From the Savannah Morning News –
When Jeff Banton started Atlantic Intermodal Services in 2006, the shipping business was booming.
“It was a great time to start a new company,” he said. “Of course, back then, no one saw what was coming down the road.”
Back then, Banton’s fledgling company, with headquarters in Charleston and offices in Savannah and Atlanta, was jockeying to compete for customers. And because they were the new kids on the block, getting the big, established accounts was proving tough.
So AIS decided to try a different approach.
“We started going after the smaller customers, the ones who weren’t being serviced by the big companies,” Banton said. “In addition to steamship carriers, we were working with smaller freight forwarders, brokers and shippers.
“It turned out to be one of the best moves we could have made.”
By 2009, the seemingly recession-proof international shipping industry was feeling the effects of the downturn in the worldwide economy. Business was down, and many intermodal services, like all other aspects of global maritime trade, were struggling.
But while large customers were beginning to lose market share, AIS’s smaller customers were, in many cases, unaffected.
And AIS, which grew from serving 15 customers a week to 60 managed not only to hold its own, but to thrive all the way through the recession.
“We grew 40 percent in 2009, 30 percent in 2010 and are looking for 25 percent growth this year,” Banton said.
And, while he credits a good business plan and an excellent team with much of that success, the game-changer was the company’s diverse customer base, Banton said.
“We were forced to diversify in 2008 when everything was good, and it really paid off in 2009,” he said. “When the economy started to go south, a lot of the bigger companies were suddenly interested in smaller customers, but we were already locked in with them.”
In fact, AIS added an office in Charlotte in 2009 and another in Jacksonville last year. The five-year-old company has gone from eight employees to 24; from five owner-operator truck drivers to more than 50.
Although AIS, which specializes in import/export shipments, is headquartered in Charleston, it’s the Savannah port that has fueled the young company’s growth, Banton said.
That’s prompted AIS to move to a new, larger location here, trading two acres on Pine Meadow Road for a six-acre tract off Telfair Road.
“Savannah is really the heartbeat of the company,” Banton said, adding that he expected that growth to accelerate once the Panama Canal expansion opens and the Savannah harbor is deepened.
“When the canal is done, all the southeast ports are going to grow and benefit,” he said.
“I know some people think the competition is between Savannah and Charleston but, as someone with offices in both cities, I just don’t see it that way.
“In the long run, it’s East Coast versus West Coast — and every port in the Southeast is going to come out of this a winner.”
Speaking of harbor deepening, state Sen. Buddy Carter’s resolution supporting the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project was passed out of the transportation committee by unanimous vote this week and goes to the Senate for consideration.
The bi-partisan resolution, which Carter says has the support of “most, if not all those in the Senate,” is not intended to be a reaction to the resolution against the project that was passed several weeks ago in the South Carolina Senate, he said.
In fact, the Pooler Republican said, it endorses the efforts to deepen both the Savannah and Charleston harbors — and supports a new Jasper port.
“Deepwater ports in the Southeast are key gateways to international trade and must be deepened in order to prepare for the new generation of container ships that will begin to dominate ocean commerce when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014,” he said.