Supply chain expert Graham Robins talks COVID-19 challenges, getting rejected at the border

The CEO of A & A Customs Brokers digs into some recent difficulties.

Credit: LinkedIn

Graham Robins (fourth from right) and the A & A Customs Brokers team

The CEO of A & A Customs Brokers digs into some recent difficulties

Asked how he makes a living, Graham Robins has a pretty simple answer: “Our customers basically pay us to be invisible,” he says of A & A Customs Brokers, the Surrey-based company where he serves as CEO. 

“They don’t want to deal with customers or the border—they pay us to make things disappear, as far as hassles or friction,” Robins adds. “They want to just ship to the customers who get it and are happy.”

And things were going pretty swimmingly for Robins, who’s been with A & A in various roles since the early ’90s. Even when the pandemic originally hit in March, business was steady.

“March saw a bit of a hoarding, with people buying everything, stocking shelves,” he remembers. It didn’t last long, though. “It basically dropped in April; buying just stopped. We had a huge slowdown, which we haven’t seen since 2008. And in a lot of industries, it was much worse. In ’08, a lot of businesses were still thriving.”

That devolved into something of an unprecedented, complicated mess for Robins and A & A, much of which hasn’t been fully dealt with yet. 

“The government deferred duties and taxes, and allowed importers to stop paying duties and taxes,” he says. “That sounds good at first, but what it created was a big sense of uncertainty, because we had March, April and June taxes deferred.” 

Some customers continued paying as scheduled, while others didn’t. “It all sort of liquidated at the end of June,” Robins explains. “And it’s still pretty up in the air because we have customers who couldn’t pay because their business closed down. I’ve been in this business for about 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, ever.”

Thankfully, Robins notes, the authorities have been understanding in their handling of the issue, which otherwise might have seen the company on the hook for clients’ dues. 

“The dust is still settling; it’s not completely done,” he notes. “But overall, the government has been very forgiving, which is nice. They came up with the deferral in the first place, and so I think they were expecting some irregularities as well.”

About half of A & A’s 3,000 or so customers are large exporters located in the U.S. (the company only deals with imports into the U.S. or Canada). And while business is still going steady with its 100-odd employees across North America working from home, Robins hasn’t been over the border since mid-March—though not for lack of trying—something he calls “unheard of.” What makes it all the more frustrating is that he can see the company’s office in Blaine, Washington, from the Surrey headquarters. 

When he went to look in on things over there, though, he wasn’t warmly received. “I wanted to go check on the property, things like that—we had a leak in the ceiling once,” Robins recalls. “When I got there, there was only one customs officer working at the booth. And he was like, What are you doing? Why are you here if it’s not essential? They weren’t super happy about it and wrote me a letter and turned me around.”

As for the future of his company and the customs brokerage industry at large, Robins seems aware that three decades in, it won’t be business as usual going forward. 

“What we’re seeing a lot of is people questioning their supply chain much differently than before,” he says. “The new NAFTA just came into effect last week, so now we’re looking at it—what’s the best way, the most cost-efficient way, the fastest way to do our jobs. We’re just all at home, staring at the screen, and need to do things as efficiently as possible.”

It’s something that everyone with a vested interest on the other side of the border is likely asking themselves.