Podcast: The Role of Freight Forwarders in a Tech-Enabled World with Vincent Iacopella

In this episode, Vincent Iacopella, EVP Growth & Strategy at Alba Wheels Up International, joins Host Brian Glick, CEO of Chain.io, to discuss forced labor regulations, supply chain disruptions, and creating new opportunities for customers.

The Role of Freight Forwarders in a Tech-Enabled World with Vincent Iacopella

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In This Episode

Vincent Iacopella, EVP Growth & Strategy at Alba Wheels Up International, joins Host Brian Glick, CEO of Chain.io, to discuss:

  • The evolution of apparel supply chains
  • Mapping and predicting risks across your supply chain
  • Navigating forced labor regulations, supply chain disruptions, and ESG
  • How Forwarders can use new tech to create opportunities for customers

For over 30 years Vince managed global customer relationships in Transpacific markets with cross border imports and exports considered trade sensitive for USG agencies, such as CBP, FDA, and others. Vince works externally and within Alba on strategy and initiatives that drive value to mid-market and global customers through this approach. Vince focuses collaboration with US Government agencies, such as COAC, which allows the trade to align CBP policy commercially to the private sector, and the private sector to align their practices with long term strategic policy of government regulatory agencies.

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Episode Transcript

Brian Glick  00:04

Welcome to supply chain connections. I'm Brian Glick, founder and CEO of Chain.io. On this episode, we have Vince Iacopella who is the EVP of growth and strategy at Alba Wheels Up. Vince is a real fun person to talk to because he's been on the ground and done the hardest parts of the industry for the hardest verticals and has a really great perspective on customer relationships and strategic alignment from the progression, he's made across his career to being a more senior person in a fast growing organization. So it was a real pleasure to talk to him, and I hope you enjoy the episode.

Brian Glick: Vince, welcome to the show

Vince Iacopella: Thank you glad to be here.

BG: So why don't we start with a little bit of an introduction and tell us how you got into the business.

VI: My name is Vince Iacopella EVP of Strategic Growth at Alba Wheels Up, a mid-market, mid-to-upper market customs broker, freight forwarder, and end-to-end supply chain solutions provider.

How did I get into this business?Having been a marketing and finance major at NYU, it was not a logical path to get to this point. But it was a great journey!

I took a job at 21 years old - grew up, born and raised in New York and New Jersey together and took a job in Los Angeles in 1987.You know leave, went out west for some adventure. And it was a great time to get to Los Angeles.All the production was moving to China at that time, especially apparel and garments. I went out there to work with a group, and it was a really big adjustment, culturally, geographically.

But what a time to be out west in the late 80s and early 90s, as global trade was ramping up in the Pacific Rim. And LA was really, in my view, at the time, LA was really like the epicenter.The connection culturally, geographically, and financially between Asia, the US and Latin America. So being in the right place at the right time. It was very exciting.

BG: I think that maybe people who got into the industry when I did, which was maybe 10 years later, have trouble picturing a world where it isn't obvious that LA was that center. But it sounds like when you got there, that was emerging, right? That wasn't the way it is today. Right?

VI: It’s a great point because it wasn't obvious, right? I think if you came from back east at that time, you had this idea that LA was just this entertainment and communication capital, with maybe some aerospace, and global trade was really under the radar. But, it really was changing because of the manufacturing in Asia. And how I really learned about trade sensitive imports was that there were all these garment companies that were still back east, who were now importing from Asia into the west coast.

So, I had some cultural connections with these companies in the northeast, who needed someone out west managing the risks and the opportunities for this supply chain. You know, at a young age, it was a great experience. But to your point, I think you're 100% right. It wasn't obviously happening; I'd say became way more obvious in the early 90s and mid-90s.

BG: I think one of the things that has also changed in my career, as I look at also coming from that apparel space, but I'm sure this applies to other industries was, I remember at the time, people were like “why are you always going to New York, if all the shipments come into LA?”I said “the boats are in LA, with the people are in New York, right? The decision makers.”But I don't know if that's true anymore. Things seem a lot more distributed.

