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The Saltwater Highway – learning from shipping’s rich history

Photo: Anthony Whitworth Whitworth_book_cover.jpg
Lately, it seems that ocean shipping only gets into the news when its cargo is drama such as allisions with bridges, or vessel seizures, for example.

Indeed, the discourse through free-form social media and in more traditional print and web forums is filled with experts, who can surmise (with seeming authenticity) about bad fuel, sparking generators, as well as the likely paths of vessels around diversions, diversions of cargo, and freight markets going forward. In times like this, the perspectives of industry veterans are highly valuable.

 In a welcome burst of relief, Anthony Whitworth, an industry stalwart who is now the author of a book- The Saltwater Highway, which details his five decades in the maritime business, mainly in dry bulk, was the featured luncheon speaker at a mid-April meeting of the Society of Maritime Arbitrators (SMA). Of course, in his talk, he spent some time looking backwards; indeed, his career began in the mid 1970’s with the Canadian owner then known as Federal Commerce & Navigation, later re-branded as Fednav.

The SMA talk, which offered invaluable advice from this successful entrepreneur - Whitworth was involved in Fednav’s acquisition of Navios and later played a key role in shaping that one-time US Steel subsidiary’s various financial restructurings brought out more than a few veterans of the New York/ Connecticut dry bulk scene.

In his remarks, he explained that the book was aimed at industry participants, like me, who loved the nostalgia and names from the past- brought back to life, and also service providers (lawyers and bankers), but “primarily for the general public, who wants to learn more about the business.” But, rather than provide a synopsis of the book to his SMA audience, Whitworth said that, rather, he would offer his thoughts on management garnered from the mid- 1970s to the present- which he suggested could be applied well beyond the maritime realm. He also offered views, backed by detailed analytics, of dry bulk’s potential development in the coming years.

In his remarks, his first- lesson “Integrity matters”, was preceded by a discussion of a very tough decision taken by Navios top management to walk away from a potentially lucrative Venezuelan ore transport deal that was deeply tainted with corruption. “I don’t believe that a business will survive long term…without integrity flowing through the organisation,” he told the SMA group.

His second lesson, “Get the right people aboard,” - including someone who could challenge assumptions taken as facts - was based on his experiences as Navios was going through a particularly complicated set of restructurings. He added that once the correct group is aboard, “make sure that everyone has bought in to the strategy.”

An additional lesson came from Whitworth’s prowling around a Navios grain terminal, in South America, early one morning, and realizing that its single crane, for unloading barges, was the “Achilles heel” of the entire operation. “Always ask yourself- what could go wrong?” he explained- and described its application to numerous aspects of running a shipping company, going way beyond equipment on the docks. The final lesson dealt more with the people side of the business, and perhaps flavored by his earlier days in what was a very traditional environment, “Bring in young people- with them comes enthusiasm, and an understanding of new ideas,” he said.

As far as the market prognosis, 50 years in the business brings some longer-term time-horizons, which were visible in a series of graphs on various dry bulk fundamentals, replete with peaks and a few valleys as well. The last chapter of the book offers a few lessons not presented to the lunch attendees; among these are the importance of looking at the upside potential in freight markets, but also at the very real sensitivities of hires lurching downward. These are some of the many viewpoints, some obvious and others less so, presented in Whitworth’s book.

The Salwater Hghway is available on Amazon