Moving in a digital world

Swire has logistics at the heart of many of its businesses, as it has for over 200 years. Since John Swire established himself as a merchant in Liverpool in 1816, Swire has moved products and people around the globe. One hundred and fifty years ago The China Navigation Company began shipping goods and passengers on China's rivers, before moving onto the China coast, around the Asia Pacific region, and eventually, across the globe. Seventy-five years ago, Cathay Pacific began regional cargo flights out of Shanghai and Hong Kong and now moves people and airfreight around the world. Our trucking and freight businesses in Australia, our cold storage business in the US and our Coca-Cola bottling franchises in Greater China and the US are all businesses with logistics at their core. But logistics is a developing discipline, and our customers are requiring more and more of us.
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Robotic warehouse technology at USCS’s McDonough, Georgia facility accelerates the delivery of customer orders.
Robotic warehouse technology at USCS’s McDonough, Georgia facility accelerates the delivery of customer orders.
We've all experienced how logistics are changing: we can receive groceries ordered online in London within the hour, electronic devices in Hong Kong the same day; or watch in real time as our parcel ships from Philadelphia to the Philippines. And mostly our interaction with this new world of logistics is through a digital interface such as a website or an app. It's what we've come to expect.

So, in terms of our businesses, we simply can't stand still: we must not only respond to, but anticipate our customers' requirements, and that means investing appropriately in technology and skills to ensure we are equipped to provide them with the best possible experience.

Understanding what our customers really need

Many businesses talk of digitising their supply chains, but regularly limit their thinking to the consumer experience of e-commerce companies like Amazon and JD.com – resulting in a mind-set that tracking a package gives the customer the digital experience they need. "In reality, Amazon invested in warehousing, last-mile delivery, custom software and only then integrated this into a seamless service," says James Woodrow, China Navigation's Managing Director. "This focus on making our customer's lives easier across not just our vessels, but also our partners in trucking, ports and agencies, is how we see digital integration transforming our industry for the better."

The ability to deliver an agile and responsive approach to the evolving food supply chain is what Larry Aldafer, President and CEO of United States Cold Storage, hears when he talks with customers: "This pandemic year has highlighted the criticality of the cold chain and the dynamic nature of getting food from the farm to our tables. Our customers continue to look to us as an extension of their brand and a partner in their supply chain. They look to us to provide flexible and datadriven solutions that can adjust to changing supply and demand patterns. We have invested for the past five years in our automation strategy to convert existing cold storage facilities with novel storage and retrieval solutions, as well as the complete automation of many of our new warehouses to improve productivity, service, accuracy, and safety. We are also continuing to develop data science tools and applications to enhance our customers' experience and drive operational excellence".
We are now starting to combine that business expertise with digital technology to create exciting new roles and meaningful change.
Cathay Pacific Cargo has played a vital role shipping COVID vaccines during the pandemic.
Cathay Pacific Cargo has played a vital role shipping COVID vaccines during the pandemic.

How digital technology will transform logistics

The use of digital technology, delivered by the IT teams in our businesses, is really the logical extension of how we have moved with our customers' needs over the years. Technology has been used since the earliest days of the telegraph system to track the movement of goods around the world, so our customers can be kept informed.

According to David Jones, Chief Digital Officer for John Swire & Sons Limited in London, the group has been moving with the times for the past decade, tracking all forms of transport such as trucks, aircraft and vessels with GPS technology and managing schedules in real time to give customers transparency. "The next evolution of this technology is to link our own logistics with those of our partners, so customers can see their goods at all stages of the journey. We are also working with other partners to include services like finance and insurance that can help us to stay ahead in a globally competitive market," he says.

"What is so exciting in the Swire group is our huge experience of logistics right across our businesses: transporting tea from estates in Argentina to the US or supporting the pandemic response by airfreighting COVID vaccines. We are now starting to combine that business expertise with digital technology to create exciting new roles and meaningful change."

Streamlining processes

A good example of how Swire companies are using digital technology to address customer needs and grow their businesses, is Cathay Pacific Cargo, which has built a digital network across the Pacific and a new team in the process.

