Jose Thomas

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EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED - THE U. S. LINES STORY
Wednesday 06th October, 2010



     

 

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Dear Friends, I want to thank you all for the support and encouragement you have given me as I make progress writing these real stories through my blog. I am very satisfied in doing this especially when I hear that I’ve reached out to at least a few people. Some have let me know that I have already touched their hearts and some have made decisions to fight their own challenges after being inspired by my blog.

For the past few weeks I have been in New York on work and I have been travelling extensively. Over the past weekend, I was thinking about what my next post should be. I always try to post the stories that have helped me shape my life. I can never forget the days when I was totally dependent on my shipping business because the seafood business always sprung its surprises. Hence, I decided to write about another episode which revolves around my experience in the shipping business.

I had written earlier about my company representing the national shipping line of Sri Lanka (Ceylon Shipping Corporation) on whom we were heavily dependent. Since they decided against expanding their services to the rest of the world, we began to look for new principals to represent. This was when United States Lines (then a shipping major), headquartered in Cranford, New Jersey, decided to start a service, operating with newly built, fuel efficient ships with a carrying capacity of 4,500 containers that would be able to complete a global voyage in 72 days. This was the time when the closest competition owned ships that were capable of carrying a maximum of 2,000 containers per ship (for your information, today’s technology has enabled us to build ships with a carrying capacity of close to 10,000 containers).

The announcement of United States Lines new service appeared in various news media and we got to know that they were looking at India as well.

Many companies from India, including the big ones with deep pockets applied for their representation and so did we. It was considered a long shot for a company of our size with very little experience to even make it to the first round of consideration. At least, this was what everyone thought.

As usual, my team and I did our home work well, put together a plan and submitted the proposal, offering our services to represent U. S. Lines in the southern part of India.

During my presentation I had the opportunity to meet with many executives at U.S. Lines and once, even had the opportunity to meet with the No. 3 in the hierarchy, the executive vice president,
Mr. Charley Early. In fact, he was known to be a hard working person with a wealth of experience and was spearheading this project. Once the interview process started, we made our presentation and were short listed to be one amongst the ten. After the next round, we were chosen to be one amongst five. This was when I was invited for a personal interview to the Head Office in New Jersey.
We now started to believe we stood a fighting chance. This was some time in 1983, I was pretty young and was still gaining my experience about the shipping business in general.

A bit nervous, I showed up for the interview to meet with Mr. Charley Early (the final decision maker). He was quite impressed with our proposal and my enthusiasm in representing them.
He took a liking for me. Here it is to be noted that two or three senior officers were not inclined to offer us the representation, simply because we did not offer a total India solution. They were looking for a single company to represent the whole country and I was very honest with them in presenting the facts that my company had no presence or past experience in the northern part of India, especially in the ports of Bombay and Calcutta. Mr. Early’s assistants had another point of view but knew their boss was more inclined towards giving the representation to two companies in India, splitting it between a north Indian agent and south Indian agent. So at this point of time my only hope was in Mr. Early and I was eagerly waiting for the decision making day.

The previous day to this executive meeting in Cranford, New Jersey I was very excited. Of course,
a bit anxious of what was going to happen. To check on the status, I called their Head Quarters and spoke to Mr. Early’s secretary and asked if I could speak to him. Dear friends, you won’t believe what I was told…… she told me that Mr. Charley Early died the previous night of a major heart attack. I was in total shock! I felt that my dreams were shattered! I didn’t know what to do next. My sole contact and only hope in U.S. Lines was gone!! I was very saddened by his death.
Yes, this is the reality one had to face. Sometimes you do not anticipate shocks and surprises, they suddenly come upon you. I still remember Mr. Early to this day, may his soul rest in peace &
I wish his family well.

As always, I decided not to give up. I was at a loss for a new strategy to adopt in convincing the rest of the team who wanted something different from Mr. Early’s conviction. During subsequent meetings with the new team members I came up with very convincing arguments as to why the representation should be split into two (North & South). All of you know the challenges that we have in India with different languages, cultures, food habits, practices, etc. We were not that knowledgeable about the North Indian market. Another fact which supported my case was that the other company who was short listed did not have much knowledge about the South Indian market as well. So here I am with this convincing argument before the new team.

After a wait of about two months, we received the good news. We were appointed as Agents for this most prestigious line to represent their interests in South India, mainly in the ports of Cochin, Madras, Tuticorin, Mangalore and the other rail connected cities of Bangalore, Hyderabad and Coimbatore. My team and I were so excited. This was one of the most prestigious lines that one could imagine representing. A high quality service round the world with competitive pricing.
Upon entry in the trade with these monster ships, competition reacted and amongst them started the great freight war.

In the meantime, we made great progress with our operations and had several introductory trade
get-togethers. I remember, the first trade get together, was hosted at the official residence of the U.S. Consul General based in Madras (see pictures below).

Speaking with
the U. S. Consul General
U. S. Consul General
addressing the audience
   
Emblem of U. S. Lines
lit by decorative bulbs
Speaking at the function

Business started and everything took off very well. We increased our market share day by day and of course, we earned quite a bit. I made a lot of friends through U.S. Lines and my reach to the world had increased substantially. We continued operating but, began to hear that U.S. Lines, due to severe competition was facing major financial challenges. There were rumours, but I brushed these rumors aside because I just did not want to believe them. But eventually, because of these rumors, the trade started to lose confidence in U.S Lines and I began to see our business drop in terms of volumes.

Reality struck on the morning of November 24th 1986. We got information that due to financial difficulties and rapid expansion, United States Lines had filed for bankruptcy. I was shocked!
We had close to 150 employees working in this division, mostly new hires. This (the bankruptcy) was something that I had never anticipated but had no other option but to come to terms with.
This was a great loss to me personally. I immediately started to focus on putting off this crisis and closing down the operations…there was no looking back at this point.

Thinking back I can say that this was a big learning experience and a huge turning point in Choice’s future in the shipping business. Even though this door had shut, I knew that I had picked up some valuable lessons that would eventually benefit us in the future for a much bigger opportunity.
An opportunity that has blossomed into one of our major business wings and is a big part of us even to this day. But I will talk about this at another time…

The moral of the story is “FOR SURPRISES TO HAPPEN, THERE COULD BE NO WARNING. ALWAYS BE PREPARED TO FACE THE INEVITABLE”.
I wish you success!

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