by M. Sigmund Shapiro

Every memorable occasion seems to bring out from the woodwork all of the media savants who are allowed to give free rein to their semi-profound analyses of the history and future ramifications of the event. So on the eve of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America, Inc. (NCBFAA) 100th anniversary, when Lee Di Paci invited me to pontificate on the state of our industry, my ego was massaged and I decided to take pen in hand.

All of us like to reminisce, and my early memories are, like those of many of my colleagues, an oral history passed on by those who preceded us in my case, my dad. The irony of remembering underscores the old French saying “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

I learned a lot when I started attending board meetings in New York as president of the Baltimore Brokers Association. I’d accompany Sam (Mr. Sam to Lee and his friends) who, along with Steve Masson, were the only “outport” interlopers even allowed on the premises, much less as elected board members.

What did I learn ? Many things. Among them: (1 ) People in our industry love their work – the more complicated the better. (2) Bull Line always supplied the cigars at the annual meeting in Fraunces Tavern. (3) Customs was the enemy and would cancel your license if you looked at them cross-eyed. (4) Export freight forwarding was an unnecessary evil if you were a licensed broker. (5) There is only one port in the United States and the Hudson River flows into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The leaders were a colorful bunch Walter Mercer, John Budd, Frank Hult, Harold Davies, Marty Kerner, Herman Heemsoth, Herbert Mann, – all heavy eaters, drinkers, smokers and “discussers.”

Speaking of “discussers,” a tradition was born during those halcyon days: The Association developed the longest board meetings of any institution, public or private, in the United States business community. Of course this was a necessity since there was always the “crisis of the week” threatening our livelihood. Remember? ( 1 ) The expansion of “Immediate Delivery” would mean that importers would handle the follow-up entries themselves. (2) Duty Assessment By Account (DABA) – No more individual entries just a monthly accounting. (3) The (President Richard) Nixon surcharge which ruined our Labor Day weekend in 1971. (4) The interminable discussions about FIATA.

And Customs participated in our anxieties and apprehensions. No more l collectors of political stripe. No more appraisers. What if we merged the inspector and the examiner (now called ‘import specialist’) into one job description ? Enforcement vs facilitation, no more appraisers stores (what ever happened to the Elliott Fisher machines?) ABI, the Von Raab era. (Does anyone recall that Rudy Giuliani (now mayor of New York City) was a candidate for the commissioners job at that time?) The FMC took action against one of our members for misclassification of toys as “sporting goods” on an import claiming participation by the broker in an attempt to violate the Shipping Act by the foreign shipper! So what else is new ? All were grist for our mill and allowed oratory free sway.

In spite of the doomsayers, through it all, the industry has survived and prospered. Creativity in meeting the needs of a growing sophisticated international trading community is forcing us to improvise. For the most part, we are responding and the rewards are there.

Why is it though, that as an industry we are thought of as being, if not protectionist, at least obstructionist? Why do we say “No” at the outset of every initiative undertaken by government even when we know that the change is inevitable, and may ultimately benefit the trading community, the U. S. economy and maybe even our industry?

We seem to run scared instead of embracing the challenge of the future. The world around us seems to recognize that. We do not view ourselves as the professionals we are, which gives other entities the rationale to enter our arena.

The opportunities for the broker/forwarder/logistics provider/consultant to manage international transactions- are there for the taking, if we would only broaden our horizons. In a complex and multi-dimensional field, we can do it more efficiently and more economically than others. We fit the job description. It’s up to us to convince a burgeoning industry that we are its best defense and best ally and believe ourselves that our future is secure.