Lunching in the hub with Rohan Bray of Steamship Mutual

Some weeks ago the editor donated a few minutes of his ‘precious’ time to explain the basics of P&I (Protection and Indemnity). Having my interest piqued, and in a bid to learn more I sought out a P&I executive to break bread with at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

On telling said editor of my plan I was somewhat taken aback when he went into a bit of a rant along the lines of, “May I remind you we are a maritime website? This is the fifth lunch you’ve wheedled out of me, and only one of the blighters has more than dipped his toes in the surf at a beach resort.”

I treat this outburst with the contempt it deserves. Having spent 10 years at his beck and call I’ve got to know him well. Working together in a fifty-square-foot office all that time you could say we have been close from the outset. No, if truth were told he would have wanted this gig. He has history with P&I, specifically Steamship Mutual and my guest is to be Rohan Bray, newly appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong branch of this leading International Group Club.

Rohan’s elevation to CE happened barely a month ago. His promotion coincided with the Club being formally authorised by Hong Kong’s Insurance Authority to establish a branch office delivering the full range of P&I services to Members and brokers, especially in the area of underwriting and claims.

I’m making my way to my usual table when I receive a text from Rohan who is struggling to get a taxi. We exchange a few more texts berating the gridlock that appears on Hong Kong roads whenever there is a hint of rain. With some extra time on my hands I peruse my notes.

Steamship Mutual has had a strong attraction for Members from Northeast Asia for many years with a particularly strong presence in South Korea. Here in Hong Kong the Club is particularly well known for having the majority of (the until very recently Tung-family owned) Oriental Overseas Container Line’s tonnage entered with it. In fact, the club’s association with the Tung family goes back all the way to the mid-1970s when CC Tung (brother of Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa) joined the board, a post he relinquished only this year. The connection continues as CH Tung’s son, Alan remains an active board member.

I’ve spotted Rohan striding towards me wearing the obligatory harassed look latecomers tend to have upon arrival. As he makes himself comfortable we exchange a few pleasantries. I give the waiter a nod and he looks the other way. (The staff have been uppity since I suggested they offer a discount on account of my giving them the venue equivalent of a product placement every time I publish this column.)

While we wait for to be offered a menu, Rohan supplies the figures behind my background information. At the last renewal Steamship has 85.1m in owned tonnage entered and 73.5m in chartered tonnage on the books. Asian shipping accounts for an impressive 41% of the total.

What with the granting of the Hong Kong licence and similar agreements that have led to offices in Tokyo and Singapore in the last 12 months, it’s clear the Club has ambitions and the calibre to build on its already strong presence in the region.

Of course Steamship’s outstanding performance is not limited to Asia. Over the past four years, the Club’s free reserves have increased by US$215m and now stand at US$516m. The Club is among just a handful of Clubs in a position to return a portion of premium (10%) for two years running.

As for Rohan he’s well pleased that after 20 years in the Hong Kong office working with Edward Lee, who retired in 2017, after nearly 30 years service, he finally gets his hands on the wheel. Having said that, Mr Lee did much to cement the very strong relationships between London and the Far East and will, Rohan acknowledges, be a hard act to follow. But then a lot of water has passed under the bridge and he’s gained a shipload of knowledge since he stepped off the aircraft in London in 1993 after qualifying as a lawyer in Australia. I’m reminded that a lot of cheap lawyers from New Zealand turned up in Hong Kong at about the same time but let the thought pass as the menu arrives.

Rohan orders a sort of pork kiev and chips while I go for the more exotic sounding schiacciata only to find I’m unable to pronounce it and I’m reduced to pointing soundlessly at the item like a chimpanzee at a tea party.

“And what happened then, Rohan?

“Well I arrived with my wife and landed in the middle of an economic recession. After a while I saw a position advertised in The Times for a contract lawyer at a P&I Club. Now you have to remember there was no Internet back then so there was no way I could check the place out. But they kindly granted me an interview. My first question was, “What does a P&I Club do?”

Fortunately for Rohan, the ever-convivial Bob Critchlow, then heading up the Freight Defence and Demurrage department, was quick to quench the newcomer’s doubts and assured him with his knowledge of contract law he would take to the job like a duck to water.

This leads into a conversation about two strange phenomena that surround the world of P&I. Firstly that nobody outside the hallowed circles of shipping has ever heard of P&I and secondly, those that do stumble unwittingly into its clutches rarely leave. Like factories in Northern England in the early to mid-twentieth century, P&I today seems to offer that rare opportunity of a job for life but with the added bonus of prospects.

Rohan attempts to explain the extraordinary retention rates like this.

“It’s a great environment to work in,” he explains. “You’re not subject to the intense commercial pressures to make a profit like the shipowners have. And as a lawyer you don’t have the pressure to bill and get clients in the way a lawyer in private practice does.

“Obviously we like to get new members – new business – and keep it. So the service is of the utmost importance. It’s just not as intense. There tends to be very little movement between the Clubs, hence there is not an expectation on underwriters to get a load of new business through the door.

“So to a large extent it’s the level of service provided that keeps the business. Members will move as a result of poor claims handling, less so because of premium issues. So we are very keen to keep service levels as high as possible.”

Sounds reasonable to me. But I still think it might be something more sinister. I mean for heaven’s sake, to name just a few: executive chairman, Gary Rynsard; managing director and head of Underwriting, Stephen Martin; Colin Williams, head of Claims; David Christie, head of the Eastern Syndicate; to a man they have all served 30 years or more at the Club. Mr Rynsard is due to retire as chief next year but he will then do a stint at the office in Rotterdam, which is due to open soon as a bolthole outside the UK – an insurance against Brexit. There are more. To be fair many of the other Clubs also have lifelong employees who would give up their daughters rather than be prised away from their posts.

Now I’ve got Rohan started on the virtues of Steamship Mutual there’s no stopping him. While he’s telling me, “Steamship Mutual is a good employer. I say that not only from my own perspective. I see the general ethos of the whole company. I see the way other people are treated. Our management has a way of doing things that is staff-friendly without sacrificing the needs of the business. From a lawyer’s point of view P&I is a good business. It’s a chance to do maritime law, which I think is the most interesting branch of the law with an attractive international dimension,” I hide my disappointment that the schiacciata that has just arrived is merely half a pizza.

Rohan and I, both robustly built, silently agree to eschew the dessert and settle for coffee.

Following our lunch, Rohan’s run of good fortune starting with his promotion to CE, continues. He will fly off to London while Typhoon Mangkhut makes its steady and highly destructive course toward Hong Kong.

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