I must admit I’m not in the best of moods today. I should be: the sun is shining, there is a smell of spring in the air, I have delivered a ship this week, and although I missed out on another, in the end it was all part of the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of being a ship sale and purchase broker. No, the reason for the little black cloud hovering over me is something more fundamental, something almost existential.
I am a ship sale and purchase broker, and that is how I identify myself professionally and personally. As far as the personal part is concerned some of you outside the shipping industry, where things like a work and life balance mean something substantial, may be shaking your heads and asking “why does he think he is defined by his job? Surely there is more to him than that?” And indeed there is more to me than that, but my chosen profession defines me, for better or worse. What we do, how we do it, who we do it with pretty much dictates who we are.
This is not to say that we are all alike, or of a type, however the rest of the world views us. And when I say that I am a broker – whatever the negative connotations of the word – I am proud of what I do, and have no desire to do anything else.
Being a broker means primarily and practically, that I am an intermediary, becoming the link between the buyers and sellers of ships. This involves not simply the ability to match a ship with potential buyer – oh if only it was that easy! – but to find potential buyers and sellers who are willing to work with me. This means that I have to offer something, other than my natural good looks and charm, that will make the potential buyers and sellers of ships work with me rather than with other brokers. As this is an extremely competitive market, there are very few potential clients that will choose to work with me exclusively, but there are some that will give me the chance.
So what can I use to differentiate myself from all the other brokers out there, who are even better looking and more charming than I am? I use what I have, and work hard. Beyond that I have specialised in a certain area of the market – the dry bulk market primarily – and have moved to Greece to absorb myself more fully in a market where most of my clients are based. I consider myself a good negotiator, and have enough experience to deliver ships properly. My weak point however, and this is one that bothers me, is that I cannot separate myself from reality, and what I think.
If I think the market is going one way or the other, I tend to speak my mind. I find it difficult to promote an opportunity that I do not believe in, and I don’t tell my clients what they want to hear, I tell them what I think they should hear. I am not very good at finding the right story to fit the opportunity if I don’t believe in the opportunity. I will do my best to find the ships my clients want, and find buyers for the ships they want to sell, but I cannot – I sometimes feel that this is a character flaw for a competitive shipbroker – step out of what I consider reality to get a deal done at any costs.
There are a number of reasons for this. Whilst I thirst for success like any other broker – what good is a broker that doesn’t want to do deal? – I don’t care so much about money that the commission becomes an end in itself. I personally think that this is a good thing, especially as I prefer to act in my clients’ best interests rather than my own; I have seen what big money can do, and I am reluctant to fall in love with it for its own sake. I have also, on occasions, concluded sales under pressure from others where I felt it that I was leading my clients to do things that they would not otherwise do. I did not like the feeling. We can argue to ourselves that owners are big boys and girls and they know what they are doing, but deep down we know we bear some responsibility too. That nagging voice – conscience? guilt? – does not go away when I want it to. I am envious of those who can make that voice disappear at will, if it even exists for them at all.
The main reason however, is that I want to be honest. And this is when I look in the mirror at myself and wonder what I have become. I am quite happy during negotiations and delivery to get both parties into a place where they can agree using whatever tools I have to hand. But still there is this block, this barrier, that prevents me from selling what I don’t believe in.
I am not saying I am omniscient; I am as ignorant of the future as any other human being. And who am I to say that, if only on the law of averages, that I might turn out to be right half of the time. And it is not as if I am bothered about what other people think of me. I am old enough, and been through enough, not to care what people will think of me. But being honest means to me that I cannot sell something just for the sake of selling something, and that I think of this as being a character flaw shows you how overwhelming the identity of a shipbroker becomes.
I am not so naïve to think that we do not work in an industry that is driven by money, and success in any business primarily means staying in business. To stay in business means to do business, and in shipbroking at least, this means doing as many deals as possible. Therefore – quod erat demonstrandum – the most successful shipbroker is the one doing the most and the biggest deals. But this is not for me, if only because I know I cannot do it. I cannot make black appear white, or squeeze a square so it becomes a circle. I am not that person, and if getting older brings wisdom, then the most painful wisdom I have gained is that you cannot decide to become someone other than who you are, and if you try – however much you try – disaster will surely follow.
So why am I so down? I know who I am, and know what I can do, and what I can’t do, and this knowledge, at least according to more than a few big thinkers across the ages, should bring me happiness. I will tell you why. It is the knowledge that however hard you try there are other people out there who think differently, and act differently.
Let me clear. I am not complaining about a decline in morals, or harking back to a fictional golden age when everyone did business in an ethical and gentlemanly manner. Ethics are cultural, and negotiations can be more or less brutal depending simply on the parties involved. And as for the age old complaints of brokers cutting each other up, or back-trading, or switching channels, or whatever, I have long been of the view that if you thought that you had a commitment that didn’t turn out to be a commitment then you were not as close to your clients, or the business, as you should have been. Blaming someone else for your own shortcomings is not a good look.
I am down because I have recently done a deal where I have done all I can, advised, guided, fought, argued and shouted, drafted, redrafted, suggested, soothed and persuaded so that the deal was done. My clients are happy with me, and more surprisingly, have told me so. It just turns out that there were times in the deal when I wasn’t told the truth, was lied to, misled, misrepresented and – and this is probably the real problem – disrespected, or just not taken seriously by the other side. I cannot explain any more, nor do I really want to, but even though everything worked out well eventually I am left feeling, well, dirty. Even betrayed.
Why do I feel this way? I have been a shipbroker for twenty-eight years, surely I can get over the fact that there are times when you just have to hold your nose and hope for the best? Well it seems not, and I suspect a large part of it boils down to the fact that brokers, however they behave, can only act on the instructions and authority of their clients. I can advise, suggest or recommend a course of action, or a choice of ship, or a choice of a potential buyer to a client, but they are the ones that decide and act, whether or not they take my opinions into account, and authorise me and empower me to act on their behalf. So when my clients are lied to, misled, misrepresented and disrespected, I take it personally. And – I have to admit – I don’t like the feeling.
What is the solution? I don’t think there is one. Because in writing this, I have come to the conclusion that it is a good thing that I feel bad. I feel bad because something I do not like has happened, both to me and my clients, and me feeling bad means I am still a human being, I am still me, and at the same time I am still a shipbroker. I have chosen this life, and I continue to live it. If I felt happy, or just didn’t care, then that would mean that something else had taken over, something that threatens the soul. I can be happy that at least the nagging voice will not keep me awake tonight. Being human, being a shipbroker, is about dealing with other human beings, and other shipbrokers. Shipping is all about relationships, and the thing about any relationship is that it’s not just about you, it’s about all the things that make up the human experience, for good or bad. That, for me, for now, is consolation enough.