28 Jul 2022
James Wadsworth
VP Sales and Marketing

Ensuring that the right tugs are being used for the right vessels, making sure that every part of the job from mobilization to demobilization is completed efficiently, and quickly turning invoices around to customers are all critical to customer satisfaction and profitability.

Software like Helm CONNECT Jobs plays a central part in delivering this efficiency, but the most efficient companies in the industry go beyond just using great software; they also centralize their dispatch operations, unlocking even greater efficiencies across their organizations.

For more than a decade, a large Brazilian tug company has used technology and a software-based centralized dispatch model to propel their company to greater and greater heights, providing a blueprint for other companies wanting to centralize their operations.

Helm’s own Vinicius Beato, General Manager of our Brazilian operations, was a key member of the IT team that planned and built this project, so we sat down with him to talk about the ins and outs of centralizing dispatch.

Helm: We like to talk bottom line first. Give us the short answer on why companies should centralize dispatch. 

Vinicius Beato: Many people think centralizing dispatch is just about reducing headcount or cutting costs. It’s actually about upgrading your organization, increasing your expertise, and using your company’s strengths to their full potential. Companies that centralize can save millions and build a strong foundation for future growth.

Helm: That’s a compelling description. But let’s start with your own experience. When did you start working on centralizing dispatch at your last company and what were operations like at the time?

Vinicius Beato: We began the process in 2007. At that time, we were most interested in lowering costs by reducing accidents, so we wanted to digitize our port dispatch to better control our dispatching process, improve safety, and reduce risk across our operations.

Helm: What was your port dispatch like at the time? 

Vinicius Beato: We had 14 dispatchers managing 19 ports around the country. In some ports, the dispatchers only had a few hours of dispatch work a day, so they’d also do other administrative tasks. And because each dispatcher only looked at one or two ports, they only knew their ports, so we didn’t have much backup for each dispatcher. We also realized that having so many dispatchers so widely spread meant they handled situations slightly differently. So instead of having a single set of operating procedures and one relationship with our stakeholders, we had 14, which was an issue.

Helm: That was 2007 (A decade before we released Helm CONNECT Jobs!). What technology was available at the time?

Vinicius Beato: Today, you could centralize dispatch very easily. Even for a large organization you could implement Helm CONNECT Jobs, ShipTracks, and a few other tools in less than 12 months. At the time, however, none of that technology existed. We didn’t even have AIS on most of our vessels or internet in most of our ports! We realized we’d have to build our own electronic dispatch system, find a good vessel traffic management system, and install AIS and all the internet equipment to enable it. The first part of the project was just scoping and building out all that technology and infrastructure. Thankfully, no operator today will face those problems.  

Helm: When we talk about centralizing dispatch, our customers often raise concerns about staff resistance and adoption. Was there pushback and resistance at your side?

Vinicius Beato: There was pushback and resistance, but we expected and planned for it. On the one hand, we had vessel captains concerned about their vessel movements being tracked on AIS. They openly called us “Big Brother.”  On the other hand, we had the port commercial and operations managers who didn’t want to give control over their ports to someone else.

Helm: How did you get past that resistance? 

Vinicius Beato: We went slow and proved ourselves over time. We started with our largest port, Santos, then expanded to other ports once we’d proved the model worked.

Helm: What kind of results did you see?

Vinicius Beato: We achieved our goals. By better monitoring and managing vessels throughout the country, we increased safe operations in our ports and reduced casualties. Part of that process was better monitoring and managing the speed of our tugboats from our central operating room, which cut down the number of accidents and reduced fuel costs. Commercially, centralizing dispatch gave us better information about movements in our ports and helped us better compete on a national scale, driving higher revenues.

On these measures alone, centralizing dispatch was a tremendous success. But honestly, I think one of the most important changes was how centralizing increased the professionalism and quality of our dispatching.

Helm: What do you mean? 

Vinicius Beato: All our dispatchers were experts in different ports, so losing one was a significant hit to the business because no one else knew that port well. With so many of them, we couldn’t pay them that well, and since they were all specialists in their own ports there wasn’t a career path for them.

After centralizing, we went from 14 dispatchers to 5, including a new dispatch manager. Each dispatcher managed multiple ports and rotated between them, so they were all cross-trained. If one were to leave, we still had experts who knew all the ports and could train new hires. In addition to receiving better pay, they had a division within our organization and a managerial role they could be promoted into. But most importantly, by centralizing the work, we were able to standardize our approaches to our stakeholders and customers. It made a huge improvement in the way we operated.

Helm: The advantages are clear, but what would a company need to start centralizing their dispatch? 

Vinicius Beato: Compared to how it was ten years ago, it’s very easy. All you need today is Helm CONNECT Jobs, ShipTracks, and most importantly a plan, which can be hard, but we’re here to help. Many of our staff here at Helm have supported projects like this, and we’re happy to advise and consult on them.

Helm: Last question. It looks like your company created a small-scale version of NASA’s mission control center complete with large display screens. Do you recommend a similar setup for all companies? 

Vinicius Beato: Although I 100% recommend that kind of setup, you don’t need it since everything your dispatchers require can be done with two monitors. However, a nice room with some wall monitors is a minimal cost compared to what you’d save on labor. It creates greater transparency and allows you to catch potential issues before they become problems. Just as importantly, it emphasizes to everyone how important safe and efficient dispatching is for your organization. It shows your commitment and immediately becomes something to show your charterers, the coast guard, local politicians, and other stakeholders.

Helm: Final thoughts or recommendations for companies thinking about centralizing dispatching?

Vinicius Beato: I’d urge any company considering centralizing dispatch to start now. The sooner you begin the process, the sooner you can start saving time, money, and resources and focus on growing your business.

While it may seem like a big step, there has never been a better time to start. Technology is making this transition easier than ever, and if it seems challenging, we can help. We love helping companies tackle these problems, from scoping to project implementation to recommending technology. Give us a call today.