Customs expert remaining compliant
An official letter lands on your desk from HMRC advising that they will soon be visiting your business premises to carry out a detailed audit of specific aspects of your import and export operations. How do you react? Would you panic?
For George Jenkins, customs compliance manager at Petrasco Energy Logistics, this is his element. With 32 years’ experience working as a customs officer for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), he personally conducted more than 500 audits of businesses in the north-east.
Now George’s role at international logistics solutions provider Petrasco is to ensure clients across hubs in Aberdeen, Dubai and Houston save time, money and remain compliant.
George tells us about his journey to becoming a customs expert:
I left Bridge of Don Academy, aged 16, and began working in customs at HM Customs and Excise (now HMRC). It was a good, steady job but not exactly what I had dreamt of becoming while growing up. I wasn’t especially academic at school, however, so it did suit me to go straight into the workplace.
Over the years, I moved into a customs officer role and spent several years in uniform, including time at Aberdeen Airport. It was an organisation where you gained experience as you learned on the job, or through working closely with more experienced colleagues.
Sometimes, the civil service is seen as a job for life. But in my 30-plus years there, I had 14 different roles between various promotions and different shift patterns – latterly as an assurance officer. There was a great deal of personal development opportunities too, and I was actively encouraged from an early age to attend different courses and seminars.
My main remit was to complete audits of imports and exports: checking all documentation was in order and advising companies how to remain compliant or improve compliance. There was a huge variety of imported products, from food and drink to pieces of metal and specialist equipment.
It was a big jump into oil and gas. When I saw the job advertised at Petrasco, it seemed to fit me like a glove and looked like an exciting challenge, where I could utilise my skills in a new environment.
It was a newly created position at the time, and came with a degree of freedom to make the role my own. Key to that has been creating and running a series of training seminars aimed at preventing oil and gas businesses falling foul of tighter regulations around import and export activities.
Each training course is developed from scratch and I write all my own handbooks. These events are designed to help companies prepare for and survive a customs audit, save money and improve compliance around specific aspects of their existing customs controls and procedures.
People often ask me what to look out for ahead of a customs audit. First and foremost, you need to provide all of the requested documentation. Standard documents include import declarations, airway bills and commercial invoices that give a precise description of how many pieces, the weight of each item, and what it actually is.
Businesses also need to make a legal declaration to HMRC whenever they are importing goods. They need to demonstrate proof of export and always use the right commodity codes.
The client’s priority is usually to get goods from A to B safely, so it is possible for the right process to be overlooked – even accidentally.
It is vital to keep accurate records of what comes in and what goes out. However, an audit can sometimes take place two to three years after the import was originally made, while companies can be selected at random.
Failure to comply with HMRC requests for documentation or any breach of authorisation can already result in a civil penalty of up to £25,000 or a financial penalty per individual import so the repercussions can be severe.
In my view, it’s better to be prepared rather than thinking it’ll never happen to you. We come in and help clients prepare for an audit by conducting a health check of their processes and pulling together all the relevant information over two to four weeks prior to HMRC’s visit.
My work is primarily Aberdeen-based and involves dealing with oil and gas companies that are involved in import and export activities. I’ve dealt with several of these firms earlier in my career, so it is interesting to see them again in a different role.
I always preferred guiding people so that they would know how to do things correctly, rather than simply taking money off them. For instance, explaining to them what customs regimes will allow them to defer payment on duties and VAT.
That has always been the most satisfying part of the job, and why I enjoy my current role at Petrasco so much. My colleagues are also a great help, which means I can spend more time focusing on supporting individual clients and passing on my knowledge and experience.
In future, we are looking to grow the customs team; reflecting the growing importance businesses are placing on this kind of activity as they move into new, international markets.