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Today's quote:

Friday, January 26, 2018

The money or the box?


On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted fifty-eight aluminium truck bodies aboard an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the 'Ideal-X' sailed into Houston, where fifty-eight trucks waited to take on the metal boxes and haul them to their destinations. Such was the beginning of a revolution."

And such is the beginning of Marc Levinson's book "The Box", the first comprehensive history of the shipping container, that simple metal box we would today label a disruptive technology because it altered the very fundamentals of not just the shipping industry but industry itself.

It's perhaps not the 'sexiest' book to read if you've never been involved in the shipping industry as I've been, or caught in a tropical downpour as I've been just now when I became so desperate for something to do that I would've read the back of a cereal box, why not read "The Box" itself?

By the time of my second shipping involvement in 1978 when I was in a team of consultants doing an economic traffic forecast for a major port in a South-East Asian country, containerships had already been crossing oceans on regular schedules for more than a decade but that mattered little to one of those dyed-in-the-wool consultants who looked at the world only through a spreadsheet before it had even been invented.

He had just completed a port consulting job in an obscure African port better known for its shootings than its shipping, and was on a roll. You remember Robert Townsend's "Up the Organisation" which had as its subtitle "How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time”? Well, this consultant had "stolen" everything that he'd ever written on the previous job and he was going to "reinvent" it all over again on this job, come hell or high water or containerisation.

Of course, it was all more subtle than this; in fact, Martin Kihn's much later book about the wacky world of consulting, "The House of Lies", describes much better than I ever could the charade that took place day after day: that vacuous look out of watery blue eyes into the middle distance, the intermittent tapping of the index finger against the pursed upper lip, and the sudden rush to commit to paper what had no doubt been committed to memory from the African job the night before.

Even the nominal project manager, who flew in a couple of times a year to puff on his pipe, take in the sights, and fly out again, admitted as much when he suggested that we would be in real trouble if the photo-copier ever broke down. Of course we never used anything as blatant as a photocopier; it was always that vacuous look, the intermittent tapping of the index finger, and the sudden rush to the writing pad, while the rest of us recalculated pointless depreciation rates on pointless port assets and drew pointless pie charts and gave pointless presentations.

The money or the box? Consulting firms are far too focused on making money than to let their minds wander to wonder if a boring metal box could turn the world of shipping, indeed the whole world, inside out and upside down. Don't ask them what time it is; use your own watch!


P.S. Insurance, banking, chartered accounting, construction, electricity generation, airlines, oil exploration, retail, mining, software develop-ment, even truck driving - I only ever tried these things once or at best twice, but shipping lured me four times: to Samoa in 1978, back to South-East Asia later in the same year - see above -, back to Papua New Guinea in 1982, then to Saudi Arabia and Greece from 1982 to 1985.