VI:I think that's right, because I'll use tee shirts as an example that were first with India, China, then Vietnam. And then in 2005, you get the Central American Free Trade Agreement.Customers call saying “we're doing tee shirts in Vietnam and China, and we want to go to Honduras and Guatemala, but we want it to work like China.” right?“And we want it in a week!”

So, I think that further promotes the West Coast ports.There was this like triad now:there was raw material from Asia, going to Mexico and to, Central America. And the epicenter started to move. Maybe there were some finances in New York, but the operational part of it was moving to Los Angeles and the logistics part was moving to Los Angeles so I think that's right.

BG: Why get up in the morning and keep doing this?

VI: First, I love what I do. I love my colleagues and the friends that I've made throughout the industry – that’s very important.Our Alba senior leadership team is growing fast but we’re still very much like a family group.

And I love the direction we're going.It's what we know. So that's one reason to stay in.

It is exciting, though, you know?Why stay in? Good question, especially considering everything that went on in 20/21. You look at life and say, “what's really important, right?” And I think you want to feel that what you're doing is important and making a difference and having an impact. And I think global trade does that. And then so yeah, I think it's, yeah, I caught the bug!

BG: It is, it's funny, once you catch it, it's very hard to get out. You said something during your introduction, I think you sort of corrected yourself quickly, but I'm gonna ask about it anyway. Which is specifically to Alba because this ties back to my roots. But you said “mid-market company” right? And that it was not DHL. I don't think anybody's going to pretend otherwise. Right? Or Schenker or DSV? What do you like about that?

VI: Well, the size of that.I spent many, years, 12 or 24 years at bigger companies before coming to Alba.Very similar companies - similar verticals at the time, similar geographic footprint, market footprint, LA, New York garments, other consumer products, I guess what I like about middle market is that, from what I've seen, from statistics, if you look at what's driving economies now, it's really these middle market companies.Job creation, in California for example, and 2022, and 23, was by a lot of these companies.Nothing against fortune 500 companies.We have customers that are fortune 500. But the middle market companies are agile, and we are growing. Alba is growing to the point where we're on the upper end of the middle market, on the cusp of being a big company with the organic growth that we've done. And with the acquisitions that we've done in the last few years, in different verticals like semiconductors, and now frozen protein, first with the KSI acquisition, and then with John A. Steer acquisition.

Our middle market company has become more agile.We have our ear to the ground on what's happening with our customers. I think that companies can keep that very valuable quality, agility, if they grow quickly. I think that's a challenge, but also an opportunity to keep that. And what's wrong with having customers that are in the middle market as well, and helping those companies do well, strategically?

BG: I think there's an intimacy when either side of the relationship is a mid-market company, right? And that, I remember, working in similar companies and your customers knew who you were not just the logo, but you as a person.

VI: We were both, just over at TPM a couple months ago. And I run into people that were my customers 25 years ago, who know me, right, who know me as a person that just, the color of the lanyard that I'm wearing, I think it makes a big difference in the quality of a carrier to have that.

The great thing about being on the upper end of the middle market and growing is that you could keep all that stickiness, and really valuable insight to the customer strategy. And also, you could be at a size to take the time to learn a customer strategy and learn what makes them successful. And then align solutions and good services and products to their success.You can take the time to do that deeper dive. But now with technology, you can have the cutting-edge technology, the shipment tracking the business intelligence.

I think we've been leading industry initiatives and pilot programs and growth initiatives that are tied to things like supply chain transparency, and Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, with our partnership with mesur.io. So I think you can have the best of both worlds now, where you have that familiarity with the customer, but also now you're firing on all cylinders on all the products and services that are best in the market. And I think that it's a unique place in the industry for us.

BG: I want to ask you a question about UFLPA and about mesur.io, but I'm gonna take a second just to explain, because not all of our listeners are trade nerds like you and me. So UFLPA is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. It’s a requirement that the US government has put in place that basically says that if you're bringing in product from certain parts of China, or products that may contain products that are from certain parts of China, that it's going to be basically assumed that it was made with forced labor unless you can prove otherwise, which is a dramatic shift, and has caused the need for a lot more understanding of tier two tier three support buyers, even tier four and down, which is all sorts of problematic for companies. And people are trying to bring tech to the solution here. Because you can't check as you go orders of magnitude bigger.You can't just do supplier surveys six layers down your supply chain.It's not a thing. So tell us a little bit about how you guys decided to partner here? And why not just go back to your customers and say, hey, this is your problem?

