A prominent figure in the maritime sector of the region, Juan Carlos Croston was elected Vice President of the Caribbean Shipping Association at the annual conference in Cartagena in October 2015. Here, he talks to Caribbean Maritime about his career so far – he is vice president, marketing and corporate affairs, with Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT) in Panama – and his hopes and expectations for the industry.
Q: Where were you born, where did you go to school and what did your parents do for a living?
A: I was born in Panama City, Panama, and attended a private school, also in Panama. I grew up as an only child with my Mom, who is a nurse and still practices after 40-plus years. My Dad is a doctor.
Q: In terms of higher education, where did you attend university or college and what did you major in?
A: I’ve always liked numbers, so I knew that I would pursue some kind of engineering degree coming out of school. But it was my Mom who told me that I should check out the engineering programs at the Nautical School in Panama. It was the early 1990s and there were big hopes in the maritime industry because of the recently started port privatization process and the upcoming canal handover to the Panamanian government by the turn of the decade. So I enrolled in the Nautical School and pursued a degree in nautical engineering, with specialization in maritime transport and navigation. After four years of studies and a year of sailing on container vessels with Evergreen Marine, I got my degree. Coming back home, I got in contact with the first of a number of people I call my mentors: people who have guided me throughout my professional life and whose advice has been invaluable. So, this first mentor, a Colombian called Aldemar Suárez, told me I should pursue a master’s degree in Sweden – Sweden! But, I followed his advice and worked throughout the World Maritime University application process, including scholarship funding – there was no way my Mom could have afforded scholarship there. It was a great experience going there, with people from over 40 countries and lectures about all maritime activities. After 17 months I received an M.Sc. degree in maritime affairs with emphasis on port management. And then flew back home.
Q: After finishing your education, what was your first job?
A: I had crazy ideas about compensation packages when coming back to Panama – master’s degree from Sweden! port administration! – but quickly came back to earth. It was October 2001, right after 9/11. Very few interview offers. So I took the only one offered and started working for a trading company.
Q: How did you become involved with MIT and what’s your present role there?
A: My ticket into MIT came via another mentor, Maria Dixon. I met her during my WMU stint and she introduced me to senior MIT directors during a TOC conference in Panama back in November 2003. I emailed one of the MIT directors, Stacy Hatfield – then ops manager and now MIT general manager – so many times that I guess he thought it would be better to let me go to MIT for an interview and get rid of all those emails. I started at MIT in March 2004 as a yard planner. I’m now vice president, marketing and corporate affairs.
Q: What has been your best decision since you joined MIT and do you have regrets about any past decision?
A: Before joining MIT I sent resumés left and right looking for job opportunities. So it came as no surprise that after I got hired at MIT I started getting calls with job offers. One of the calls involved a good position in Panama City with a 30 per cent salary increase and weekends off. Remember that I was working shifts then at MIT, so it was a very tempting offer. But another mentor told me to stay put at MIT: “After so much you went through to get a job at MIT, you’re gonna quit?” I think it’s the best decision I’ve taken: sticking to what I like the most. I don’t regret any decision taken while here, but I’ve made tons of ones that, looking back, can be improved upon.
Q: What impact is last year’s enlargement of the Panama Canal having on MIT’s operations?
A: MIT is currently receiving seven neopanamax (NPx) cranes a week. We were ready since end of 2015, both equipment and infrastructure-wise, for the big vessels. The key is continuous operational improvement, especially in a transshipment terminal this size, with daily changes in service arrival, cargo information and priorities and so on. Now, with the NPx deployment, the new alliances finally in place by April 2017 and the ongoing M&A activity among ocean carriers, we expect some gradual volume realignment in the Caribbean.
Q: How did you view MIT’s performance in calendar 2016 and what are MIT’s forecasts for this year?A: MIT finished 2016 with 1,831,596 teu, down 7.3 per cent from 2015. The economic performance in Latin America, especially Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, greatly impacted transshipment volumes in the region. We forecast 2017 at about the same 2016 level, but there could be some volatility based on the financial situation and activity of major carriers.
Q: I believe MIT eventually aims to handle 4 million teu annually. When do you expect to hit this target?
A: Our capacity right now is 3.5 million teu annually. With some equipment and infrastructure improvement, we could reach 4 million teu capacity-wise. Our forecast is to reach that volume mid to end 2020s.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between MIT and the Colon Free Zone and how important is the CFZ to the success of MIT?
A: Although local cargo volume represents about 15 per cent of MIT’s overall throughput, it’s still a vital component of our business activity. The Colon Free Zone performance is a strong driver of local cargo volumes in Panama and we look forward to improvement in its economic activity. Moreover, Colombia and Venezuela are its two biggest markets, so any improvement in the economic performance of those countries will bring additional benefits.
Q: In October 2015 in Cartagena you were elected as vice president of the CSA for a three-year term. What was your reaction?
A: MIT has been part of the Caribbean Shipping Association for the last 20+ years. I became actively involved in 2005 and even today I’m amazed by what I call the “CSA way”. When I was nominated as VP in Cartagena, I was humbled by the opportunity presented and felt a huge responsibility to carry the CSA way forward. We have a strong leader in our President David Jean-Marie and my intention is to be able to implement his vision for the CSA during my tenure as VP. For me, the CSA way represents “innovative traditions” and taking care of people. By innovative traditions we mean that the CSA carries a huge historical presence in the region, while adapting to an ever-changing landscape. We must not forget where we come from in order to move ahead. The CSA also believes that we must take care of the human element in every transaction. Just look at what we have been able to do as a regional leader on training initiatives. As a living example of the impact of good mentors, I believe this role needs to grow within and beyond the CSA.
Q: Outside of work, how do you relax and do you have any hobbies or watch or play any sport?
A: I like to read and spend time with family. I have four kids, three of them small, so investing – not spending – time at home is a hobby by itself. I also like to watch sports, especially American football. Just the other night I had the chance to watch one of the greatest championship games in a long time: University of Alabama v. Clemson.
Q: If you had to choose just one Caribbean island for a vacation, which one would you choose and why?
A: Thinking of a single spot for a Caribbean vacation, I can honestly say that each Caribbean island has its own flavor. Think of it: four different languages spoken in 40 different territories by 40 million people. Let’s book an island each year!