSMAI general manager Wilfredo Monillas, replying to a set of questions emailed by PortCalls.

“The growth of the company through the years has been on a nice and steady pace, from its initial operations wherein the only manpower can be counted with less than two hands, we have now expanded on our human capital,” he said.

“Our expansion is also evident as from our beginnings in Manila; we now have offices in different parts of the country such as in Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Davao and General Santos. In the same manner our management system has evolved noticeably, gaining the nod of certifying body Det Norske Veritas as an ISO-certified company.”

Now the old Malate office has become the company’s headquarters as its headcount has grown to 52 employees and its office network has expanded to other parts of the country.

CSMAI has also grown in step with developments in the field of technology, gearing itself up with innovations in automation to be able to offer better service to its customers.

“Technologically, we have also advanced as we have acquired systems with the end in mind of fully automating the majority of our operation processes to benefit our customers,” Monillas said.

CSMAI is optimistic about the prospects of the shipping industry in the second half of 2013, which Monillas said has been enhanced by the economic gains of the Philippines.

“Right now the Philippines is enjoying the recognition as one of the up and coming Asian economies. We, just like the other players in the industry, see this as an opportunity to take advantage of such recognition, especially with the influx of companies from abroad setting up their businesses here, in particular those engaged in manufacturing of products. We see this as a window to offer our services to transport their raw materials from their origins and their finished goods abroad.”

Expansion plans, however, are not an immediate concern for CSMAI.

“Right now there is no foreseeable expansion for the company. We are focusing on how we can better serve our customers through cooperation with or buy slots from other carriers and fine-tuning our quality systems for complete customer satisfaction,” Monillas said.

The over-tonnage, weak demand particularly in the United States and Europe, and soaring bunker fuel prices that have depressed the global container shipping industry over the past few years have not spared CSMAI’s principal, CSCL, according to Monillas.

In fact, he said, every industry, not only the container shipping industry, has hit a snag in light of the global economic recession in the few past years that produced a chain effect: diminished buying ability, weaker consumption of commodities, lower imports of goods, and less demand for the commodities that the country exports.

“When that happens, of course, carriers here jockey for position to get as much cargo as they can. Add the rising overhead of fuel costs, indeed this has had a great effect on our principal’s operations,” said Monillas.

Throughout these trying times, however, CSMAI has maintained good relations with local shippers. “With our strong customer service team, as well as dedicated sales team, we rarely have problems with our shippers,” Monillas noted.

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