The pioneer of containers

Containers have accompanied Klaus Schepe almost throughout his entire career. And now his son is a container expert, too.

Klaus Schepe joined Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) at the age of 20. Almost all of his working life was spent with an employer that won him over. "I advised my son to apply here a few years ago," he says. He has now been working at HHLA for more than ten years. Schepe would recommend young people to start at the port at any time. If you are clever, you can make a career for yourself through internal training, even if you don't have a degree - just like he did. His 40th anniversary was appropriately honored by the company with a meal at the Port Club, says Schepe. Now that he is retired, he has time for other, more enjoyable things in life. But he has fond memories of the time that began when he was hired as a quay and port worker in November 1977.

“I started working on the line in Shed 75,” he recalls. The shed only dealt with break-bulk cargo. “Back then I’d never heard of containers,” he adds. Rubber bales, sacks of coffee and cocoa, boxes and cartons, he and his colleagues moved everything – individually by hand or with a large net – out of the belly of the ship, packed them out on pallets and stored them in the shed until they were transported by either truck or rail.

He was a trained mechanic, but the father of his girlfriend at the time told him that they were looking for workers at the port. “I went along for an interview and eight weeks later I was working for HHLA,” he explains. A year later Schepe was drafted to complete 15 months of obligatory military service. He returned and spent almost six months back on the line before it was shut. He was then transferred to hall 5 at Burchardkai, where he saw his first containers. Instead of unloading sacks and boxes from the belly of the ship, he was now unpacking containers.

“First we opened all containers, sorted the goods on pallets according to customer and then stored them in the hall until they were ready for further transportation,” he remembers. Back then there were six packing halls, where the goods were reorganised and then packed into containers for transport into the hinterland. Except for one, those packing halls have all gone now. Containers are stacked where they once stood. That is because the steel boxes are now, with very few exceptions, transported from door to door. They are sealed and only opened by customs for checks.

“I got a licence to drive heavy goods vehicles in the army, which meant I was able to train as a straddle carrier driver,” says Schepe. The straddle carriers had only just been developed by HHLA and the manufacturer Peiner. At first the machines only transported and stacked containers, but as the years went by the demands grew in every sense of the word. These days, straddle carriers can pass over four containers and place a fifth on top.

Schepe: “These machines can lift two 20-feet containers at once and place them on a 40-feet container, for example,” straddle carriers can operate in unison with the cranes, and pick up two containers at once.

In his 40 years at HHLA, Schepe has rarely had to look for a misplaced container. Not more than 30, he declares. An impressive figure when you consider that thousands of containers are moved at the terminal every day. And any that were misplaced were always found again. There’s a saying at the terminal for those occasions: “Here’s our corpse.” Back then, anyone who found a misplaced container would get a half-day off. “A few tricksters hid the containers themselves,” Schepe recalls. When this came out, it put an end to the time off.

Today, misplaced containers are found quickly thanks to modern information technology. Both gantry crane and straddle carrier drivers can determine the location of a containers on their display. If a container disappears from the display, it can be tracked using the twist-locks. These are the locks that connect the containers to one another or the transporter. “We can check the system to see if and where the twist-locks have been opened or closed,” says Schepe. Usually the missing container is where it should be – none are lost.

Schepe was later promoted from straddle carrier driver to foreman. “In 2007 I was named load master,” he adds. He is very proud of this, because nowadays you have to apply for the position. The load master is the contact person for everybody on his shift. He has to know which containers are being shipped onto which vessel, and he supervises both the gantry crane and straddle carrier drivers as well as the foremen and ship masters. “I draw up a plan for myself every morning, from A to Z, which we then work through together,” he explains. If a gantry crane is down or not enough machines are available, Schepe has to find a solution that will allow everyone to keep working.

The advent of the container reduced the physical strain of the work. “In the old days when I had to shift sacks I looked like a body builder,” he reminisces. Today it’s brains not brawn that are required. One of the benefits of the containers is that they can be processed quickly. After unloading, the container is moved to the yard and then transported out of the port by rail or truck. In the past, Schepe knew what was in the containers. Today he doesn’t. But he never had any interest in the content anyway he says. In the past, the prefix, container number and storage space were radioed through. Radio operators sent out data from various cabins around the site. With time, more and more was done digitally and Schepe has had to keep learning throughout his career. His work has become more stressful. “But this is to be expected and I’ve grown with the challenges,” he states. He was always very well trained which in turn meant he was able to pass on his knowledge to his colleagues.

Schepe remains dedicated to his employer HHLA. “A few years ago, I advised my son to apply for a job here,” he explains. His son has now been with HHLA for more than ten years. Schepe would definitely recommend the port to young people as a place to start out. Those who work hard can climb the ladder with internal training opportunities – without having a degree – just like he did. Last November, Schepe celebrated his 40th anniversary with the company. The company organised a meal at the Hafenclub in his honour. Schepe will retire in a year and a half. He is looking forward to having more time to follow his own interests.

Author: Nicole de Jong