Forming part of the A.P. Moller–Maersk Group, intra-European container shipping specialist Seago Line operates short-sea and feeder services across Europe, the Near East and North Africa, carrying significant volumes of perishable produce in reefers into the UK from across the world. In this exclusive interview, Robert Clegg, general manager for Seago Line UK and Ireland, fills in Produce Business UK on how the company is expanding and innovating its offer to support UK and Irish buyers and their global suppliers
Describing perishable cargo as being “very much part of the group’s DNA”, Clegg begins by explaining just how significant the reefer segment is for Maersk and Seago. “Seago is well-known for reefers – it’s a very important segment of the business that we take a lot of pride in,” he claims, adding that last year Maersk Line invested in 30,000 new reefers.
Seago moves substantial volumes of perishables throughout year, including fresh fruit and vegetables. With that in mind, Clegg says the European short sea specialist continually looks to innovate across a range of different aspects within the company and its services to add value for its customers.
“Where possible within our network we try to accommodate different markets and products, while helping to reduce the carbon footprint of suppliers and, at the same time, remaining cost effective,” he explains. “The UK [produce] market will always be forefront of my thoughts too. It represents a large percentage of my budget. It is super important.”
Having changed its network fairly substantially over the last five years, Clegg says that when an opportunity knocks Seago can be flexible and dynamic due to its size.
The last 12 months are cases in point, with Seago launching no fewer than four new or revamped services to its expanding portfolio for the fresh produce industry. Below, PBUK goes into detail about what Seago has introduced recently for UK produce buyers and their global suppliers – from faster, more reliable, direct routes to cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives that offer greater flexibility, choice and product shelf-life.
Launch of Morocco-Tilbury citrus route
To allow UK retailers to take advantage of the Moroccan citrus season, Seago has added to its Morocco-north Europe route a UK port of call at Tilbury, which Clegg says gives retailers a reliable, fast, five-day route direct from growers and producers.
As part of the changes to the service, the firm has added larger ships with more reefer container capacity to ensure customers can make full use of the route during the citrus season, which starts during second or third week of November and runs until May/June.
The larger vessels have a capacity of 1,400 twenty-foot equivalent containers (TEUs). “The reefer containers keep fruit fresher, for longer,” points out Clegg. “It’s why we can have Moroccan oranges in shops in cities such as Coventry or Hull which taste like they’ve just been picked. This new service means our customers can get the stock they need to make sure their customers have the choice they expect.
“In the run up to Christmas, Moroccan growers provide UK supermarkets with a significant proportion of their citrus fruits. This service gives those retailers a reliable, fast route direct from their growers and producers. With a transit time of just five days, and the proximity of Tilbury to a significant number of distribution centres and the UK’s transport infrastructure, fruit can be picked, packed, shipped and on the shelves in under two weeks.”
Already, Seago has convinced a few UK retailers to shift a percentage of their Moroccan citrus trade from trucks to Seago’s reefers. “The new service gives a viable alternative that can complement trucks,” Clegg advises.
“Whether a supplier, importer or buyer wants to class reducing their environmental footprint as part of their green agenda or cost savings, it has a massive impact. We’ve even provided the data for some of the retailers who are looking to reduce their carbon footprint.”
While there are similar services currently in operation in the UK, Clegg says Seago’s new Moroccan citrus route has added value. For instance, the firm chose Tilbury as its UK port of call to coincide with the construction of NFT’s new coldstorage warehouse. And, volume-wise, the service can carry some marrows, grapes, and watermelons too.
“We haven’t got a completely like-for-like product that will cannibalise existing services,” he explains. “For instance, we’ve tried to schedule the service to arrive on a different day of the week so it complements our competitors.
“We’re quietly optimistic without being presumptuous. We envisage the second year to be better than the first.”
New Algeciras-Liverpool direct route
In April, Seago – in conjunction with Maersk Line – started a new Mediterranean-UK short sea service that connects the southern Spanish port of Algeciras with Liverpool. This opens up a direct route and a convenient transshipment connection from the produce-growing region of southern Spain to the north west of the UK within six days via Seago’s Irish Sea feeder service.
“It complements the Algeciras routes we already have going to southern UK ports, like Felixstowe and Tilbury,” Clegg explains. “It basically gives importers and retailers more choice, and complements trucking. With the shelf-life of some products, however, you can’t put everything into containers. But you could possibly take one day off the road to save money and help the environment.”