VI: It's been a journey! We've been on this quest for about seven to eight months, we have a huge wearing apparel and accessory vertical, and our customers import products using a lot of cotton. And that's where this started, with cotton. And we had a lot of tech companies that asked questions, semiconductor companies that asked similar questions.

We went into meetings in the first quarter of 2023, and this topic was identified by many customers as the top issue on Transpacific trade that they were dealing with.At first, we went into it like, okay, how can we be an asset and de-risk this? How could we be an asset in the supply chain for compliance and due diligence?

We learned about a company called mesur.io that participated in the customs Tech Expo in Q1 of 2023. And we started discussing solutions with them, and how to bring that commercially to the market. One thing led to the next and now we're in a very deep partnership with them and offering the solution widely on the market.

Getting back to how and why this really is a compliance and supply chain disruption issue. And then you obviously dig a little deeper, and it's a huge ESG human rights issue too. It has components outside of business, outside of commercial concerns as well. So yeah, just to go up a step, you look at this, like the race, the supply chain mapping, right, there's more than just the forced labor, right? People are mapping supply chains.They're going to start mapping for carbon emissions.They're going to start mapping for geopolitical disruption, right?So, the mapping process itself seems to be coming out of TPM, which I know you were there, you saw how many customers were talking about mapping, and then vendors talking about how to solve for that.

And also, I think you could tie the mapping process, going forward, to the use of advanced data - making predictions about risk.

That's what we like about this Alba/measur.io solution.It's useful to make predictions about the risk, which is required. It's also useful in the event that you have some disruption with a customer's product on hold.So yeah, I think for what we're seeing, coming out of the customs meetings in Philadelphia last week and TPM, that this stuff is kind of here to stay.

BG: So you're not an IT person?

VI: No!

BG: We used to run paper.When you started and when I started, we’d run paper to customers, right, and your bills of lading would show up and pouches. And all of these files and folders!

As a leader in a business now, do you consider everyone in IT?How much of your day is talking about tech?

VI: I think I survived through this because I never talked about the tech. Going back to the 80s, I'm going to try and bring it back to where we started. I was never the guy who had the files on my desk auditing the 75 A1s.I was the kind of the person that was getting all the really bad files, lots of problems with the drop ball test for eyewear that was failing FDA, or the waterproof garments that were not really waterproof.

I really always kind of focused on what the commercial impact was for the customer for some of these issues. I think we're most successful when we're talking about the commercial impact of these things. When you hear me talking about these things, I'll always tie it to: “How does the customer use it and to tie it to the tech, right?How do you use the product created by that tech to derisk in your commercial environment and your operational environment in your compliance environment? I just feel safer there than in the tech discussion, if that makes any sense.

BG: Well it's actually really healthy, because it's also a really good way to filter out a lot of BS, right? Because if people come in and they're talking about the tech, and that's all they can talk about, then there's probably no business thing there. Right? There's probably not a lot of value.

VI: I love what you said about paperless. I remember when I was on COAC - the Customs Operations Advisory Committee, which advises customs, I remember everything was about ACE, remember?Everything was going to ACE and a lot of brokers and forwarders said: “Well, I'm not gonna have my paper release anymore. I'm not gonna have my 3461.”There was all this anxiety around not having that paper and I think, to your point, sometimes change can be slow, because we all might be attached to what we're used to doing, right.

BG: I think that one of the things I've noticed in my journey is that the pace of change has accelerated, the people who have come into the industry in the last 15 years or 10 years, they don't hold even the tech that they use, they don't hold on to it as tightly. So just take something like Slack, or Teams.Today, nobody can think about how they can function without some sort of group chat for their company. But if something new came out tomorrow - this latest generation is so used to having switched from eight different social media platforms. Yeah, they're just okay, like that.

It took me a while to learn this. My big lesson was talking to a warehousing company, several years after I got out of the warehousing business, about these new robots or whatever, and it was like: “How do you get the guys on the loading docks to stop smashing them?” Because that used to be a problem, whenever we would put tech in, suddenly, the scan guns, say they would commit suicide, they would jump in front of the forklifts and kill themselves, right? Because they did!The team didn't want to use them.

