Supply Chain and Logistics professionals get stuff done. They get stuff moved, they get stuff built, they get stuff manufactured, all at a reasonable cost, on time. It’s still too often an unsung profession – but sometimes you speak with a Supply Chain professional and sit back in awe at the scale of projects they’ve helped bring to fruition.
Raza Esmail is one of these people. He’s a Logistics leader with a wealth international experience throughout Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia. Throughout his career he’s not only helped shepherd logistics for some truly awe-inspiring projects, but he’s also grown Logistics and freight forwarding businesses internationally, contributing immensely to his employers’ bottom lines.
This is the type of person we love to interview for the Argentus blog. Raza has spearheaded logistics for UN projects building clean water treatment facilities in Indonesia. He’s orchestrated air freight to retrofit multibillion dollar Vegas hotels. In 2012 he was instrumental in helping breaking the world record for transporting the heaviest item ever moved by road: eight desalinization evaporator units each weighing 5000 tons, each the size of a soccer pitch.
We interviewed him to see what Supply Chain lessons we can draw from this experience, to find out his perspective on particular Supply Chain challenges when working internationally, and to find out what motivates him as a high performer in the industry.
Oh yeah, and that world record still stands.
Here’s the interview:
Let’s start with an overview of your career in Supply Chain. How did you get from there to here?
I started straight out of university when I was in England by joining a European transportation company as a Telex operator. It wasn’t very glamorous, but I was recognized and transferred into the operations department for European transport. I took over the role of import manager when my manager resigned, and I rose through and became the general manager for the entire European division. This was distributing premier fashion goods in the UK. The head of that company, Malcolm Smith, was like a father to me. He wanted me to grow the business internationally, so I established connections with companies in the U.S. and Asia, growing from one container a week to two, and so on, as well as air freight. I started a company in Hong Kong, and it was all a great transition for the company. I said, the middle east is an interesting area, why don’t we consider it? Malcolm said, Okay, let’s see what we can do for the middle east.
I ended up moving my family out to Dubai, looked at the market. We started doing consolidation services from Europe to the middle east. We started doing a lot of conventional freight, and I was introduced to a large company doing water desalinization and purification. We started building these plants in Indonesia, Cyprus, Iran, other places that had problems with fresh water. Heavy, out of gauge, overweight cargo.
Dubai grew into a place that was almost like Disneyland. My kids were getting spoiled, everything was on a silver platter, they had a maid, a cook. I said to myself, this is selfish. We moved to Canada. I joined Advantex as national sales director with the task of pursuing international business. I got the transporting business for a number of aerospace clients, and worked with them for ten years. Then I got involved in Celestica, where I set up a pick and pack organization in Hong Kong, and had to remap the space to allow the storage of high-value electronics. I was in Asia for SARS, where I had to wear a face-mask for a month. The other business I was involved in was with the MGM Corporation in Las Vegas. It was an $8 billion project to refurbish the Mirage and MGM grand. They were gutting the rooms, and I helped organize shipments of everything from overseas, so I established a pick and pack in Long Beach, and we’d transport it to Vegas. We were bringing in bedroom furniture from China, new carpets, new linen. We didn’t have a lot of storage in Vegas or the ability to unload a lot.
A few years later, I started working for a company called Almajdouie in Saudi Arabia. This is the biggest logistics company in the Middle East. They have the biggest clients you can imagine, all the national oil, power, water.
This leads nicely into the Guinness World Record. Could you tell us a little bit about the world record you helped deliver for the heaviest item ever transported by road freight?
We were moving some very large evaporator units: 5000 tons, each the size of a soccer pitch. Each of them from Korea to Saudi, to create the world’s largest desalinization plant. I was in the operations side of the business. This particular desalinization plant was in a very remote part of Saudi Arabia on the coast, the only suitable piece of land that they could give. There was nothing there except the ocean. We had to build a jetty, a berth so the vessels could offload the cargo. We had to build a road, all the infrastructure from scratch, to offload this thing. Each of these was the size of a soccer pitch, but handles like intricate pieces of jewelry. If it tilts to any degree it’ll move off the trailer. We were looking at minute engineering capabilities of the road being straight, and also the road has no foundation in the desert. Every 2 months another piece would come, and it was like a jigsaw puzzle. It started creating fresh water as well as power.
I said, this is an amazing thing, we should get this in the Guinness Book of World Records. I finally found the right person on LinkedIn in London, arranged to meet him in London. I got him all the documents, blueprints, and within 3 months they said this would be worthy of a Guinness World Record for the largest piece of freight moved by road. It was just incredible. We had an awards ceremony, we had the crown prince of Saudi there, we had the Korean ambassador, the Chinese ambassador. It was like being at the Oscars or the Emmys.
In your stories, what comes through is a real passion for Logistics and Supply Chain. What is it that excites you about the field?
I’ll give you an example. I was doing a project for Toshiba power, the big Japanese company, in Indonesia on an island. This island has a population of 350,000 people, and very limited fresh water. So I started a project where I visited the island, very Indiana Jones. I had to go through the jungle. Our job was to supply equipment for building a water treatment and power plant. Through the phases it started getting built, columns, then buildings coming up, and after a few years it turned into a functional power plant that supplied fresh water for families, children and hospitals. That really drove something into my heart. A lot of the time we do logistics, we see containers, we don’t really know what’s in the containers. It could be raw materials or iPhones or anything. But this was something that actually helped a bunch of very needy people for survival. That really touched me.
What are some major Supply Chain considerations that you encounter in the Middle East that are different from Canada?
The customs formality in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is the biggest challenge. Every document has to be grammatically translated into Arabic, because they only read Arabic, and if you call a screw a nut, or if you call a rivet something else, and if they find a discrepancy in their examination, not only do they reject the freight, they’ll send it back to the point of origin to get it done again. You could be the crown prince of wherever, but they don’t care.
Saudi was 100% physical inspection. We had 50-60 degree heat, and they’d refuse to inspect the cargo because it’s too hot. I have a refinery that’s going to shut down without the material that’s on the container. I had to go and beg the customs official, eventually he’d say yes. You never knew what was going to happen the next day.
Thanks very much to Raza Esmail for the interview. He had so many fascinating Supply Chain and Logistics stories that we found it difficult to even condense them into one post!
Also, he’s available for work.