Trust, reliability and stability are valuable commodities in any industry, but in the fast growing and ever-changing business environment of global container shipping they are the paramount ingredients in the recipe of success. TAL International, in celebrating continual service to the container industry since 1963, is rightly proud of its relationships with its prime customers, shipping lines and container operators, based on trust, reliability, and stability.
TAL has delivered a wholly reliable leasing service over the last fifty years, which has encompassed almost the entire history of the container as a global shipping phenomenon. This reliability has enabled container shipping lines to remain flexible in terms of reacting to new and variable demand. As trade flows have fluctuated in their volume levels and regional patterns, TAL has provided the container equipment where and when it’s been needed.

The container lessor and its customers have worked together through a tremendous period of innovation, technical development and economic challenges. Over fifty years the simple shipping container has drastically changed the way cargo is transported around the world and as a consequence facilitated economic globalisation. In evaluating its own role in these exciting developments TAL felt an interesting way to tell the story would be through the recollections of some its most experienced people.

Nine TAL employees with a total of nearly two hundred years of service gathered to share their reflections on the company’s ‘secrets of success’. It’s not often that there is a chance to assemble so many veterans of the container leasing business in one place for a retrospective. But what better way to evaluate the contribution of TAL International and its predecessors, Transamerica Leasing, Interway and ICS (Interrnational Container Services) to 50 years of the container leasing sector.

The Container’s Birth and the Early Days

“They called them the Seven Sisters. They were the companies, nearly all of them based in New York City, that were prepared to invest in the ‘great new idea’ that was containerization.”

“Most of the old shipping money had a dubious attitude towards containers. Were they part of the ship or part of the truck? Would the concept catch-on? Would shippers accept them?”

“Those that took the chance, ICS, Itel, Flexivan and the like were run by adventurers that were real personalities.”

“Being a very young business it was in continuous transition. Smaller outfits were coming into the business, and going out of it, regularly. I remember ICS resisting at least two takeover bids in the early seventies.”

“It was highly competitive in those days….I guess it still is….but it was different then. The fate of the whole enterprise could turn on one man’s decision over lunch with a steamship line executive.”

“But we all built up great trust with the guys we did business with. Although obviously many, if not all the faces are different now, you find that trust is still there.”

“In a service industry people like to do business with people and companies they know. It was a bit Wild West in the early days and certainly that made trust an important commodity but the principle is still the same now…consistency, stability, predictability are all highly valued.”

Perfecting the Concept

“It was all twenty-footers at the start. I don’t think we saw many 40 foots until the late seventies”.

“Sealand, Matson and Farrell, they all played around with sizes..24 and 28 foot, 35 foot. There were more shapes and lengths in Europe too. The widths were different and we had all sorts of variants, open-tops, flats with collapsible ends.”

“(logistics) that’s a problem we all have still got. Getting the equipment back to where it’s needed. Reducing empty repositioning will always be the holy grail.”

“Of course it’s taken for granted now but finding the right material to build these boxes; that took a lot of working out. Aluminium was thought to be the answer, nice and light but in the end they didn’t stand up to the rigours of multiple handling. Forklifts were always ripping them apart.”

“They often bent under the weight as well!”

“In the 90’s we had a spate of fibreglass and composite materials but their problem was water absorption.”

“Corten steel was the big breakthrough. Light enough, relatively cheap, durable and rust resistant; at least it was when they got the paint right. It wasn’t all plain sailing.”

Taking Cost Out of the System

“The great thing about the container, the real reason it has had such an impact is that it makes shipping goods so darn cheap.”

“The migration of manufacturing. Not that it started with containers but I remember box building moving virtually overnight to Asia. Japan, then Korea, South-east Asia, of course China dominates now.”

“There were real problems with the quality at first. Of course it was US engineers with their Six Sigma and all that, sorted those issues out.”

“It was all about the cost of the box plus Asia was where all the cargo was. The constant objective ….reducing how far the empty has to travel.”

“Computer systems, now there’s a way of getting your costs down. IT has certainly brought us a long way when it comes to controlling our assets.”

“Do you remember the ways we used to do it….wallboards, ‘T-cards’, microfiche, telexes (reams and reams of them)…..interchanges, there were forests of those as well. “

“Repair estimates and approvals and surveyors reports and inventory checks and invoicing. Now it’s all paperless, on-screen or in the Cloud.”