They said to me that's not really a thing anymore, you know, that the people who are entering the workforce now, they're just used to change.Change is the only thing, right?

BG: I've actually heard something similar over the last couple of years, from several different executives, some on the show, and some more privately, who have just come to me and said, We're or we've been chatting and said, “why can't some of my younger employees stay in the same job for three years? So, they realized that you learn things in year two and three that are different than the things you're learning in year one. You know, it's the ‘not letting the sauce simmer,’ right?”

You get all the ingredients in the first year. But that second, third, fourth year is when you learn the flavor, right? And how to really make the sauce.

VI: Youcan't see me because it's a podcast, I'm nodding vigorously to what you say. Because, yeah, I've never thought of that example, but that explains a lot what you've explained there about that.

BG: What keeps you up at night? Now? What are you worried about for the industry?

VI: Boy, coming out of 22 and 23? I think that was a consensus that okay, we didn't leverage tech and data enough in 21 and 22, to avoid port disruption, or we didn't leverage advanced data enough to reduce the demurrage and detention costs coming out of 22. That was it. But what's new is this: geopolitical issues as supply chain resiliency. And now these ESG issues, very serious issues, like forced labor.

I like to say that everything that's a threat can be an opportunity to a company depending on how you deal with it, right. So, I see this: these are threats to our customers, or customers see these as threats. And the opportunity is: how do you mitigate that risk?How do we as Alba mitigate it? How do we help the customer mitigate the risk? There are some really troublesome things out there. But there's also solutions, right, creative solutions.May be because we have AI and tech and so much tech that's readily available, we can deal with these issues like no other folks prior before us maybe.

When you think about disruption, what is your ability, you and your customer’s ability to plan for five years out for budgeting for contingencies for resiliency. And I think this is just the new normal that we're in for?Whether it's labor, potential labor disruption, ESG issues like forced labor?And again, a huge opportunity is tech. But maybe there are some unintended things with tech too that you have to deal with in the business.

BG: There was a very popular question on panels in 2018, 2019, then we all got busy with a pandemic, the question kept being asked was like, essentially, now that everything's easy and perfect. What's the role of the forwarder in a tech enabled world where you're not shuffling all this paper on your desk all day? What are your thoughts on the value prop going forward?

VI: Yeah, that's a great question. I remember back in 2010, and 2011, when COAC and all of the trade groups were like: “what is the role of the broker?” I just go back to the basics, working on that with some folks: Customs brokers were one of the most regulated groups in the supply chain.I think that's a good thing. More regulation for brokers is better, it creates a very special spot where the only folks that legally can be an agent for the importer, but also have an obligation to CBP, can operate. So, we're kind of like in this special spot, from a regulatory point of view.

It's funny when I explain that to attorneys that don't know the trade, they're like: “Oh, my god, you guys are crazy!Why are you in that position?” but I think it's a great spot to be in.And that was the role of the broker.

I think you're onto something, what is the role of the forwarder? You go to the panels in 2023, and 24. And again, at the race to mapping, right - the race to map this thing out to know your supply chain. I think there's an opportunity for freight forwarders to bundle services as solutions to create this value-add. But you know, perhaps we're going into a phase where the freight forwarders can do that with some of these things - like mapping.

BG: I had a meeting recently with a company who I'm not going to name, but you’ll know.They are large - we all have their products in our house kind of larger. And he was like: “we don't know how many shipments we move every year.”They have so much direct carrier activity, right. That's part of the role of a forwarder is to be able to tell you things about your own supply chain, from the perspective of someone who does it all day, every day, right.

It's a big part of what we see with the tech when we bring it to companies, you know, like Alba and like other companies is this ability to aggregate and normalize and bring this data together and give it back to the shippers in a way that they can consume it.You're giving them their data back, which sometimes feels a little like you're not doing much, but there's an expertise to giving it back in a way that tells a story in a way that helps them plan better and forecast with greater value.

VI: Let me add a layer to that. So, imagine all that, and since the beginning of time, we only had visibility to the first tier, right? Most customers could only see the overseas seller of the goods. So, imagine what you just said, now having to go to upstream suppliers to tier two or tier three or tier four.It’s a huge task at this point.