Tom Owen, Director Cargo, explains: "Cathay Pacific Cargo's vision is to be the most customer-centric air cargo service provider in the world, differentiated by expertise, quality, and innovation. Achieving this vision would be impossible without the Cargo Digital team, which was set up as an independent function one year ago. Cargo Digital is now an integral part of the airline business, working with the Commercial and Service Delivery cargo functions, as well as Cathay Pacific Digital and IT, to enable the end-to-end digital transformation of our cargo business. The team aims to build industry-leading digital solutions that enable insight-driven decision making, high-quality customer interactions, and efficient, cost-effective operations." A great example of this is the recently introduced Ultra Track solution, a multidimensional tracking system which uses Bluetooth technology to offer near real-time monitoring for customers and proactive intervention by the service team, in the event there is any deviation from the conditions of carriage. "Overall, it means that Ultra Track offers both a damage-prevention and service-recovery process in one," says Tom.
Swire Shipping Virtual Operations Centre in Singapore.
Swire Shipping Virtual Operations Centre in Singapore.
Similarly, Swire Shipping has been in the process of reimagining its business through digital transformation. General Manager, Jeremy Sutton, says: "By combining our existing channels with an engaging e-commerce experience and a suite of productivity solutions, Swire Shipping ensures customers get the flexibility to engage with us through the medium they prefer, and we also help them reduce costs and save time with the integration of new value-added services outside of our traditional ocean transport. These systems integrate seamlessly with our streamlined ERP landscape [Enterprise Resource Planning business management software], enabling Swire Shipping to compete on cost and coverage with much larger competitors in our markets."

Swire Shipping's head of digital and technology, Rasmus Nagel, talks about opportunities for collaboration between Swire operational companies using digital technology solutions: "Cathay Cargo Digital and Swire Shipping Digital are in the early stages of exploring synergies between our two businesses. First, it is about possible integration of solutions for clients across our combined networks on road, rail, sea, and air, and additionally we have opportunities to explore best practices in areas such as revenue management, network planning and execution, customer insights and loyalty programmes. The opportunity to use digital technologies to create new or additional value for our customers across our platforms has the potential to completely transform the way we work in the future."

As digital technology is increasingly embedded in our companies, it will change how we work in existing business functional roles, as well as creating brand new digital roles. The role of Product Owner is one example of these new digital functions and our sidebar interview with Rachel Ohol, provides a glimpse of what it means to be a Product Owner in the Swire Shipping Digital team.

From merchant adventurers to digital pioneers

A common theme is how the use of technology, combined with over 150 years of experience, is helping Swire businesses to see the future differently. For JS&S head of digital, David Jones, the deciding factor in whether Swire's approach to using digital technology will be a success story for the group will be how our customers benefit: "If digital technology is going to change the way we operate for the better, it cannot just be for our own benefit, it has to make transactions more convenient, faster and more transparent for customers. If we achieve this, we will continue to thrive through this next wave of technological change, in the same way we benefitted from the invention of the telegraph and successive technological innovations through to the internet". He adds: "Hopefully, these changes will also create new and exciting roles that require both technological and business acumen and provide Swire employees with long and satisfying careers."
Rachel Ohol – Digital Product Owner
Rachel Ohol – Digital Product Owner

What is your current role in Swire Shipping?

I am part of the Swire Shipping Digital team. I design and deliver digital products that create new value streams to complement our core business. The goal is to transform Swire Shipping from a shipping line into a trusted, integrated, logistics partner for our customers.

What attracted you to the opportunity?

The shipping industry has been slow to take advantage of digital technologies and so there is lots of potential to transform the way we work today. I know, with the vision and support that we have, that we can deliver real benefits to both the company and our customers.

What is your favourite part of the role?

I enjoy the responsibility and accountability. When our digital solutions reduce operating costs, we add to top line revenue. Our work involves plenty of research to understand customer requirements so that we deliver the right features, functionalities, and customer experience. It's very satisfying when we get it right.

What advice would you give to others who are inspired by the transformative role of technology?

There may be little that can be done to increase prices, due to the risk of losing market share, but with thought and innovation so much can be done to improve profits through reduced costs. And with digital platforms we can deliver efficiencies while actively improving the customer experience. Innovation is critical to business success and we're the new innovators. We're increasingly being recognised for the value we deliver and being given the freedom to challenge the norm. It's a very satisfying role. Don't be put off by any old cliches about IT people. We're at the forefront – so just go for it.
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