Snakes and Ladders

After forty years in the industry, Gordon McMillan, managing director of Dublin-based Leinster Shipping (Agencies) Ltd., and chairman of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers talks about his love affair with shipping.

GORDON McMillan made his first forays into the shipping industry at the tender age of seventeen. Starting out as an apprentice and subsequently becoming a navigating officer with the BP Tanker Company, it was his seafaring days that sparked what was to become a lifelong love affair with the shipping industry. Today, Gordon is not only chairman and managing director of his own Dublin-based firm, Leinster Shipping (Agencies) Ltd., he is also chairman of Controlling Council at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers and a board member of Multiport, the world’s largest network of independent ship agents.

Starting his career at sea, it wasn’t long before he was enticed ashore, accepting a management position with Mayfair-based London and Overseas Freighters. A few years later, however, family commitments took him back to his native Ireland where, for the next six years, he worked in ship management, enjoying extensive periods of travel worldwide.

But shipbroking was his real love. “As a broker I most enjoy becoming the contractual catalyst that effectively sets in motion a chain of events which help generate gainful employment to multiple individuals worldwide,“ says Gordon. Enabling him to indulge his interest in the broking field, in 1976 Gordon set up Leinster Shipping (Agencies) Ltd. Today Leinster is a diverse collection of companies covering not only shipbroking but also ship agency and freight forwarding. And it’s not only the usual strategic, policy and administration decisions that Gordon handles. “I also like to get involved in day-to-day problem solving and opportunity evaluation to help keep my wits sharp,” he says.

After forty years in the business, Gordon knows only too well how cyclical the shipping industry is. He has also witnessed first-hand some of the most dramatic and far-reaching developments affecting the industry as a whole. “The most significant development, undoubtedly, is the rampant growth of containerisation, stimulated by new technology and globalisation, which has revolutionised the liner trades,“ he says. “Sadly, however, this market has failed to evolve in a sustainable manner and the consolidation process deemed necessary to rationalise costs has seriously depleted the number of carriers.“ This is a trend brokers and agents the world over will be only too familiar with.

In this ever-competitive environment, professionalism should be more important than ever. As Gordon points out, however, that’s not always the case. “It saddens me at times to witness the erosion of professional standards of integrity and trust,“ he explains. “A rush age cannot be a reflective age. Too often hasty judgements are made without considered thought. Rash decisions usually have to be paid for later”.

One way in which Gordon is working to preserve and promote professional standards is through his role at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers (ICS). As chairman of Controlling Council, he is charged with directing implementation of the Institute’s vision and goals to meet the needs of its members. “The Institute sustains the passion for excellence,” says Gordon. “It sets the industry standard for shoreside shipping and transport education and the qualification earned is both universally acknowledged and respected as a reliable measure of professional competence.”

But, in this rush age, do qualifications really count? While there is no doubt that qualifications remain essential for anyone who works at sea, things ashore tell a very different story. Just a few months ago, Gordon’s colleague James Freeland, president of the ICS, warned shipbrokers that unless they could show evidence of attaining recognised professional qualifications, they may find themselves under the scrutiny of regulatory bodies such as the UK’s Financial Services Authority. According to Gordon, the days of the gifted amateur are over.

“Increasingly, perceptive employers are insisting upon professionally qualified staff, mindful of the mounting pressure of regulatory control regimes and the added liability that they represent,“ says Gordon. It is this mounting regulatory pressure that he believes will be the greatest challenge facing the shipping industry over the next twelve months, particularly in the areas of safety, pollution prevention, security issues and corporate accounting standards.

He has a few words of advice for shipowners too. “Shipowners unfortunately retain an historical propensity towards bad timing when it comes to investment in new building programmes. If only it were possible to break out from the perpetuating cycle of over tonnaging and bring longer-term stability to the freight markets,“ he says. “Most of the ills of the industry can ultimately be traced to this legacy of boom and bust and the speculative mentality that this has engendered.”

Given the uncertainty of the market and poor public image of the industry, it is not surprising that shipping is struggling to recruit its next generation. For Gordon, however, he was hooked at an early age by an industry he describes as “endearingly vague, understated and elusive“. For anyone who is thinking of entering the shipping industry today, Gordon has some simple yet effective advice. “Steer up the ladders avoiding the snakes,“ he says. “Study the profession, qualify early and diversify until you find your niche in the industry where specialist knowledge and skill can yield added value and allow you to prosper.”

Evidently speaking from experience

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