Treasure Hunters Of the Stalled Supply Chain
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 06, 2021
For salvage companies, an unclaimed shipping container is a potentially profitable mystery box
Jeff Wise

A mobile crane, its massive gripping arm raised like a scorpion’s tail, rolls up to a multicolored stack of shipping containers at the Pentalver storage yard near Felixstowe, the largest container port in Britain. The machine grabs the top box, backs up with a beep-beep-beep, and sets it down onto the asphalt with a clang. A worker in an orange safety vest kneels and, with a screeching spray of sparks, saws through the numbered steel bolt that seals the latch. The door swings open, and Jake Slinn, a lanky 22-year-old with a buzz cut and thick-rimmed black eyeglasses, steps forward to peer inside.

Slinn is a cargo salvage buyer. His two-man operation, JS Cargo & Freight Disposal, acquires containers filled with abandoned goods that shipping lines want to get rid of. And business is booming in his line of work. Snarls in the global supply chain have left an estimated 3 million containers idling on ships queued up at ports around the world, according to Niels Larsen, president of Air & Sea North America at DSV, a global transport and logistics company.

“When a product doesn’t reach its destination for a period of time, it often loses the value that it originally had,” says Tom Enders, owner of Michigan-based Salvage Groups Inc. When that happens, customers sometimes refuse to accept the goods; other times they simply abandon them. In either case, “shipping lines can contact a company like ours to recover as much value from it as they can,” he says.

Stranded shipments lose value in a number of ways. Food and other perishables can spoil; seasonal merchandise such as electric fans might not reach a wholesaler’s hands before the weather turns; and machinery intended for a construction project might arrive too late for the job. Even goods that are perfectly fine can become effectively worthless if the owner is unable to retrieve them before storage fees exceed their value. “You leave a container on the quay for six months, you don’t want to know what the bill is—it’s frightening,” says Paul Vidler, managing director of Crown Salvage in the U.K.

Shipping rates have more than doubled since April, and containers are in short supply around the world, so sea freight lines are eager to get them back into circulation as quickly as possible. But if containers are full, all they can do is sit. “No one in the supply chain makes money when stuff is sitting idle,” Enders says. “They make money when they’re moving stuff.”

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