Press play to:
- Hear about Julian's childhood global trade dream;
- Listen to us debate weather the carrier side or the forwarder is more process driven;
- internalize the importance of long-play relationships for business (and life) success;
- and understand what is meant by conscious automation.
We hope you find Julian's journey as inspiring as we did!
Ronit Wolf: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our Fishtail Voices, episode three. This is the first episode where I’ll be interviewing a Colombian. So I'm extra excited about it. We have with us today, Julian Lopez Grajales. He is based out of Medellin, Colombia, and he is our special guest today. He is currently the Alternative Channels Manager over at Blu Logistics.
And before I hand over the mic to him, I wanted to give a little bit of background of who I am, who he is, and then we'll dig into the good stuff.
I'm Ronit Wolf, Director of Marketing over at Fishtail. And this is our third episode. I'm super excited, as I said, to host our first Colombian, but also our first Latin. And since at Fishtail we work a lot with LATAM, we're especially excited to hear from an industry veteran who's been in the industry for multiple decades at this point. And interestingly enough, actually, Julian told me in our very first conversation that he had actually hoped to get into the logistics industry since a very young age. I believe the age he said was six years old. He can tell you a little bit specifically what that dream looked like, but I recall it was something along the lines of he was playing with trucks and he was asking his parents, like, you know, mommy, daddy, where do these trucks come from? How do they get here? Of course, the answer involved China and importing to Colombia. And so that's where Julian's dream of getting into the logistics industry really started. He really grew up professionally in what we all know as Maersk, which is such a big global giant brand who I think even folks not in the supply chain industry, not in logistics have at least seen Maersk while standing at a red light. So without further ado, I would love for Julian to say hello and tell us a little bit what it was like growing up professionally in Maersk and what were some of the learnings he took from there and was able to bring over to Blue Logistics, where he currently works, which is a Latin American freight forwarder with headquarters in Colombia. So over to you, Julian.
Julián López Grajales: Thank you, Ronit. Thank you for having me around. It is a pleasure already to make part of this conversation. And yes, I think you made a really fateful case about how I got into 46 years. I was a kid. I was interested because of toys, because I used to, I love to play with toys. And I was, yeah, that was the case. I was asking my parents, how I, where did this, where did these toys come from? And it was really, I don't know, revealing to me to know what I had to do in order to procure myself the toys in the future. And that's, let's say, the short story of how I got interested in logistics and international trade industry. That is correct. So you were asking about my time in Maersk. And I can tell you that making part of such a company, such a big company, gave me a strong background and a strong platform when it comes to structure. To think about a company that is not only efficient and productive and strong in some specific countries, but rather globally. Also, I got to learn a lot about stakeholder management, how to deal with key stakeholders internally, externally, and how to balance out everything regarding the relationship with those stakeholders. I learned a lot about leadership, and not only about individual leadership, but also, let's say, entrepreneurial leadership thinking how a company remains and sustains itself as a leader in the market and industry and in the macroeconomic environment for such a long time and in such a good way. And primarily or definitely last but not least, I learned a lot about culture.
How does a Danish company manage to export their way of doing things to such different countries in different continents and maintain itself in a really harmonic way, I'd say.
Ronit Wolf: Yeah. And I mean, interestingly enough, Denmark is a pretty small country, all things considered. I think that their total population is somewhere around six million, which is pretty tiny, especially when compared to a place like the United States or Colombia, where you're based. So it's impressive that, like you said, that they not only were able to start it, but sustain its global impact and its brand, all the things that we think about when we think about Maersk, along the years and for so long.
I'm actually part Danish, so this story is actually close to my heart. I'm one fourth Danish and I held Danish citizenship at some point. Alrighty, so I would love to hear a little bit about your current role at Blu Logistics as Alternative Channels Manager, which becomes even cooler because I understand that you partially created the role. So if you could walk us through, you know, what exactly is an alternative channels manager? What channels do you consider alternative? And if there's any newish channels that you're exploring with or you will be exploring with in the coming future, we'd love to hear that.
