All the signs indicate a fulsome spread is on the cards today. I’m sitting in the back of a chauffer-driven limousine in the company of Kishore Rajvanshy, managing director of Fleet Management, one of Hong Kong’s most successful ship management companies. I’m looking for some losers to give the royal wave too but they’ve all got their heads down. We are on our way to the Conrad Hotel for one of its acclaimed curry buffets.
As we make our way to the table in the hotel’s lobby Kishore is distracted by a huddle of restaurant staff queuing to welcome him, and I steal the moment to take a sneaky peek at what’s on offer. I’ve missed breakfast this morning to make room for this. At the table there’s a moment of elderly confusion, as a customer relations assistant and Kishore struggle to get to grips with a Conrad Hotel app, which will presumably, if mastered, reward him for the time spent feeding and entertaining me.
It seems Kishore is a frequent flyer here but he doesn’t have the look of a man who indulges in the trough approach to buffet dining. Despite reaching 69 years of age he sports a slender frame and a taste for carrot juice.
While some delicious spicy wraps are being prepared I seize the moment to ask if there’s truth in the rumour that Fleet has been approached by a rival with a takeover bid, which, for the record, he firmly rejects with a delightful chuckle.
My second attempt at casual conversation is a reference to the predominance of Indian nationals working onshore in the ship management business, matched incidentally by a shortage of these experts reaching managing director level – an unaccounted for glass ceiling, perhaps? Kishore appears to agree with the premise and recognises the dichotomy. But I get the sense that the topic might be on the heavy side for what is meant to be a casual dining experience. It is not pursued.
First round at the buffet and my plate’s twice as heavy as the conversation of a moment ago. A healthy helping of saag paneer, some vegetable curry, Rogan josh and a few tikka lamb chops on the top. Kishore chooses a similar array but in more modest portions. I join him in a glass of carrot juice and wait for the hit that never comes.
Moving to safer ground I ask him to elaborate on his contribution to the recently published, Dynasties of the Sea, a Marine Money publication where he recalls his journey from the Thar Desert region of Rajahastan in western India to the pinnacle of the ship management business, in control of 465 ships. Looking back Kishore acknowledges that the relative obscurity of his hometown at a time when India was first wracked by the extraordinary upheaval of Partition in 1947, and the later Sino-Indian war in 1962.
Kishore attributes his life-long work ethic to the influence of his public prosecutor father; his decision to go to sea to a friend who had a taste for fancy shirts from Singapore and smart Italian shoes.
“My friend convinced me that by traveling the world you could buy whatever you wanted. I still remember him goading me to take the leap and join him,” he says.
When Kishore joined the Shipping Corporation of India at the end of the 1960s he was assigned to a bulk carrier. At first he was laid low by homesickness, he recalls. But with 64 on board a vessel that today would carry around 20 seafarers it left little space or time to brood alone. And the young Rajvanshy made rapid progress as a trainee engineer.
Suddenly my plate is empty. I replenish it with several pieces of chicken tikka, lashings of prawn curry, a few nan breads to dip and a heap of aloo gobi. I’m shame faced to see Kishore browsing the desserts.
We resume the amble down memory lane with his arrival in Hong Kong and a position at Univan Ship Management in the early 1980s, where he would work for Captain Charles Vanderperre. Captain Vanderperre, a person subject to much eulogising by the shipping press, particularly after his passing, is remembered by many as the grandfather of third party ship management – a claim denied to this day by Wallem Group – the company that first employed him in Hong Kong.
Such was the adulation afforded the “Captain” a monument in the form of his original office was installed in the new Univan premises following his death in 2009. But with greatness there often comes a darker side. Amongst those who worked for Vanderperre the boss had a reputation as a scrooge-like character who drove his employees often beyond endurance while he counted the staples. With a ruthless approach to shortcomings, attrition levels were high.
In the volume referred to above, Kishore avoids mentioning Vanderperre by name rather he says: “They [Univan] had very tight control over their employees and they were extremely tough. They expected you to do the job of four people. It was very tough.”
It’s said that when Anglo Eastern Group acquired Univan in 2015, the uninhabited office space, replete with the Captain’s desk and his favourite chair, mysteriously disappeared in the move. But sometimes, late at night you can still…
Being of a forgiving nature and with the benefit of hindsight Kishore is grateful for the tough Univan regime that saw him perform nearly all the tasks required of a fully rounded ship manager and attributes those circumstances to the relative ease in which he took on the management of Fleet.
When Kishore and I first met he had already helped establish Fleet Management and was running around 50 ships. Today we recall his notion back then that around 100 ships was the optimum size for a managed fleet. Over the years and as the fleet grew so the optimum number was raised. This afternoon there is a hint of irritation in his voice when he explains that having reached 465 ships in a hyperactive sale and purchase environment the company is bound to lose 10% of the managed tonnage to the S&P market every year. He bemoans the fact that “Fleet has to take on at least 46 ships to show any growth.”
I notice that Kishore has chosen some distinctly cakey looking items from the desert table and I seek to regain dietary credibility by choosing only fresh fruit, a couple of species of melon and some dragon fruit.
In 2017, Kishore received a thoroughly deserved Lloyd’s List Lifetime Achievement award. So has he now completed his lifetime in ship management?
Not a bit of it. He still takes a hands-on approach at Fleet while spending countless days in the year travelling to India where the company has a training centre and crewing office; and on to China, Japan and Europe to visit clients. Leisure also involves frequent long trips to the US where his older son works for Microsoft in Seattle, and to London where the younger sibling is a high flyer in finance.
At the end of the lunch Kishore makes a sprightly exit as I struggle out of my chair while cradling what looks like the result of a six-month gestation. This is the time when I could do with a bit more chauffeuring. Instead I’m redirected to the taxi queue.
Look out next week for the hongkongmaritimehub review of Dynasties of the Sea: The Untold Stories of the Postwar Shipping Pioneers.