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Felixstowe turns to former chief as cargo struggles persist

Britain’s largest container port brings back previous terminal boss, but denies the appointment is in response to complaints about customer service

Hutchison Ports has persuaded former chief executive Chris Lewis to come out of retirement and take charge just as an unexpected surge in cargo volumes clogs up the port, frustrating carriers and shipper alike

CHRIS Lewis has returned to Felixstowe as chief executive of Hutchison Ports UK at a time when Britain’s top container port has been struggling to cope with a surge in volumes.

Both carriers and shippers have vented their frustration regarding congestion at Felixstowe, but the port insists the appointment of Mr Lewis is not connected with its current difficulties.

Mr Lewis worked at Felixstowe from 1993 to 2010, the last four years as chief executive. He then moved to DP World where he was the UK chief executive, responsible for London Gateway and Southampton, but retired in early 2019 when he turned 65.

In his new role, which started on November 2, Mr Lewis will report to Clemence Cheng, who retains his role as managing director of Hutchison Ports Europe.

Reports that Eric Ip, managing director of Hutchison Port Holdings, personally intervened and persuaded Mr Lewis to come out of retirement as complaints from carriers and shippers about deteriorating service levels mounted have been denied by the company.

“Chris Lewis was appointed chief executive of the UK operations by, and reports to, the managing director of Hutchison Ports Europe,” Hutchison said in an emailed statement. “Any suggestions to the contrary are inaccurate.”

Talks with Mr Lewis are thought to have started before the latest cargo crunch, while Felixstowe is not alone in suffering from delays that appear to reflect a combination of factors, including strong demand for consumer products as the pandemic and lockdowns change spending patterns.

Supply chains have also been affected by pandemic-related procedures that slow distribution times.

Nevertheless, one senior industry executive familiar with the situation described Felixstowe as “a disaster”, and claimed that payroll, overtime and other costs have been cut so much that big ships are no longer able to drop off and pick up boxes in a single call because of lack of container space on the terminal.

Sources at the port say that is normal practice by container lines, which find it more efficient for their ships to make two calls, and insist that it is incorrect to claim the port has insufficient labour.

Felixstowe has been struggling with high volumes since at least September. By October, the British International Freight Association was calling on the government to resolve the dispute between Hutchison Ports and Felixstowe users.

The issues have not been confined to Felixstowe, with forwarders reporting congestion, long dwell times and equipment repositioning problems emerging at rival terminals London Gateway and Southampton, both run by DP World.

Mr Cheng said that it did not and could not control all elements of the supply chain.

“Port operators rely to a large extent on the orderly arrival of containers into their facilities and the smooth collections of containers out to the end-user,” he told the Financial Times. “The evidence is clear that the whole system has been disrupted by the pandemic and a surge in freight volumes post-lockdown has put supply chains under strain globally.”

Hong Kong-headquartered Hutchison bought Felixstowe in 1991 in what was the world’s first cross-border takeover of a port.

Although it remains Britain’s largest container port and was ranked 50th in the world in 2019 by Lloyd’s List with throughput of 3.6m teu, it now faces stiff competition from DP Ports’ London Gateway and Southampton terminals.

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