Julián López Grajales: Okay, so I've been in Blu Logistics for almost 6 years. I feel that, I mean, this time has passed by so, so fast because everything is so dynamic and everything is so good around here. I love it. And yeah, so every time that I think about all the time that I've been in company, it kind of surprises me because I, yeah, I can tell you it doesn't feel like five years or almost six years already. So before holding this position, I was working as Strategic Development Manager. I was involved in different initiatives and executions such as transfer management system switch. We moved from one vendor to the one that we currently have, which is Cardwell-Wise. We also implemented Salesforce. I hold together with my team and the sales team and we did it for four different countries. And yeah, so about two years ago I started working in this position which is alternative channels management. So how did we get here? Since about let's say three years ago or something or three years and a half we started cracking some numbers about the needs that we had as a company looking into the Latin American market, mostly considering small and medium sized companies opportunities because Blu Logistics has been a company that traditionally has been really strong with medium or medium to big and big sized companies which happen to arrive to us primarily through referrals. So we have a really strong network and really strong communication with key players all around the region.
Ronit Wolf: I guess back to what you were saying about relationship management, it plays a big, big role in this industry specifically.
Julián López Grajales: Most definitely, most definitely. Most of the businesses, and I'm pretty sure this is not something that happens only in Latin America, but it happens in the whole world. In fact that the most important businesses and the most important business opportunities are fruit of strong relationships that do not happen, I mean, in a second, right? You really need to build strong relationships in order to get really good businesses in the long term.
Ronit Wolf: Yeah, play the long game.
Julián López Grajales: Exactly. So, thinking about this need that we have in order to tackle and to create new opportunities with segments that we were not traditionally linked to, then we decided that we needed to, let's say, execute different strategies, different initiatives that will not only help us to get to these markets, but also helping us learn about these markets and learning about these segments and learning about these channels that we never had a relationship with. Then we started figuring it out and trying different things. And around two years and a half ago, it was clear that we needed a team that was totally dedicated, not as a side project, not as a side task, but totally focused with a specific manager and specific director working in alternative channels, meaning, communicating with customers in ways that we do not communicate with our traditional customers. Working towards a more automated, consciously automated relationship, looking for more efficiencies in the communication and the relationship with the customer. Not every customer can be taken care of with a field sales team or with a key account manager. So I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg here about the things that we were thinking about two and a half years ago. So we decided that we needed to create not only the alternative channels manager position and the team, but also a team that would cater specifically this channels and this segments.
Ronit Wolf: How big is the team?
Julián López Grajales: The team right now has 10 people in Colombia. Oh wow. And it's a team that is focused on what we call a front end team because we support ourselves in the back office that Blu Logistics has. So yeah, it's a 10 person team.
Ronit Wolf: Okay, is that a department, for example, that other forwarders have? Or is this unique to you, to Blu?
Julián López Grajales: I, it would be irresponsible to say that other or our competitors didn't have a similar setup. But I do think that we are thinking about and executing different things that some other forwarders are not doing around or our competitors are not doing. Yeah, it's a differentiator. Yeah, most definitely because it's not only, remember that I told you about conscious automation is not doing automation just because or trying to look for efficiencies just because no. The secret here is to bring the customers along to offer them the best possible service. Because small to medium sized enterprises, they require for most the support, that helping hand, that companionship in order to grow and to be able to make their business better. So how to make the best use out of the alternative channels but at the same time keeping the best service promise available and viable for the customers.
Ronit Wolf: Also fascinating that you started this basically during COVID, right? If I caught the timeline correctly?
Julián López Grajales: It was actually, yeah, it all depends on your timeline and your COVID timeline, right? I know. Because we started thinking about it in the middle of COVID, I'm gonna say, but yeah, it was, we started selling in second semester 2021. Yeah, we're about to be two years. Yeah, a little bit. OK, the entry point of COVID.
Ronit Wolf: OK, and so, you know, looking at that side of the coin versus the other side of the coin, what are some of the maybe your top or top two main differences in working or representing a major carrier such as Maersk versus representing or working with a major forwarder such as Blu Logistics?
