Chinese Investment Washes Up At Port Of Los Angeles

As cargo volumes increase at the Port of Los Angeles, Chinese shipping firms are investing in nearby logistics companies to secure their global supply chains through the city’s seaports, the United States’ gateway for Asian goods.

Since 1961, family-owned Carmichael International Service helped Asian companies bring their products, from shoes to footrests, into the U.S.

But the game changed as more and more clients went global. The Los Angeles-based customs brokerage firm found itself competing against overseas companies that already had U.S. holdings and didn’t need its services.

“We were focused on our core business, but we found that clients wanted more,” said John Salvo, co-president of Carmichael. “They liked us, and they enjoyed our services. But they wanted more.”

For years, Carmichael had worked with APL Logistics, a subsidiary of Singapore-based shipping and logistics company Neptune Orient Lines.

The partnership was friendly. But like clockwork every year, APL approached Carmichael’s owners, the Salvo family, with offers to buy their business.

And after a decade of wooing, the Salvos finally sold their company for $37 million in November 2012.

John Salvo, co-president of Carmichael, said it was a matter of time before APL’s buyout happened.

“APL Logistics was missing us, the piece we do. They were competing with other companies that were looking to get into the U.S. market,” Salvo said. “That’s why we came together.”

APL’s purchase of Carmichael amidst a slowing Chinese economy highlights a growing trend of Chinese shipping companies looking for more efficient ways to put Asian exports on American store shelves.

A $1.4 billion global supply-chain-services provider, APL’s purchase of Carmichael, a moderate-sized company albeit with holdings in 10 locations throughout the U.S., appeared less than noteworthy.

But acquiring Carmichael gave the world’s seventh-largest container shipping firm a secure foothold in L.A.’s ports and strengthened its integration of its international chain supply services in the U.S.

APL executives praised the acquisition at the time of purchase, saying Carmichael’s brokerage and trade consulting services would allow APL to coordinate the flow of goods and information from the factory floor to customers’ front doors.

Economist William Yu of UCLA Anderson Forecast wasn’t surprised at the purchase because trade relations between the U.S. and China are reversing, with overseas investment washing up on L.A.’s shores.

Yu said China’s slowing GDP growth rate of 7 percent — nearly 3 percentage points lower than the rate four years earlier — forces Chinese companies to look for ways to cut costs.

And the most attractive way is to lock up real estate around L.A.’s ports.

“Los Angeles is the center of logistics because Los Angeles ports are the largest sea ports in the U.S.,” Yu said. “If you are a big exporter in China to the U.S., you’ll want to vertically integrate your supply chain.”

And this trend of Chinese investment into U.S. companies will continue, Yu said, as China’s GDP is expected hold at its current rate.

Salvo has seen the changes in his industry firsthand. He said he’s seen fellow competitors in the logistics industry following suit.

But for now, he takes solace in knowing Carmichael is right where it was when his father founded the company over 50 years ago — in his family’s hands.

“No, no, APL Logistics is not in our business. They have let us run just as we’ve been running before,” Salvo said. “I mean, who knows what’ll happen, but for now, everything’s the same.”