Jose Thomas

My Blog

In continuation of SETTING SAIL
Saturday 26th June, 2010



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My never-say-die attitude made me keep my eyes and ears open, looking for opportunities. Capt. Gopalan introduced me to one Capt. Menon in Madras, who was the general agent for Maldive Shipping, the National Shipping Line of Maldives. I had detailed discussions with him about the possibilities of arranging ships belonging to Maldive Lines (dry cargo only) to call Cochin and that he could offer Tee Jay Shipping Company a sub-agency. I was so excited about this and started corresponding with him. One morning I received a message saying that there was a vessel falling free at Colombo and could call Cochin subject to inducement accepting cargo toward the Red Sea (Aden, Jeddah and Port Sudan).

My commercial experience and trade connections were mainly with the frozen trade and not with dry commodities. I visited the Cochin Chamber of Commerce and collected statistics of cargo moving towards the Red Sea and found out that the main commodity exported was tea in bulk to Port Sudan and spices to Aden and Jeddah. The entire tea and spices trade was controlled by the traditional merchants from Gujarat, living in Cochin. I met with all of them and solicited business. To my good luck and, you need it sometimes, the trade was looking for a new carrier for transporting their goods and here I am with a perfect solution for them- The Maldive Shipping Line. They promised their full support if Maldive Shipping could offer competitive pricing and good transit time. I owe a lot to that community of traders for giving me the opportunity to make my shipping dream come true.

I quickly reverted to Capt. Menon and advised that I could find the cargo towards the Red Sea and they decided to have their first vessel
M. V. Maldive Republic call Cochin port.

I received a cable message from the captain of the Maldive Republic. It was a telegram, as there was no satellite communication advising me of vessel arrival details between ship and shore those days. My excitement knew no bounds.

Assisted by 2 tugs, I remembered watching her enter the channel with the Indian flag flying high and heading towards Q3, the berth allocated at the Mattancherrry harbor. My dream was finally coming true, and there I was, a real shipping agent.

But that is when my troubles began…

I had made a commitment to Maldive Shipping that I would fill up the vessel had offered them guaranteed revenue. Based on this commitment, Maldive Shipping had placed their vessel to call Cochin Port. At this stage, I was not only excited, but I was dreaming about the career I would build, fulfilling my dream of becoming a ship agent. I went after this goal and met every exporter for soliciting cargo. I worked with them in helping put together their logistics.

Under the guidance of Mr. Vijayan, I employed one or two staff, experienced enough to handle ships, especially immigration and customs work. Tea and spices started to move towards the Port and I saw them increase day by day. At this time, I had no clue about cargo measurement including cubic feet or tonnage. All I knew was volume. My Stevedores were appointed (Stevedores are licensed contractors by the Port Trust who are permitted in doing the loading and discharging operations using the port labour).

I started getting messages from Capt. Menon, outlining what I had to do, especially in terms of target time of getting the vessel out of the Cochin Port. I was allocated 72 hours to bring the vessel alongside, load the cargo, fill up the ship and sail. Tension mounted as I had a feeling that I would run short of cargo because of negative updates from my exporters, citing various reasons like shortage of raw material, cancellation of last minute orders, etc. All this was new to me.
You start to learn as you experience

The vessel came alongside and I realized that I was in trouble because there was insufficient cargo. I could not face my principals, especially, Capt Menon. I tried my best to find alternate cargo. I was stuck.

At this time I thought I blew another opportunity

The Captain, a Phillipino, gave me a long list of his requirements. The list started from ship repairs to fuel, food supplies and laundry requirements and to top it all, the vessel needed to re-validate some of the certificates. I didn’t anticipate all this and my lack of experience was showing. With my minimal staff, I managed to find help. In the meantime, I got a message saying that one Capt. Ricky was arriving from the Bombay office to over-see the technical side while the vessel was in port. My fear at this time was not only my lack of knowledge, the Captains long list of requirements but the excuse I would have to give for the shortage of cargo. I felt that I had let down my Principal, even though that was not my intention.

Then Capt. Ricky lands at Cochin Airport, a tall, fair complexioned, six foot two inch, strapping man, with a pipe in his mouth. I went forward and met him. In his mid fifties, I could see that he was well experienced. He did not speak much but asked “are you the agent?” He came on board and realized that there was insufficient cargo. He expressed his dissatisfaction and continued with his work on the technical side. He put together all the Captains requirements, got a work shop that had experience and was capable of doing major repairs, etc. The vessel did not sail in seventy two hours due to technical reasons and stayed in port for ten days.

Even though I had ten full days to accumulate additional cargo to save my dire situation, I was unable to and the vessel sailed toward the Red Sea without achieving the expected cargo I projected. However, I keenly watched the operations, learnt it thoroughly and worked closely with Capt Ricky. I learnt about certification, ship repairs, Captain’s requirement and lots more. Maldives Shipping did express their unhappiness over the poor performance. However, they decided to continue with me as their agent because I believe, Capt. Ricky explained my genuine problems and earnestness.

Capt Ricky and I grew very close. During his stay in Cochin, he discovered more about me and my background and clearly told me that I knew nothing about shipping. This challenged me and I confessed that I did not have any past experience. Since I was truthful and genuine, he soon became a good friend of me and my family (by the way, he is no more). Whilst he was in Cochin, I would clear all my doubts and he was kind enough to train me to become an efficient Shipping Agent.