BG: What are you excited about?

VI: I'm excited about the opportunity of all the things we discussed.Because from these challenges coming out of COVID, you got all the FMC, the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, right, you got the FMC ruling on detention and demurrage. You get these remedies that are fixing some of these issues, and I’m really excited about the growth in our own company and in the industry.

The trajectory that Alba is on is very exciting. It's an exciting time to be at Alba at this time, I’m very fortunate. And then I'm excited that although there are all these challenges, we see opportunities to fix these things and to you know, alleviate some of the impact of the uncertainty out there. I think that's very exciting. And you know, a partner like yourself, you're the tech guy.You can correct me but 25 years ago you tried to do everything yourself right? Now you have these great partnerships, that you can just multiply your impact by partnering with people that are much better at tech than you are alone.

BG: It's always funny to me, when I go into a freight forwarder or a customs broker or a 3PL warehousing provider, and I go into their IT department as a software company that sells sort of an infrastructure service to them.What we do with data movement and data is very strategically important. But it's down in the weeds a bit, and they go, “Oh, we can do that ourselves.We have all the technology to do it. And we don't need you.” Right? We often hear that from the IT department. What I want to say back to them, though, it would be impolite is, isn't that what your customers say to your salespeople all the time? “I can book with the carrier, I have a phone, I can call one 800 American Airlines and get my cargo on a flight.” right? “What do I need you for?”

It's the same pitch.You could, but why would you?That's not your area of expertise.

We've invested from either perspective, millions of dollars and are getting good at this. And the other thing that I do say back to them is “you could also build your own power plant, but you choose to purchase the electricity you choose to operate on yourself too.”It's not a question of if you're going to outsource a service, it's at what level you're comfortable stopping. And over the 25 years, the level of that water has risen.

When I started in this, the broker I worked for it had in-house developed software running on an AS400 - all the servers were in the building.One of my jobs was: I came in in the morning if it snowed, because I was the only one who lived close enough to the office to walk there in the snow, to hit an A/B switch and dial a phone. So that was, I guess, so customers could get their entries - a dial up modem from our servers to theirs to send the data across.

But we didn't build the AS400. IBM did that. We didn't make the phone line.Bell Atlantic did.There were layers that were outsourced.

Over time we switched to packaged software.That mainframe in that company does not exist anymore. We went to packaged software for accounting first and then for brokerage.

But we still have to build our own web portal. And then eventually you go, okay, well, you know what, maybe I don't need to build that anymore. So I would say you kind of pick one thing to be amazing at and build and buy everything else.

Now. That's sort of the world we're in.It's no different than automotive companies at the turn of the 20th century, building power plants so that they could power their factories. And then they went, oh, this is stupid now, right? There's a reliable grid of power. So it’s an evolution.

VI: Yeah, just to add something to that: think of the speed we have now, because of the partnerships. You might have tried to build something 20 years ago, internally, and now, look how quickly you could get to market or solve an issue with an offering and with the partnership. So yeah, I definitely agree.

BG: Cool. Before we wrap up, tell me just a little bit more about what you're excited about with Alba and what you guys have coming up next?

VI: We're very excited, obviously, with the partnerships we've made so far. And with our fast growth organically and through acquisitions as well, we're excited that the growth is aligned with our strategy and the trade sensitive end of the market, which is those verticals that have multi agency jurisdiction.Those verticals that require a stickier approach, kind of a deeper dive into knowing the customer’s model.

So, we're really excited that we're able to grow aligned with that strategy, and excited for the future.More news to come!We’re excited to really drive the value to the customer on the business intelligence we leverage.We have some newer products and services coming out soon. I think we're very excited about our partnership with Mesur.io, as we previously discussed, we’re really getting traction with that in the apparel industry, with microchips and other industries, where we're adding that value on top of the value we’re already providing.We’re excited and we’re having fun doing it, as well!

BG: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being on the show. I really, really enjoyed chatting.

VI: This was awesome. Thank you so much!

BG: Thanks again to Vince for an awesome chat. So much fun to talk to people who really have been through the wars in this business.

(content lightly edited for flow)

Tune in now!


written on April 24, 2024
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