Jose Thomas

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SETTING SAIL
Wednesday 16th June, 2010



     

 

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The past two stories I posted were purely subjects that were related to my personal life and the values that I learnt from it.

The present story is related to how I was forced to drive my business, keeping clear goals in mind and that too, at a very young age. By the way, I want all of you to know that I am not a billionaire, but an individual entrepreneur who, through lot of difficulties, built a company with multiple businesses. I still have a long way to go.

When I review my business life it is very evident that I have had more failures than successes and the failures have probably been the driving force that have lead me to achieve what I have today.

But for my clear sense of perseverance and commitment, I would have, or rather, could have, given up at different stages. All through my journey, I held firmly to my belief that ‘I could do it.’ I also truly believed that every problem has a solution.

And here goes my story …

After I joined the business in 1973, I started to face internal challenges with my older brother in terms of business philosophies. My older brother, who was then, the managing partner, was a very conservative businessman who wanted to measure the process of risk taking at every stage, whereas, me on the other hand was outgoing and a risk taker – not in a rash manner but with certain rationale.

Thinking that opportunities were greater for our seafood business on the East Coast of India, I decided to move to Madras to set up a processing unit where large size shrimp was available abundantly, unlike in Cochin.
With this in mind, I moved to Madras, along with a driver and two faithful supervisors from my father’s time. As I was settling down, I rented a factory in Virugambakkam on the outskirts of Madras and lived right next door in a small house, that too, on a rented basis. Virugambbakkam is now a part of the city.

In this remote suburb of Madras, I began to purchase shrimp from the market which I used to transport in my Willies jeep (which occasionally, I drove myself) to the factory. This was a real learning experience and soon I set up business with the Japanese. They all had liaison offices in Madras. I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t even want to see the city. Remember, I was 19 and all I wanted, was to succeed. I made many compromises as a teenager to achieve my goals. My life was spent between the shrimp market, the factory and my little home. I lived a very lonely life with the single minded goal of making this business a success and becoming a major exporter to Japan.

I always believed that businesses should diversify and that concentration on one particular business alone is not good. My mind was always wandering in search of new ideas.
One morning I received a call from a Mr. Prakash who introduced himself as a Shipping Agent in Madras who wanted to meet me. As I rarely got a chance to meet people, I readily agreed. One evening, while at the factory, I saw a red Ford Mustang pull into the factory premises and I saw this gentleman, Mr. Prakash walk into my office. Man! That car was awesome!! The sight of that car triggered something in my mind. ‘There’s so much more to life.’ All it consisted of right now was the shrimp market, the factory and some Japanese guys whom I did business with.

Mr. Prakash was a gentleman to the core and thanked me for the business I gave him by shipping cargo through his Principals’ shipping line. In the course of our conversation, he invited me to join in for a get together on a vessel that was in port in Madras. I was very excited as this was the first time I was being invited to a party and that too, on board a ship. Jesus Christ!! I could not wait.

I drove up to the port where Mr. Prakash’s staff handed over the entry pass and soon I was escorted to the ship. As I climbed the gangway, I thought ‘Wow! What a ship!’ I was greeted and taken to the Captains chamber where I saw a few other exporters as well. Whilst I was on the ship, I even saw the cargo that I had packed in my factory being loaded by a crane into the reefer chamber. All this was totally amazing and unbelievable.
The captain then took us to the bridge where the control room was. I was quite amazed and as I got off the ship I thought to myself ‘Shipping is such a good business.’ I wanted to study it in detail as I saw some great potential and excitement in it.

As time passed I became friendly with Mr. Prakash and started visiting his office frequently. He was always cordial and he began to share with me the various aspects of his business. His office always seemed so busy with a telex machine running all the time and messages going in and out. I had never seen this before. So many staff – that too well paid. All had cars, individual cabins and air-conditioned rooms. There again a quick thought ran through my mind “I need to get an air conditioner for myself”. Here I realized that this was a better venture than the seafood business and it gave me a further boost in that direction.

As I got friendlier with Mr. Prakash, I knew they were very wealthy people with plenty of money – however extremely kind as well. For a short while, I even used their finances and operated a seafood business on the side (Choice was still in operation).

All this ended so quickly as I thoroughly failed in my business in Madras and I was asked by my mother and brother to return to Cochin to our Head Office. When I returned to Cochin, it was with a feeling of guilt and everybody thought that I had failed in Madras and looked down on me. However, this didn’t impact my thinking, because I was simply committed to the ‘go for it’ attitude. I accepted this as a failure and decided to reconcile with the given situation.

“Reconciliation is a must in life.”

Defeated, I was back to my Head Office in Cochin and started to work on my regular routine. However, I was, on a daily basis, making plans of fulfilling my dreams of entering the shipping business.

