What a year! Twelve months of challenges and opportunities

With the vaccination drive rolling on, it’s looking more and more likely – fingers crossed – that the end of the coronavirus pandemic is in sight, says AV Dawson’s Charlie Nettle.

It’s now over a year since the first nationwide lockdown was announced and over the course of the last 12 months we have been in and out in more than one sense of the word.

About now, depending on when you are reading this, we are being released from a difficult third national lockdown and one step closer to normality. We couldn’t have imagined what the next year would bring, but for AV Dawson, on reflection, it’s been one that has brought both challenges and opportunities.

The major news capturing headlines is the announcement in the chancellor’s Budget that Teesside’s bid for freeport status was successful. This winning bid is a testament to strong regional leadership and wider consultation with the business community – resulting in the development and promotion of a compelling case to bring this to our region. This huge win for Teesside is already bearing fruit, with the announcement that GE Renewable Energy will locate its new wind turbine factory on the Teesworks site and along with it create thousands of jobs.

The freeport should also bring some exciting opportunities for AV Dawson, with our Port of Middlesbrough site being designated a secondary customs zone within the freeport. It is anticipated that alongside the recent rebrand of our site to Port of Middlesbrough, our inclusion within the freeport will enable us to better compete within international markets and in turn attract more business to the region. However, it’s important to add that it isn’t just designated freeport zones that will benefit from this status. It is expected that the freeport will also bring exciting opportunities and potential inward investment to the Tees Valley and wider North-East region. Freeports can provide a huge range of incentives, broadly around tax reliefs and customs duty reliefs or deferments, which can make Teesside an attractive place for manufacturers to base their operations, so I’m looking forward to seeing who else arrives on the patch.

In a year dominated by the pandemic, Brexit seemed to pass by relatively quietly, but for a port business like ours this has thrown up some initial challenges. Like many businesses, we had a cross-department team planning our Brexit preparedness for the last 18 months or so. As a business, we tried to map out every scenario we could face after Brexit, but with a deal struck with the EU at the eleventh hour, we had to rapidly digest what the agreement would mean for us. Frustratingly, we have found that much of the advice given around Brexit has been inconsistent and unclear and has changed on a regular basis. This has also been aggravated by a general lack of information and advice for us as a port, with much of the information focusing on the actual owners of the goods, rather than the port and logistics operators. Consequently, our teams have had to quickly adapt our processes and digest emerging information to limit any potential impact this could have on our customers.

We are beginning to see the impact of Brexit on trade with the EU, illustrated by the huge reduction in trade shown in the latest international trade figures, with UK exports to the EU down 40.7 per cent and UK imports from EU countries falling 28.8 per cent. It remains to be seen whether these figures will be sustained or if this is just businesses having difficulties adapting to the new trade deal. I definitely think an element of this will relate to some businesses choosing to delay trade until they had greater clarity, so hopefully the next release of the figures will be less scary.

Despite the double-whammy of Brexit and the pandemic, overall, 2020 was a strong year for the business – this seems to be the case for many businesses within our sector, all of which have done an incredible job to keep cargo moving. Like many businesses we have had to adapt quickly. With enhanced coronavirus precautions in place and most of our office-based colleagues transitioning to working from home, we had to bridge the potential disconnect between them. It was incredibly important to keep our colleagues up to date with essential information and key updates on what was happening in the business. This gave us the chance to adapt our internal communications to allow us to keep in touch with our colleagues regularly.

The pandemic hasn’t hindered our recruitment drive either – this year will see us recruit more apprentices into the business than at any other point in our history. Working closely with Stockton Riverside College, we will welcome apprentices into almost every part of the business. This not only supports our succession planning but provides a real opportunity for the next working generation in our area to gain real hands-on experience and see what makes a port business like ours tick.

As a port and logistics business we are classed as essential workers and have remained operational throughout the pandemic. During this time our dedicated team have worked tirelessly to keep operations going for our customers, resulting in one of our best years on record. This performance has continued into the first quarter of 2021, when we are seeing record numbers of vessels using our Port of Middlesbrough facilities and we anticipate that 2021 will be a strong year for the business, despite ongoing challenges.

We are also optimistic as a business as more widely, we are seeing a real drive for change within the region – brought about by strong leadership, greater collaboration and a renewed sense of positivity and optimism in the area. This is finally coming to fruition with the recent string of positive announcements for Teesside. We have no doubt that there will be challenges ahead, especially as we exit the pandemic, but as an area we will no doubt face these challenges head-on and support each other like the strong business community we are.

Charlie Nettle

Commercial and marketing director, AV Dawson