Q&A with AON: Leveraging the power of networking


PortCalls Asia is running the first of a series of Q&As with major shipping, transportation, and logistics industry players to find out more about their business operations, directions, and plans.

Here, we interview Gary Dale Cearley, executive director of AerOceaNetwork, a nonexclusive networking group based in Bangkok, Thailand, that brings together independent freight forwarding and logistics professionals all over the world.

Cearley tells us how members leverage their affiliation with AON to realize accomplishments at a rate and level that may be hard to achieve on their own.

How did AON get its start and why was it established? How is it doing now?

AerOceaNetwork, or AON, was started way back in 2003 by a businessman from the San Francisco Bay area who had a dream of bringing together independent freight forwarders from all over the world into one large group of allied companies that would build up one another’s businesses.

I had recently sold my shares in my own company, an independent Southeast Asian freight-forwarding company that I founded in 1996 after leaving my job with a Swiss freight-forwarding company.

After the sale, I had really not much to do with my time, so I was recruited by my friend to help out with the group in early 2004. This help was just on a part-time consulting basis.

By 2005, our friend from California bowed out of the business, and the entire group was turned over to me. When I started to help out, there were only about 20 or so listed members. We are much larger than that now!

How many members does the network currently have? What are their specialties, and where are their businesses or offices located?

AON lists about 130 member-offices found in every major geographic region around the world. Our members are in markets large and small, from Jamaica to China to Egypt to the Philippines.

Most of the people in AON are international commercial cargo specialists who are either air or ocean specialists, or both. But being all independents from different countries and cities, their overall specialties will definitely match the needs of their home markets.

Why should logistics firms and freight forwarders join your group? What unique benefits or services can they expect?

If you are an independent freight forwarder who needs reliable agents all over the globe, then we—AerOceaNetwork staff and all of our varied AON members—are definitely here for you.

When networks started to become a relative term in the industry back in the mid-1990s, networks tended to be exclusive. Nonexclusive networks started showing up about half a decade later and tend to be the majority. AON falls into this description.

But while some of these groups try to build a mega conference, we try to keep it sane. Most members don’t want to get lost in a phone book. So though we will continue growing, our members still get to know all the others on a first-name basis.

And that is very important when you are actually trying to build a business. Otherwise you easily fall into speed dating and testing new partners all the time. Though this might give your growth a boost, the fact is you will stop and start so many times along the way it won’t even be funny. We want our members to mesh with one another, and I think we provide that feeling.

What are your criteria for membership?

We check on several issues during the application process. AON applicants have to provide four industry references who are not operating in their national markets, who are not in a sister or associated company, and who must have a trading history with the applicant’s company.

The first questions to the references help us to check whether the applicant is financially strong. We then look into the applicants’ operational capabilities to make sure that they really are experts at handling international cargo to and from their home markets.

It won’t stop their either. We need to know how well these applicants communicate, which is a two-pronged issue. Not only do members’ language abilities need to be understandable, the members also need to be timely and correct in their communications, whether by e-mail, telephone, or Skype.

We also give the references the opportunity to tell us anything about the AON applicants. Sometimes it points out a bad apple and sometimes it gives us a real diamond. We want to keep the diamonds!

What networking activities by your group are particularly beneficial to the members?

The most obvious and biggest benefit that our members get is that they are able to meet one another under one roof on a regular basis. We present this opportunity annually, and more than just annually when the chance presents itself.

At these meetings, members get to know one another both socially and professionally. Members have a day-and-a-half of one-on-one meetings to meet with potential agents in interesting markets and with current partners to discuss ongoing business.

Another great benefit that gives members peace of mind during the networking process is our financial-protection coverage that covers our members against bad debts. This definitely comes in handy, as it did during the financial crisis that the world underwent a few years ago.

Can you cite specific examples of how AerOceaNetwork helps members grow their business?

We give our members’ businesses a reach that they wouldn’t have on their own. Let’s say that you own a small or medium-sized forwarding company in Singapore, a major logistics hub, which makes it a crowded market.

Most freight agents around the world are already set up with some relationship or another in Singapore, and you have to compete against that for your own business. On top of that, you don’t have any other offices anywhere else in the world.

Now you have a local prospective customer who wants to import ex-works from China and Germany and export to Canada and Argentina on a door-to-door basis. They don’t just need quotes; they need to know that you can handle the business. As a member of our group you can quote easily for this, and you will be able to handle your cargo professionally through our other members.

Conversely, if you were a loner you might have trouble standing out in the crowd. As part of our network, there is much more focus on your company’s services. You will get inquiries from other members.

This is some strong stuff when it comes to business growth. You gain a reach that you didn’t have before and that is incredibly difficult to build up by yourself over the years. Imagine the time and money you’d waste having to fly all over the world to make such relationships. With AerOceaNetwork it is all in-house. We offer your peace of mind, which in turn you offer to your customer.

What were your major activities and achievements in 2011, and what are your plans for 2012?

We had our first meeting on the Iberian Peninsula, sponsored and supported by such companies as Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, Lufthansa Cargo, and the Port of Lisbon. These companies came and met the members and gave very interesting presentations. I believe this is the highest-profile delegation that we have ever had.

This year we will be coming back to Asia in the latter part of the year, as we rotate our meetings between continents. We are currently negotiating the venue space and will be announcing our upcoming meeting very soon. So if you are an independent forwarder I would say, “Watch this space!” We announce this information directly to our members and through our blog and Facebook page.