Thinking Inside the Boxes

Global supply chains must now address government logistics mandates, a post-9/11 legacy that is only becoming more complex.

As the North American international trade director for German auto-parts maker Robert Bosch, Karl J. Riedl has worked for more than 35 years on import/export issues. During that time he has seen the logistics world evolve in any number of ways, but little prepared him for the present situation. “When 9/11 hit,” he says, “it caused a radical change. The public suddenly got very nervous about these 40-foot metal boxes coming in on ships by the thousands.”

Spot inspections by the U.S. Customs Service provided what little security there was, but that soon changed as a number of new oversight measures took hold. A more muscular customs service — now renamed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and working under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security — and a raft of new or expanded programs, mandates, and offices continue to force companies to devote much more energy to both imports and exports, ratcheting up the risk that supply chains could become bound in red tape.

Perhaps the biggest change is the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), which was launched in 2002 and continues to evolve. A joint government-business initiative, C-TPAT aims to build cooperative relationships that will strengthen international supply-chain and U.S.-border security. Through the project, CBP asks importers, carriers, brokers, warehouse operators, and manufacturers to ensure the integrity of their security practices, communicate their security guidelines to business partners within the supply chain, and verify the guidelines of those partners.

C-TPAT is a voluntary program, but companies have plenty of incentive to participate. “When you’re in C-TPAT, you’re supposed to try to use other C-TPAT member-certified companies,” says Terrie Gleason, a trade regulation and customs attorney for Baker & McKenzie, in Washington, D.C. “So there can be a funneling of business” toward companies that adhere to the standard. C-TPAT membership also sends a signal to both current and potential customers that a company is serious about security and its relationship with customs authorities. “There is a sense of ‘good citizenship’ in all of this,” notes Gleason.

Once a company has received the C-TPAT seal of approval, which is granted by the CBP and places companies into one of three tiers depending on their security practices, participants benefit from fewer security- and trade-compliance examinations. That can help a company streamline its logistics management and speed shipments. “Tier-1 C-TPAT members have five to eight times fewer exams than non-C-TPAT members,” notes Jane Taeger, director of compliance with Samuel Shapiro & Co., a Baltimore company that provides import/export consulting and logistics services. Tier-3 firms, the highest level, benefit from an extremely limited number of inspections and access to new paperless systems that ease various bureaucratic requirements. And C-TPAT member companies with truck fleets that cross into Mexico and Canada can also take advantage of Free and Secure Trade lanes that provide expedited clearances and can cut border waiting times by up to two-thirds.

But those benefits don’t come easily, companies say. They complain that CBP’s validation process is too slow. As of May, the agency had reported it had completed 1,900 validations, or 32 percent of the 5,900 firms that have been accepted into C-TPAT. Another 2,200 are in some stage of having their supply-chain practices reviewed by CBP specialists. At press time, CBP’s goal was to have 45 percent of validations done by July 1 and 65 percent by December 1.

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