Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cold Wave

One of the pre-requisites of best-in-class food & grocery retail is a state-of-the-art supply chain and cold storage infrastructure. India’s largest cold chain company, Snowman Frozen Foods Ltd, realises this all too well, and is set to leverage the rapid spread of modern retail and cash-and-carry formats in the next few years across India.

Snowman Frozen Foods Ltd., is a joint venture between Gateway Distriparks Limited, Singapore and Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsubishi Logistics Corporation and Nichieri Logistics Group Inc. of Japan. In India, Snowman happens to be the only cold chain logistics company to receive ISO 22000 certification from TUV, Germany.

With its current network of 16 cold storages and over 100 reefer trucks of different capacities, the company’s focus is to improve efficiency of distribution processes by proving cost-effective and high- tech logistic solutions to various clients across food sectors.

The company provides total integrated end-to-end supply chain solutions from source-to-store, taking care of transportation/storage, handling, and retail distribution of frozen and chilled foods across 20 locations within the country including Delhi, Chennai, Cochin, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Goa and Nagpur.

The wide range of products handled by Snowman include ice creams, poultry, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meat products, and healthcare and pharmaceutical products. Snowman puts into use a customised fleet management software to monitor and control the cargo as well as the entire fleet (all the software is located at a central server in Bangalore), while a tailored Tally 9 package is used for superior control and checks on all financial transactions.

According to company officials, wherever one sees a temperature-controlled product in India, in all probability the logistics would have been handled by Snowman. Apart from offering cold storage solutions, the company also offers dry logistic solutions to select clients. It is also the only company in India to provide part load transportation for frozen cargo. The service runs on a fixed schedule covering around 100 cities across the country.

Up the ante

By December 2009, the company plans to make a new storage facility in Sriperumbudur near Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, functional. The Chennai warehouse is expected to be the largest multi-temperature storage facility of Snowman with a capacity of 3,000 pallets (one pallet = one tonne).

“Chennai is a major sea port in South India with high volumes of imports and exports of perishables. There is minimal or virtually no competition from any organised operator in the region. Competition, if any, emanates only from a few local operators. Chennai also has a good potential for food processors due to the large output of seasonal fruits,” explains Ravi Kannan, chief executive officer of Snowman Frozen Foods Limited, when asked why the capital of Tamil Nadu was chosen to set up the company’s largest warehouse facility.

“For importers, this new warehouse will serve as a single-door service option to de-stuff the containers, assist in in-transit storage location, thus facilitating de-stuffing, sorting, storing and effective distribution planning on a pan-India basis. For cut food-processors also this new storage facility will prove to be a huge help, as not only will it enable them to store semi-finished products during the volume produce of crop, but they will also be able to store in bulk and be able to meet the price and export demands,” he adds.

Snowman also appears to be preparing to extend its core competence to traditionally non-core areas. “So far, we have been involved in storage, primary transportation and last mile secondary distribution, essentially source-to-stores,” Kannan says. “But going forward, we will be getting into processing activity (F&V packaging, repacking, grading, kitting, bulk breaking etc., ripening chambers) mainly in fruits such as bananas, apples etc, blast freezing and dry warehousing (storage of any product at ambient temperature).”

The objective is to not just build critical mass for the business, but to also evolve into an end-to-end service provider in every sense of the expression. “It (the decision to backward integrate) follows from a customer requirement. All our clients want a single contact point; they do not want to deal with multiple vendors for their various requirements. So, since we are expanding now, we want to be able to provide some comprehensiveness and be a one-stop-solutions provider for our clients – a first again for any cold chain logistics company in India,” Kannan says.

“Our tie ups with the analytical labs is also a first-of-its-kind achievement for a company like ours in the country,” he adds. “Thanks to these alliances, we will be able to certify to our customers that all products stored in our warehouses are stored at the right temperature and hence safe for human consumption. We want to create benchmarks in the industry.”

In addition to this, Snowman is also shortly to synergise with the parent company, Gateway Distriparks, to simplify import clearance processess and avail of the bonded-warehouse facility. “All our clients — new and existing — will now be able to avail this service; the client will now not have to worry about imports and storage. Our role would begin as soon as a vessel pulls into the port and the containers are dropped off. We will inform Distriparks about the offload, they will go and pick up the container and take it to their bonded facility for storage. As and when the client requires the cargo it will be sent to our warehouse – thus offering one solution from end-to-end.”

As in all other Snowman storage facilities, the new Chennai unit will also feature all basic specifications in place, which includes maintaining the air temperature for storage at -20 degree centigrade in order to retain the temperature of product stored at -18 degree centigrade (international standard for frozen food). In order to offer optimum food safety standards, the freezer storages have been designed for operation at -25 degree centigrade with flexibility of incoming materials up to -15 degree centigrade.

All the company’s cold storages are made up of insulated sandwich panels made of polyurethane lined with metal skins on both sides having density of 37 kg/m3 square with thickness of 150 mm. Made from CFC-free polyurethane materials, the panels are supported with steel structural framework acting as building, which is covered up well with steel sheetings to protect it from the vagaries of nature.

Inside the cold storage sections, the temperatures are controlled by using an advanced refrigeration system (operates on CFC-free R404a gas manufactured by Dupont USA) using two-stage reciprocating compressors with suitable air handling units and evaporated condensers with proper control system.

The material storage arrangement is on standard two deep racking systems, which can store materials on Euro pallets of size 1000 x 1200 x 1500 mm with four-level vertical arrangements. Battery electric forklifts assist in the pallet movement. These forklifts are equipped for lifting material from the fourth level and second depth of the rack.

Dock levelers and dock shelters help in loading and unloading of materials from or into the refrigerated trucks. The dock shelters aid in air-locking the trucks into the cold storage area while the leveler matches the floor level of the truck with that of the cold storage.
With many national grocery chains having slowed the pace of store expansion in the first three quarters of the year, many support companies have taken a hit in topline growth. Did Snowman also feel the heat of this so-called slowdown in the food retail business?

Not really, says Kannan. “There has really been no impact as such of the slowdown; in reality, food imports are steady and have risen also to some extent. On the other hand, what did impact the topline was the H1N1 flu-virus outbreak and the multiplex closure to any new movie releases for approximately three months – foodservice brands felt the bite as consumers were not going to food courts, malls or restaurants to eat or hang out as much as earlier.”

Way forward

New cold storage facilities with features virtually similar to the ones in the Chennai warehouse are expected to come up in Bangalore by April 2010 and in Mumbai by July 2010. In the next two to three years, new storage facilities are expected to come up in eight more locations pan-India. With an existing Snowman cold storage capacity of 10,860 pallets, the company plans to add additional capacity for 8,440 pallets by September 2010.

The company is also contemplating getting into dry warehousing in a major way. According to Kannan future plans for providing dry warehousing facilities include offering two lakh square feet storage space in four locations, one in North (Delhi), one in South (Chennai), in West (Mumbai) and in the East (Kolkata).

Explaining further he notes, “From 1st of April 2010 the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is expected to come into place. With a uniform GST, all big companies would be in the process of closing and consolidating their small warehouses, which they will have across different states due to various tax issues. These four major distribution centres will feed all the smaller locations. Very soon we will be coming out with a retail strategy plan as well.”

Snowman is also looking at greenfield projects with large customers. Clients looking for Snowman warehouses in specific locations dedicated specifically for their use will also be serviced. According to Kannan, Snowman will build state-of-the-art warehouses for any such clients and manage the show for the specified period of time. Such an arrangement is already underway for one of Snowman’s clients in Pune, where an exclusive distribution centre is currently being built for the client.

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