“With competitive transit times and convenient berthing windows, we are well-placed to serve customers who seek new opportunities through this Mediterranean connection,” Clegg adds. “Furthermore, our customers located in the Liverpool hinterland can now access south European and North African markets with Seago Line as a complementary addition to our existing offer.”
Clegg claims Seago is already in discussion with quite a number of customers in southern Spain with regards to moving more fresh fruits and vegetables via its Algeciras-Liverpool route and thereby remove trucks from the road.
“The way our infrastructure works, this route will likely carry more produce from the Murcia region of Spain,” Clegg notes. “It opens up a lot of opportunities. We’re already speaking with Spanish exporters to see if our services will work out the way they want to.
“We’ve not spoken to the UK retailers yet about this service as there are one or two things that have to be ticked off before we do so, like tying up berthing windows. But we will promote the service both at the origin and destination.”
Connections to West Africa and Latin America
Seago is also working with Maersk Line on developing UK connections from West Africa and Latin America for fresh produce like citrus, grapes and melons.
“We’re looking at the viability of it and already there has been so much interest but you have to manage people’s expectations,” Clegg warns. “When it happens, we’ll be doing it on a very selective basis. It won’t be a free-for-all that anyone can book. But it will open up other geographies.”
Within the group at large, in January Maersk Line launched a new weekly service between Santa Marta and Turbo in Colombia and northern Europe specifically designed for refrigerated cargo, which benefits from a UK port of call.
Beginning its maiden voyage on January 8, 2016, the new service has a rotation of Turbo and Santa Marta in Colombia, before calling at Portsmouth (UK), Antwerp (Belgium), and Hamburg (Germany).
The vessels, which have a capacity of 2,500 TEUs, are designed to benefit Colombian exporters of tropical fruits, from pineapples to avocados and bananas. The refrigerated containers are designed specifically to carry bananas over longer distances (up to 45 days) and use StarCare technology, which Maersk claims sets new standards within the containerised controlled atmosphere business.
Express grapes from Egypt
In another boon for UK produce buyers, Seago is rolling out its North Sea EuroXpress table grape service from Egypt to the UK again this season, which represents a shortened version of Seago’s standard 10-day Egyptian service to the Port of Felixstowe. The first vessel was scheduled to leave Damietta, Egypt on May 22 ands arrive at Felixstowe on May 29.
“We changed the service to accommodate a seven-day transit time,” points out Clegg. “For 10 months of the year we offer a standard 10-day service to the Port of Felixstowe, which is fine for a lot of cargo like citrus and potatoes. But for grapes it’s not feasible. A 10-day transit takes grapes to the limit of their shelf-life by time the product has been packed and shipped.
“So we completely restructured our service. Over the course of six weeks around May/June we load well over 1,000 containers of grapes that otherwise might have had to find other modes of transport to the UK, like airfreight.”
Clegg claims there is no alternative like Seago’s ‘Grape Express’ on the UK marketplace, adding that the firm has successfully removed “a lot of cargo” from going across the Adriatic Sea before being trucked to the UK at sometimes up to “twice the cost”.
“It gives UK and Egyptian customers a viable alternative transport method,” he notes. “Customers at both origin and destination have really appreciated it because it speeds up the transit time and allows the product to arrive earlier in the week on the Sunday night/Monday morning.”
This season Seago is offering six North Sea EuroXpress sailings, starting May 23, that connect Damietta in Egypt with direct calls to Felixstowe and Rotterdam. Download Seago’s North Sea Northbound schedule.
Open to suggestion
After much excitement surrounding the introduction of these new services for the UK produce market, Clegg says the good work doesn’t stop there. With the right customers and the right partners, he claims Seago is always on the look-out for new opportunities, and he positively welcomes suggestions.
“If people think there are opportunities for us, then get in touch,” he offers. “We can’t always promise a completely bespoke service and there are limits. But we like to speak to people who have open minds. If there are new cargoes we haven’t considered then we’re always willing to listen.
“We’d like to speak to importers and retailers to see how we can help them via our network and create win-win solutions. We’re always looking to provide market solutions. We have a group behind us that that wants to grow our reefer business, and the UK fresh produce industry is super important to us.”
Operating 75 vessels, of which all are leased, Clegg highlights that Seago is a flexible operation. “We can upsize or downsize,” he says. “Being small we can be a bit more pragmatic.”
“Seago has access to the group’s significant equipment pool, industry knowledge and unmatched vessel fleet. Maersk covers lot of deep sea markets in our geography, such as Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Spain, Morocco,” Clegg says. “These are big areas where we move a lot of reefers according to seasonality.”