Strategic Challenges LevelSeas for Top Spot In E-Brokering Arena

Thursday, May 31, 2001
A new and formidable player emerged in shipping's e-broking sector this week to challenge the previously undisputed market leader LevelSeas, which is still more than a month away from launching a product.

Software provider Strategic said on Tuesday it had acquired its closest competitor Dataworks. Although market sources put the price tag at a relatively low one million pounds ($1.4 million), they said that with 600 customers and numerous products already launched Strategic would provide a strong challenge to LevelSeas.

"Levelseas started from scratch," said a source at Strategic. "They don't have a product out in the market, but we have existing products: a whole series of desktop products and IMX, a web-based data exchange."

LevelSeas was founded by Shell Cargill and London shipbroker Clarksons in April 2000 to broker ships for cargoes over the Internet.

LevelSeas CEO Richard Hext said that a product would be launched in July, 10 months later than initially planned. He played down similarities between the LevelSeas system and that of the newly merged Strategic.

"We're providing software that owners, brokers and charterers can use to manage their positions rather better... it's collaborative. Whereas as I understand the Dataworks and Strategic tool is primarily aimed at brokers," he said.

Of LevelSeas' 33 backers, Clarksons and Oslo-based RS Platou, are the only brokers.

Strategic founder and chairman David Marais denied that IMX was not a collaborative tool.

He said owners and charterers were deeply involved alongside brokers, and the tool had been designed around their existing working practices and desktop systems.

LevelSeas said one key difference was that its tool contained an element for negotiating the rate for a shipping fixture while Strategic's did not. The revenue would come from a mixture of subscription fees and a transaction fee of around 0.50 percent.

Marais said its customers would dictate whether a negotiating element was ever added to the system. "At the moment the customers show no appetite for that," he said, adding, "People resort to the telephone to negotiate a rate."

The one other big player in the e-broking marketplace, London's Baltic Exchange, said its new Virtual Baltic could be launched by the end of the summer. The first version would contain no negotiating element.

Hext denied that LevelSeas has ever had the intention of cutting the broker out of the freight process. "I would not have joined a company that as part of its mission was going to put brokers out of business... that's not going to happen," he said.

"The functions the brokers perform will change over time and migrate towards more consultancy because that's where the key value-add is," he added.

Hext said that LevelSeas had recently dropped it software builder, U.S.-based CSC, and had continued to build the system in-house, retaining some aspects of the website architecture.

The move reduced the cash burn-rate to more comfortable levels and made it easier to tailor the system to clients' individual needs. - (Reuters)

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