Julián López Grajales: Well, there are different things. I like to say that I don't dislike or I don't like one over the other by any means, but it depends on what you want to do at a specific time and what you think you're better at at some specific time and for a specific organization. So when you go to a massive, as you mentioned, a mammoth carrier like Maersk. Well you know you have the global coverage, you know you have a tremendous I mean a giant structure that makes you feel that you can be at any point in the world at any given time and that that feel of making part of a huge thing it's always nice right. Also, I'm not against bureaucracy, but by any means, in a company like Maersk, it works very, very well because actually processes and the police, or as I call it, or the surveillance over these processes work so well that it's difficult to make a mistake because a lot of people are making sure that mistakes are not a day-to-day case, right? And in the end, you know that you work in a company that is so strong, so big that you feel confidence in the structure itself, and that gives you also the confidence and the trust you need on a day-to-day basis to do big things, right? But in the end, with big companies, in general, things are a little bit slow, right? Whenever you want to do something, it takes longer, it takes more approvals, it takes more people involved. And that's not necessarily bad, but the timing perhaps is going to be longer and slower than it can be in some other companies.
Ronit Wolf: Logistics in general is such a process heavy industry, as you were saying, so many processes. Do you think there are more processes on the carrier side, versus the forwarder side?
Julián López Grajales: That's such a good question because-
Ronit Wolf: I just came up with it.
Julián López Grajales: No, but it's such a good question because if you go just to the carrier side, it will never be as complex. And it will never be as cumbersome as it can be for a freight forwarder. The combination of factors that take place in an operation for a freight forwarder is definitely more and more complex, way bigger than the one that a carrier has in terms of processes, responsibility, liability. It's a different universe for the freight forwarder for sure.
Ronit Wolf: Okay, so shifting gears a little bit here, taking advantage of where you're located, Colombia, such an entry port into LATAM. I'm curious if you have thoughts on how the macroeconomic environment today of 2023 is impacting the Colombia logistics landscape, if at all.
Julián López Grajales: It most definitely does every single day. You know that what we're going through globally in terms of recession that has been, let's say forecasted for a long time now, doesn't have to happen. I mean, you know, in a really tangible way. But the fact that people are preparing themselves for recession, I mean, it immediately brings people to lower their confidence, to be definitely more cautious when investing. And some of the first countries that suffered this are countries like Colombia, right? We have our own currency. We are in the middle of, or we're not in the middle, but beginning because we haven't been, I mean, we haven't finished the first year with the current government, which is the first progressive or left-wing government that we have in Colombia. So there are a lot of uncertainty locally that is strengthened or boosted by whatever is going on around the world and put us in a really, I wouldn't say disadvantageous, but certainly complicated and uncertain situation. So, the macroeconomic environment, the travel region in the world have a major impact on whatever happens in Colombia. And this year has been a really tough year compared to what we had during the last two years that in spite of being, let's say, or getting out of COVID, economically the country was having a good time and we feel that we have been like in the middle of a full stop right now during the last seven to eight months.
Ronit Wolf: Okay, that gives us a very good picture of what's going on. Unfortunately, not a very positive one, but as you said, it's probably just more uncertain than necessarily negative. So it will have to be an evolving situation.
Okay, shifting gears one more time. As we go into closing off this episode, though it's been so fun chatting with you, wanted to get your take on who's been some of the more important people, mentors, if you say, who've had like the biggest impact on your trajectory and what industry advice did they give you that like resonated the most?
I guess the specific reason I'm asking you this is I think many folks in the industry would see you as an exemplary leader in the field who, as I keep saying, has worked with both sides of the coin, on the carrier side, on the forwarder side. You've worked with giants such as Maersk and more medium-sized companies such as Blu.
Uh, yes, give us a little bit of your advice or juice that you may have gotten from others that could help, um, our listeners, uh, get to where you are.