At this time there were several ship owners who were eyeing Indian ports to take advantage of the growing trade. Accordingly I was all set to find a ship owner whom I could represent. I conducted a detailed study and a good friend of mine in Japan (there was no Google those days) helped identify a reefer ship owner, having a fleet of ships in Tokyo, who was keen on calling on Indian ports. In fact they were looking for an agent to represent them. An appointment was fixed in Tokyo for meeting with the Principal’s. In the meantime, I realized that I knew nothing about shipping and that it was essential to take some basic lessons. I decided to meet Mr. Vijayan who was managing the business of Mr. Prakash then, in Cochin. A real expert. I became a pain by imposing myself on him as a student at odd hours. He was good enough to teach me the basic theory of the business and did not go into the technical side. I wasn’t aware that I needed some technical knowledge as well.

Here I am at the Narita International Airport in Tokyo. I took a Limo bus to the city, checked into my hotel and the next morning I was ready for my meeting. I reached the shipping line office in Tokyo on time, not wearing the best suit and tie. I had managed to put together something that I bought at a local store in Cochin.

There I was in the Board room, meeting with around 10 to 12 senior Japanese officials – all well experienced. They started with commercial questions, which I must say, I was able to handle. But as it moved to operations and the technical side, I must confess, I totally failed as I could not even answer the basic question regarding draft restrictions (depth of water to bring a vessel alongside) in the Cochin Port. I assumed something here and blew an opportunity. The meeting ended abruptly as the ship owners knew they were talking to somebody who did not having any past experience. Even though this was a failure, I decided not to give up. I said to myself “nothing can stop me from pursuing this dream of mine further”

Defeated, I was back to my Head Office in Cochin and started to work on my regular routine. I went back to the drawing board with Mr. Vijayan and I started to gain substantial knowledge training under him again. I even made casual visits to the Cochin Port, boarding ships, observing operations and watch them set sail. As I saw these vessels discharge and load different type of cargo, my mind was just not allowing me to lose focus of my dream. This was such an interesting business – being an agent of a shipping line, meeting different nationalities who come as crew, learning immigration formalities and ……lots of money. This excited me.

In the year 1975, the Suez Canal was closed due to a war between Egypt and Israel. This affected the passage of ships through the Suez Canal, which had a serious impact on trade from all over the world, including my home town, Cochin. All types of cargo began accumulating at exporter’s warehouses and all exporters including Choice were in a difficult situation, unable to export frozen shrimp to their U.S. customers. I saw this as an opportunity and started to investigate with various people in Bombay regarding a solution. My idea was to find some ship owner who would call Cochin Port, load the accumulated cargo bound for the U.S. via the Cape of Good Hope.

Soon enough, one Capt. Gopalan from Bombay visited Cochin and got in touch with all the seafood exporters who were looking for help in getting their cargo delivered to their customers in the U.S. He gave us a proposal wherein they would bring in a ship provided, we agreed on terms that were acceptable to them. The trade finally agreed and Capt. Gopalan informed us that their principals would place a vessel at Cochin for loading all the reefer cargo which would be delivered to their respective destinations. Finally, the vessel M.V. Hidelef Jord berthed at Cochin Port. Trucks belonging to various exporters (including Choice) lined up in queue waiting for their cargo to be loaded. It was an amazing operation to watch. Even though my presence in the port was primarily to oversee Choice cargo loaded, my eye was on the ship and my shipping dream. I started to learn quickly. I wanted to meet Capt. Gopalan and I finally managed to and told him about my dream of becoming a ship agent.

He was quite impressed with my work culture, especially my connections and relationship with the trade. I learnt that the sub-agent who handled this vessel did not do a good job. After hearing my dream of wanting to get into this business, Capt. Gopalan promised that if they call Cochin the next time, they would consider me to be their agent. To become an agent, first of all you had to register with the Port and accordingly, I requested him if he would give me a letter appointing my company as their agent. He was good enough and agreed to the same and issued the letter. I started a partnership firm called Tee Jay Shipping Company and got registration as a steamer agent in Cochin Port Trust. This was in 1978.

Getting communication facilities those days was the biggest challenge ever. Even people with great influence could not get telephone and telex connections within a short span of time. I estimated it would take more than 6 months for us to get our communication facilities in place. Establishing a shipping agency without communications facilities was just virtually impossible. Hence I decided operating from the Casino Hotel on the Willingdon Island, near the Port, the only place where communication facilities were available and I shared their resources.
‘Being creative helps.’

Subsequently, the Suez Canal opened and normal traffic resumed. All shipping lines started to call Cochin Port. However, neither Hidelef Jord nor its sister ships ever called again. All established shipping lines had their own agents and here I am, back again, having a registered shipping agency, with no Principle to serve and no vessels to handle.

Disappointment was not a bitter pill I was about to swallow.

The story continues on 26th June….

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Responses to
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After the book recommendation, a movie recommendation. The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith. As a rule of thumb, I find it difficult to sit still for 2 hours or more watching a movie, but this one, I watched spellbound! I found it a deeply moving tribute to how an individual faced up to adversity that would likely have crushed a lesser mortal. Your story brought the movie to mind...
 
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