The exporters were very happy with the service I offered and they promised to support me further. More vessels started to call Cochin Port. But remember I was only a sub-agent under Capt.Menon. After three to four voyages, Maldive Shipping informed me that they were going to appoint Tee Jay Shipping directly as their agent and asked me not to deal with Capt Menon. I knew something had soured between Capt. Menon and Maldive Shipping. I was keen on working directly with the Principal. While I worked with Capt.Menon I was entitled to only half the revenue. Now my revenues would double. Every day was a learning experience and I started to make decent money. My knowledge improved and I started to add more cargo to my list, made more friends in the trade and in the Port. Soon I was not just dependant on my seafood business alone.

By this time, Mr. Vijayan (my teacher) decided to join my company. This was the time when the shipping world was transforming to the containerisation era. Maldive Shipping vessels were conventional ships (break bulk) and they decided not to go into the next step which was containerisation. Their focus changed and knowing I had to keep up with the modernisation, I started to solicit with other Principals who would provide containerised cargo service. Through Maldive Shipping connections, I found out that the National Line of Sri Lanka had just commenced a container service to Europe and Far Eastern destinations. I immediately started to work on this and made great in-roads, of course through hard work because I was keen to continue in shipping. I for sure, knew that Maldive Shipping will not continue their operations from my area.

It wasn’t an easy task to get my first appointment with Ceylon Shipping Corporation. I managed to meet the Chairman. Do you know where I met him? I was refused the appointment. I was given to understand that he visits Singapore often and during his visit, he attended a particular Catholic Church in Singapore. On confirming that he was in Singapore, I traveled to Singapore, visited the Church and got to meet with him. I spoke with him and he gave me an opportunity to meet with the officials at Colombo. By now I was well established in shipping and had gained a lot of experience. I would not think it was an easy call, but my company was appointed as agents for Ceylon Shipping Corporation for the ports of Tuticorin, Cochin and Mangalore. It was a great start.

The new shipping era – containerisation. Cochin was the only port at that time where containers were not allowed to go to importers or exporter’s factory’s (I will detail on this subject at a later date). Ceylon shipping operated mainly to the European and Far East destinations and they never had a service to the U.S. Since it was my aim to expand my business, I kept my ears and eyes open to see if I could get a Principal to represent them from my region to the U.S. East and West Coast. This is the time when we learnt that a shipping major based in the U.S. namely; U.S.Lines was starting a round-the-world service, deploying twelve huge container vessels. At that time, the carrying capacity of a container vessel was 4400 containers (today it is close to 10,000 containers). This was around 1984.

We got in touch with U.S.Lines and started to present prospects for them to include my region (South India) into their scope of business. I traveled to the U.S. many times and I was finally able to convince them. They appointed us as their agents in South India, which included Madras as well. Here you can see that I was at the business – chasing it every day with a clear intention of fulfilling my dream. By doing this, I not only got the Agency of U.S.Lines but also expanded my company’s geographical scope beyond Tuticorin, Mangalore and Cochin to Madras and Bangalore as well. I had two Principals – Ceylon Shipping Corporation and U.S. Lines, it was a big breakthrough. My business started to prosper and everything was running fine. However the good times were short lived. In November 1986, we got shocking news that U.S. Lines filed for bankruptcy and went out of business.

I was back to square one, having only one agency-Ceylon Shipping Corporation. I was very happy in working with them and made many contacts in Sri Lanka. Since Ceylon Shipping Corporation was a government owned line and due to various reasons, they were not interested in expanding the size of their vessels or service to other destinations. I could foresee them slowly exiting the business.
As a businessman, you need to feel the pulse of your business, stay alert, and anticipate. I knew if Ceylon Shipping left the business, I would be nowhere. Hence I started to search again for agency representation.

My team identified this great company, Hyundai Merchant Marine who was planning to include India in their service scope. Immediately we started to pursue this business. I made several trips to South Korea. By the way, there were other contenders from India too who were chasing for the representation of this great company. However, our sincere approach and experience paid off, we were granted the agency for Hyundai Merchant Marine for South Indian destinations which included Goa, Mangalore, Cochin on the West Coast and Tuticorin, Chennai and Vishakapatnam on the east. Besides this, we opened offices in Bangalore and other inland destinations as well. HMM are great principals to work with. To this day, we represent HMM (except in the port of Chennai where they have their own office). This is a great business where you build a lot of contacts and relationships and get to know the hard facts of international trade.

I have a proud team who works with me – over 100 employees in this division and I thank every one of them for their unflinching dedication. Though I have lost touch with Capt. Gopalan and Capt. Menon I remember them with gratitude. I also fondly remember all those who gave me a hand up into this arena, those who sustained me in times of strife and those whose support- silent and otherwise, helped me achieve my dream of being a shipping agent.

Hard work, focus and dedication pay off.

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Responses to
 Payday Lender says:
Ladylike Post. This record helped me in my college assignment. Thanks Alot
 kalis says:
Hi James. Thanks a lot. I really enjoy your blog. You're great.