Q&A: ShipDecision's Al Carbone
Maritime Reporter & Engineering News recently caught up with Al Carbone, creator of ShipDecision, a shipmanagement tool designed to help operators save time and money.
Can you share with us some background information?
Carbone As a youth I always had a fascination with math, science and technology, so it was no surprise to my friends that I ended up studying engineering. I earned my Bachelor of Engineering degree - in Electrical Engineering - in 1981 from Concordia University in Montreal. I was also fortunate to be the recipient of multiple academic scholarships that permitted me to complete my Master's Degree in Engineering, also from Concordia, in 1984. After graduating I worked for two start-up companies before I settled at Allied-Signal Aerospace, where I worked on the software elements of electronic controls for Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines.
In 1990 the opportunity for me to start my own software development company presented itself, and I took the plunge. Stelvio was created and its first product was geared for the automotive insurance market. The Stelvio system permitted Insurance companies and Autobody repair shops to electronically exchange - via dial-up modem - data related to an accident; negotiate the repair amount and track the repairs. This was groundbreaking technology at the time - with the internet, digital photography and email in its infancy - and Stelvio was granted multiple patents for its innovation. That product continued to evolve and the current version, EstImage, has processed over 45 million claims transactions. In September 2004 I happened to have a discussion with an acquaintance who was experiencing cargo damage claims issues with the steel cargoes that he was moving between Europe and North America.
Intrigued with the issues, I mentioned that Stelvio had a system used in the insurance industry that could probably be adapted for maritime use … And that's how I became involved in the marine market.
How did ShipDecision come about?
Carbone As I mentioned, I became involved in the marine market from the perspective of managing cargo claims issues. But, a funny sort of thing happened. As I started to ask more and more questions about cargo and what led to claims, I became intrigued with the complexities of the business of shipping and its actors - not just the details about cargo claims. I wrote a business analysis document relating to what I had been seeing and learning, and I designed an initial concept of a system that brought together information from various actors. I gave this document to my director of product management and director of product development for review. They felt that it was sound from both a technical and business perspective. At that point I said to them: "if it is such a good idea, I'm sure that somebody else has already done it." What ensued was a comprehensive two-month study by Stelvio of the software market in the maritime sector. In short, we didn't find a single system that contemplated what we were thinking of doing.
In January 2005, we hatched a plan to produce a presentation and show it to various industry actors for their thoughts. Our business model requires that we obtain candid feedback from industry experts in order to test our assumptions. And, that's exactly what we did. By the end of January 2005, we had our PowerPoint presentation and a list of actors in the UK and Norway with whom we were scheduled to meet the following month. Over a five-day interval in February 2005, we gave six presentations to various P&I Clubs and Ship Owner/Operators, and the feedback was encouraging. Upon return to Montreal, we held a debriefing session and decided that we had a commercial opportunity with this system that we came to call ShipDecision.
NorShipping was being held a few months later, and we decided to produce a ShipDecision proof-of-concept version to show to a few targeted actors. We showed the simple proof-of-concept version to probably a dozen different actors in June 2005. Back in Montreal, we studied the opportunity before us and decided to go commercial launching ShipDecision at Posidonia 2006.
What is ShipDecision designed to do?
Carbone ShipDecision is the first web-based system to truly integrate all of the critical operations, information and documents needed to manage cargo voyages and vessels as structured data. The power of ShipDecision is that all the data is normalized and stored in a relational database, irrespective of the source of the data, which then permits the data to be processed, compared and utilized to drive workflows or trigger notifications or events based on client-specific business rules.
People use computers for different reasons. Stelvio writes software for people who use computers because they have to, not because they want to.
What do you count as competitive advantages?
Carbone ShipDecision targets all actors involved in shipping that have a need to exchange information: operators, surveyors, P&I Clubs, Registries, agents, brokers, owners, class societies, masters, Port state control. Our advantage is that no other system today yet contemplates bringing together all of these actors in a unified fashion, permitting them to exchange information confidentially, securely, easily, accurately and in a completely auditable fashion. Once information is entered into ShipDecision, it is immediately available to the actors that are permitted to access the information. (Think of on-line banking; you do it, I do it, but we don't see each other's balances unless we expressly grant permission.)
ShipDecision was designed from the ground-up with the purpose of providing the ability exchange information from a number of different actors while keeping the information confidential and secure. For another system to compete with ShipDecision, chances are that it will have to be built from scratch - and that takes time.
The maritime industry is notoriously resistant to change. How has it been overcome?
Carbone As an entrepreneur, I've had a bit of experience in hitting my head against a brick wall. When I started Stelvio in 1990 we were taking on automotive insurance and how cars were repaired, and we found ourselves with much resistance to change. We persevered and grew the business. We are seeing the same resistance in the marine market, and we're addressing it.
Client adoption of ShipDecision comes with volition to change and an understanding of what benefits the changes will bring. So, our challenge is to ensure that we explain to the satisfaction of the client what changes are introduced by ShipDecision and position ourselves to provide ShipDecision when the client decides that they are ready for the change.
What are the primary drivers for your business today?
Carbone Stelvio is a software development house; ShipDecision is a hosted system provided by Stelvio.
The business drivers for such a system on the client side are: simplified IT infrastructure (only need an Internet connection); Improved Business Continuity Plan (critical data is stored in the ShipDecision server farms); gains in staff efficiency (having information readily at hand is more efficient)
What do you consider to be the three of the most significant changes that have occurred within the maritime industry in the last five years?
Carbone Shortages in human resources, both at sea and ashore, straining the ability of companies to perform efficiently. Heightened awareness to environmental issues, both from a public relations perspective and from a regulatory angle. Based on indicators from insurers and P & I Clubs, increased size and frequency of damage claims that have significant bottom line impact on ship owners and operators.
What's happening today that will affect your business for the next 10 years?
Carbone The shortage of qualified personnel, the price of fuel, the need for more efficient operations all demand systems that permit companies to do "more" with "less". ShipDecision is one such system. So, the challenges facing the maritime industry today are ones that ShipDecision was built to address.
Briefly describe your outlook for business in 2008 and beyond?
Carbone I believe the future for ShipDecision is bright, as this system responds to a critical need for improved control over operations, information, and communication. We are investigating partnerships with complementary systems, and are in discussions with various maritime information providers to deliver their data via ShipDecision.
If you were forced to choose just one, what would you name as the most significant technical advance during your career that has had the biggest impact to improve efficiency?
Carbone Hard question. Just choose one, eh? I'd have to go with the availability of high-speed internet connections, both wired and wireless. The ability to move information quickly, from almost anywhere across the globe, and connect people is the key advance — in my opinion.
To be efficient, you need information — the internet is the conduit for the information. But, you also need to know how to process the information - and being connected with people gives you the ability to find out how to process the information, if required.
What is the most important messages regarding ShipDecision our readers should walk away with?
Carbone People need information to make decisions, and the biggest challenge is making decisions without the latest data. Imagine that you had a system that could acquire and bring to a central place all of the information from the people you work with; when you came into the office, instead of 300 emails, you would have a dashboard that gives you, at a glance, the status of your vessel and its cargo; that's ShipDecision. ShipDecision fosters transparency, and with the ability to be transparent, better business relationships are built.
(Reprinted from the August 2008 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News)