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He steers BLPL through rough seas with a steady hand

Mr Sivaswamy, who took the top spot in this year's Singapore Enterprise 50 Awards, considers that his proudest professional achievement, but attributed it to teamwork at BLPL, saying: "We have a top-class system and great leadership. Keeping this edg
Mr Sivaswamy, who took the top spot in this year's Singapore Enterprise 50 Awards, considers that his proudest professional achievement, but attributed it to teamwork at BLPL, saying: "We have a top-class system and great leadership. Keeping this edge will be another of our priorities."ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Container shipping firm's boss upbeat on Asia despite challenges industry is facing

Container shipping firm BLPL Singapore has its course charted for a resilient future in Asian markets that it believes are still growing, despite rough waters churning around the global shipping industry.

The man helming BLPL, chairman and managing director Mahesh Sivaswamy, is not one to waste time hand-wringing over challenges.

"Recently, I invited all our country heads to Singapore to draw up our vision for 2020, and we feel we have a very solid foundation to go forward. Our regional value chain is now complete, we can go for far better efficiency, and we still have untapped markets in Asia," Mr Sivaswamy, 49, told The Straits Times.

"In terms of capacity growth, we are aiming for a total of 38,000 to 40,000 containers by 2020, up from the over 26,000 containers that we have now."

Singapore-headquartered BLPL offers dry, reefer, tank and special container shipping services that connect 110 ports in 27 countries. Reefer containers are temperature- controlled, while dry containers are not. Tank containers are generally used for shipping gases and liquids.

The company positions itself as an Asia-only operator, going for regional depth instead of breadth while riding on the intra-regional trade flows and the emergence of developing economies.

Amid the commodity and trade slowdown that has frozen the global demand for shipping, BLPL still recorded revenue of around US$100 million (S$143 million) this year - little changed from last year.

"Given the scenario where freight rates have been falling faster this year than 2015 and have struggled at historic lows, I believe our performance is not bad at all," Mr Sivaswamy noted.

"One thing that helped us was our move to take back our Indian subcontinent operations from the agent and re-establish our own foothold there. That's what I mean when I said our chain is complete - we now have very good visibility of demand and we can deploy our fleet accordingly for maximum efficiency."

Another major development for Mr Sivaswamy was taking the top spot in this year's Singapore Enterprise 50 Awards last month - his proudest professional achievement.

"But really, it's down to our phenomenal team," he said. "We have a top-class system and great leadership. Keeping this edge will be another of our priorities - to keep training our colleagues, and keep them geared and ready for the opportunities that will emerge in the region."

Aside from growing markets like Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar, BLPL also intends to deepen its Middle East presence, especially in the upper Gulf region, he said.

This talk of growth may sound odd at a time when far bigger shipping lines are struggling. The industry woes were highlighted this year when Temasek Holdings sold Neptune Orient Lines to CMA CGM. The latter itself reported a net loss of US$268 million in the third quarter.

Others have entirely tanked, including South Korean giant Hanjin Shipping, which filed for bankruptcy protection in August.

"I'm not in denial. I know all about the shape of the economy, the industry headwinds. But I'm not going to carry any of that into the office and create a defeatist mentality where my management just settles for drastic measures like job cuts. That is not going to help the business.

"Fortunately, that positive mindset is mutual between myself and my team. We are able to feed off each others' positive energy - part of the reason why BLPL is actually having a fairly good time now."

Mr Sivaswamy has a similarly upbeat view on Singapore's outlook as a maritime hub. "The industry - BLPL included - has benefited greatly from what the PSA and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore have done to create a maritime ecosystem through the years."

He shrugged off notions that the Republic may be falling behind, amid the stiff competition between Asian ports, including Port Klang and Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia.

"Without a doubt, Singapore has done everything it can to compete. We only need to look at the Tuas megaport project to find the solid evidence of that will and effort… I am quite certain that, once the economic conditions improve, Singapore will be among the first to see the recovery of the maritime industry."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'He steers BLPL through rough seas with a steady hand'. Print Edition | Subscribe