Julián López Grajales: Well, thank you for all those words that you're saying to me, because I feel, I feel flattered, but, uh, I would like to start connecting my answer with, with a question that you asked, perhaps, I don't know, five minutes ago or something, and it has to do with the main difference between working with a carrier and with a forwarder? Well, one of the things with working with a forwarder also has to do with the dynamism and how fast things are and how strong you need to be in the relationship with the customers and with the vendors and with all the complexities that you have, how fast you need to be at the same time, how efficient you need to be.
That being said, I've been really, really lucky enough to have several mentors and several people working with me throughout my whole career. And yeah, I think that besides the names or remembering something, specific about each of them. The most important thing for me is how some of the learnings that they have transmitted to me are common to all of them. What can I take immediately out of these memories and I try to implement them on a day-to-day basis is always listen, keep yourself reading, keep learning. Never stop to get different opinions and different points of view about different matters that are happening. There are no absolute truths when it comes to interpreting facts or interpreting specific issues. And in that way you will have a more holistic, a more universal view of different events and you will be able to make better decisions.
Ronit Wolf: Okay, so basically stay up to date, keep the curiosity going, never stop learning. And talk to as many people as you can talk to, right?
Julián López Grajales: I mean, it's not only working in a company based out of Colombia or Panama or Denmark or United States or you call it, but rather, I mean, I have the possibility and I try to make the most out of it. Talking to people in Singapore, talking to people in Europe, United States, Latin America. That's actually great advice because people probably are constantly exposed to the potential of speaking to different parties in different locations. But as you said, maybe some people don't take the opportunity or don't take as much advantage of the opportunity as they could. So really just seeing what's in front of you and the opportunities you have to exchange ideas, etc. that can come off of sporadic, random conversations.
Ronit Wolf: Agree, agree, that's the case. Which is why I plan to come to Medellin and take you out for coffee.
Julián López Grajales: Yeah, I don't know how interesting a conversation with me can be, but of course I'm up to that coffee and have a good chat for sure.
Ronit Wolf: Okay, and so lastly, I would love to hear if there's any specific book or podcast or publication that you would recommend to listeners. Our listeners are obviously people like you in the same space, in global trade. So I love to add sources, resources to my list of where to get my information from. So if you have any good ones, please let us know.
Julián López Grajales: Well, in this case, I'm going to, I don't know, not saying if recommending, but I'm going to tell you about three things that I have that I like to read a lot.
One book that I like a lot is Maritime Economics. It's a book by Alan Branch, if I'm not mistaken. I'm not good with the names of the orders. I tend to forget them. But yeah, I'm pretty sure of it. Yeah. It was published for the first time in, I think, the beginning of the 80s. But still, it's so relevant today because it's a good compilation of facts and historical events that help you understand how the cycles in the industry have shifted or moved around, and how it goes hand in hand with whatever happens in macroeconomics or all around the world. I think that it deserves, or it will deserve, an updated version or addition considering what happened in the past three or four years in the industry throughout COVID-19.
Ronit Wolf: I'm sure someone’s on top of that!
Julián López Grajales: On the other hand, I recommend the book "The Lean Startup.” Well, we're not involved in startups every single day, right? But, it's about the mindset. It's about the things that you can do differently when doing your day-to-day tasks and, and to rethink how you do and how you execute things.
And finally, just to get updated on the news, I go to Splash, and to The Load Star. I think that those two portals are really good, are compiling information and giving us a news feed on whatever's happening in the industry globally. And I like them just to keep myself up with everything that is going on. So yeah, those would be my recommendations today.
Okay, great. Thank you so much, Julian. Thank you for your time, for adding someColombian and Latin flair to our Fishtail Voices. We really love it. And hopefully I will see you in Colombia in a few weeks.
Julián López Grajales: That's great, Ronit. I'm looking forward to it. Thanks for the time. Thanks for the invitation. And I hope that your listeners get to, I don't know, to enjoy this conversation as well as much as I did. And hope we get a chance in a not so distant future.
Ronit Wolf: Okay, yeah, maybe we'll have you on again! Thank you, Julian.
Julián López Grajales: Thank you, bye.
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