Whichever way you look at it, the latest generation of mega-container ships being brought into service by Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) are enormous.
At over 320 metres long, 60 metres in height and carrying more than 8,000 standard containers when fully loaded, the first of these ships, as the world's largest, won a mention in the Guinness Book of Records earlier this year and provides ample proof of OOCL's faith in the long-term future of the industry.
And as the size and scale of transport operations and logistics services organised to move cargo around the globe grow exponentially, so does the demand for sophisticated, high-tech data networks to keep trade information flowing.
Miranda Lou, OOCL's general manager for corporate administration, whose portfolio also includes human resources, quality assurance and communications confirms that, after a couple of tough years for the international shipping business, things are definitely looking up.
"This year has been strong in terms of trade volumes," she says. "In the economic cycle, container transport is always one of the first sectors to pick up. We're forecasting a good year in 2004 and are positive about 2005."
Indeed, overall projections for world container trade suggest growth of eight to nine percent for 2004, with the major routes from Asia to North America and Europe especially benefiting from China's continuing export boom.
With statistics showing that over four million containers, from Hong Kong and South China ports combined, were already shipped on the transpacific trade lane in 2002 and 1.7 million to Europe, OOCL are understandably gearing up for expansion. They aim to add to their current trade share of between five and six percent of the total market on key routes by putting strategic focus on a five-part programme for organic growth built on quality, cost efficiency, investment in China, IT and logistics.
Importance of IT
With OOCL seen as an industry leader in systems development, Ms Lou is particularly keen to dispel the idea that shipping and logistics are low-end, low-tech industries.
"Some people still see it that way," she concedes, "because we're not selling consumer products, but now the business is very information intensive and being ahead in IT gives a clear competitive edge to industry players. There will be more usage of IT, more process automation and data solutions."
Determined to maintain their position, OOCL are constantly on the lookout for the very best programmers, analysts, systems specialists and project leaders.
But that is not all. With nearly 5,000 staff operating from more than 150 offices worldwide, including 700 staff in Hong Kong and a similar number spread over 20 offices in China, expansion plans and natural attrition mean there is a regular need to fill a wide range of jobs in customer service, sales and marketing, operations and general management. "The principle is to recruit based on current and future organisational requirements, and only to recruit the best candidates with good potential," explains Ms Lou, who has been with the company for over 10 years. "We embrace a philosophy of job rotation and on-the-job training to develop our people and, if there is a business need, we may assign staff overseas."
IT gives a clear competitive edge to industry players
Fresh graduates in any discipline may find themselves assigned to one of OOCL's corporate departments, or functions at a regional office to learn the business for a couple of years. If they have demonstrated they have what it takes to succeed, they are provided with ample opportunities for additional career development and advancement. An international executive development programme, run twice a year, helps to broaden horizons and define career goals and is backed up by functional, technical and management courses conducted internally and supplemented by external consultants.
In addition, OOCL has a trainee programme specifically for MBA graduates, who obtained their qualification in Hong Kong or overseas. Recruitment takes place once or twice a year on a strict selection basis. Each intake follows a structured 18-month traineeship to allow candidates to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to be the senior managers of the future. All-round exposure is given by a spell in various departments and time in the head office to view corporate planning functions.
In common with other industries and in line with their push for cost efficiencies, OOCL embraces the principles of simplification, standardisation and automation and, among various initiatives, is expanding back office jobs in lower cost areas. However, Ms Lou reassures, "This initiative has not led to redundancies in any of our offices worldwide, including Hong Kong. The focus here is on training staff to take on higher-end, higher-value jobs requiring problem-solving skills. Good people with good potential can always be trained and promoted and there are many opportunities during a career to get exposure to all facets of the business."
As the subsidiary of Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed OOIL, OOCL sits at the centre of an international service network which exemplifies the concept of globalisation and the need for a corporate orientation that is outward-looking. Demonstrating their confidence, steps have already been taken to order yet larger ships which will again set new standards.
"With globalisation, it's pretty obvious that growth in cargo volumes from Asia and China will continue and that will mean expansion for us," says Ms Lou. "For anyone interested in broadening their horizons beyond Hong Kong and getting experience in every facet of an international business, this is the industry to consider."