URSABLOG: Thirty Years? Already?

If today’s blog is a little early, it is because today marks a special anniversary: it is thirty years to the day that I walked into an office in Water Street in Liverpool and started my career as a sale and purchase shipbroker. Perhaps somewhat fittingly I will celebrate this momentous milestone by writing this, alone, in a hotel room in Copenhagen with a glass (or two) of red wine to hand. It is fitting because: firstly I am way from home, on the road; secondly I had a delivery earlier this week; and thirdly for the last two days I have been leading, together with my very learned – and very congenial – friend Paul Herring, the latest in a series of Sale and Purchase Masterclasses for BIMCO.

Being away from home, or normal life, or both, has been a constant feature of my life as an S&P broker. When a deal is on, everything else stops – or is at least interrupted – for the very point of being a broker is to get deals concluded and the ships delivered. I am miserable and frustrated when there are no deals going on, and sparky and stressed when there are. The spaces of peace in between these two states are few and cherished. When I am without deals to my name I feel that I am existentially lacking to the point of desperation, but then when I am doing deals I am unbearable to live with because my continual focus is elsewhere, on getting the deal done. Of course the more successful of my brother and sister brokers – I envy them – manage (or at least I imagine them) to have a constant flow of deals so that they can have some kind of high tension balance to their lives. I have had periods like that when everything makes sense for a while – like when I am swimming or cycling – and everything, every movement, every action and reaction comes instinctively and naturally, and successfully. But if there is a broker that tells me that they don’t get grumpy and stressed when they don’t have a deal on the table and don’t know where the next deal is coming from, I simply won’t believe them.

Anyone who has lived or even spent some time with a competitive broker will know what I mean, and I sympathise with them. The business of broking – I would argue particularly for S&P (despite chartering brokers laughing scornfully and disagreeing vehemently) – takes a great toll on personal relationships. There is very little firm separation between work and life, and the work is a constant disrupter of intent: God was laughing his head off when he created shipbrokers with the ability to try and make plans. Holidays are cancelled or at least constantly interrupted, wedding anniversaries are missed, and important life events are observed over the top of a mobile phone. Not to mention the personal toll of lonely and debilitating nights spent staring into a computer in a luxury hotel in a remote time zone with no-one to talk to, in your own or anybody else’s language, suffering from jet lag, indigestion and boredom. Ah! The glamour of international business travel!

But the opposite, a successful trip, with clients and contacts pleased to see you, with some new proposals to explore, some new discussions started, and even better, with deals concluded and ships delivered? This is fantastic and makes it all worthwhile. Fine food and wine in excellent restaurants with sophisticated and witty company, or a rowdy and boozy night with outrageously funny – and fun – partners in crime? Perfect. I have been fortunate enough to travel to places I would never have been to and meet people I would never have met if were not for being a shipbroker.

And I love the broking side too; the craft of broking has always appealed to me. Not so much the hard sell of aggressive broking if I am to be absolutely honest – where the deal and the commission is the only goal – but being able to be trusted to do what my clients want, and deliver it. As time goes on I have continued to sharpen my skills as a negotiator, as a closer, as a fixer, as a person that can deliver. A good negotiation successfully concluded has a beauty of its own, especially in the face of stiff competition. Knowing when to push and when to hold back, when to leave people alone or when to poke them like hell, when to think and act strategically rather than tactically (and be trusted to do so), and for it to work has a special pleasure all of its own, except when it doesn’t, and then there is only a special hell all of itself. And the pleasure of deliveries that – whether complicated or simple – are completed within the nick of time, against the odds, leaving satisfied (if not entirely happy) clients, knowing that the job has been completed because of – not despite – my own interventions.

Then there is the intellectual side. I am continually learning: about ships, about the markets, about the societies and peoples that populate and influence them. And perhaps, if I can blow my own trumpet for a while, the role I have carved out for myself as an educator, whether with the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, the University of Piraeus, the Athens University of Business and Economics, BIMCO or the other places where I am invited to teach, lecture, discuss or present, has opened up to me whole new areas of knowledge professionally and personally (some of it welcome, some less so) and the ability to change the course of people’s lives for the better, and their businesses too, and to be trusted and respected in the process too is, if I am honest, its own reward, even if others don’t quite see it the same way. I am by no means a master broker, whatever that is, but to have gained enough knowledge and experience (if not wisdom) to be able to be listened to when I share it fills me with some puzzled wonder, but also some satisfaction too.

In the last thirty years there have been enough highs and lows, in business and in life, caused by others or self-inflicted, that my own personal jury was still out as to whether it has been successful or not. The conventional measure of success in competitive shipbroking is the amount of deals done and the commission earned, but I have long since stopped counting the commission I could have earned if… if what? If all the deals I tried to do had come off, and all the subjects declined in fact had been lifted. So what? It didn’t happen. I was asked recently by a student “What are the KPIs of a successful S&P broker?” I had to ask what a KPI was (Key Performance Indicator – if like me you didn’t know). I replied: “Sell more ships”. I still can’t think of a better answer. Any competitive shipbroker has something driving them on, a little voice in their ear saying “This is not enough.” The reason why it is not enough is irrelevant. And if this does not sound to you like a very stable human being, then fair enough, but I would not particularly trust any broker who did not at least acknowledge what I am saying. But success is subjective, and has it’s own personal measure.

After thirty years I am not yet ready to give up, not ready to hang up my boots. Certainly anything I have achieved in my career is not enough for me so far: financially, professionally, and dare I say it, emotionally. But none the less I feel good as I write this. Maybe it’s because I delivered a ship this week. Maybe it’s the afterglow of a successful BIMCO Masterclass. Maybe it’s simply because I’ve poured the third glass of red wine. Or maybe it’s because I have had a change of scene and had the opportunity to walk the streets of Copenhagen in spring, a pleasure in itself, and had time to reflect a little.

I am still not entirely sure if I chose this career, this life, or if it chose me. Either way, I think that the only way to work out the answer to that question, and to many others, is to keep on doing what I am doing, and carry on living it; I find any alternative genuinely horrifying, and lacking of any meaning. A career as a competitive shipbroker has taught me – amongst other things – the limits of what is possible even as I continue to try to stretch them, and that genuine courage sometimes means accepting how things are despite how you want them to be, or how you think they should be. However unpalatable it is to be declined without counter, it is not the end of the world. And even when you are confirmed accepted (and all subjects lifted), there is still work to be done to deliver. Maybe I am overthinking this (and working the shipbroking metaphors too hard) but I hope you will forgive me: thirty years feels to me an important milestone, and I deserve a little self-indulgence.

But I am certain of one thing: I’ve not finished yet, not by any means. This is not enough, there is more to be done, more to prove. Many of you reading this will probably find this baffling, and even worry for my psychological wellbeing. But don’t worry, it’s a common affliction, and I suspect some of my brother and sister brokers, deep in their hearts, will know exactly what I mean.

Simon Ward