No room for complacency
“Britain’s maritime offering, especially when it comes to engineering and technology, is first class,” says Lord Jeffrey Mountevans. But in order to keep its place and relevance, Britain’s maritime industry must evolve, he tells Stevie Knight.
While doubtless unwelcome in some corners, his conclusions are based on both study and experience. When Mr Evans (as he was) missed his original Navy calling due to bad eyesight, he put himself to sharpening his long-term vision at Clarksons, one of the world’s largest brokerage firms.
This was more luck than judgment: he relates how after that early disappointment, Norwegian business associates of his fathers urged him “go into brokering, that way you’ll pick up a lot about shipping very quickly – and you’ll find out what you want to do”. He adds: “I must be a slow learner... almost 45 years later and I’m still there.”
It also introduced him to an industry subject to profound and often sudden change: he moved from the tanker division to gas in 1979 and witnessed the skyrocketing trajectory of the sector. More recently the challenges have been more to do with “a terrible global shipping market” and he admits that some segments “are as bad as I’ve seen in my lifetime”. However, he’s clear this does not, in fact, negate the need for Britain to show what it can offer – rather the reverse.
The list of his involvements includes chairing Maritime UK, president of the City of London Sea Cadets and rector of the Cass Business School, to name a few. However, there’s a recent, more political theme emerging: with the death of his brother in 2014 he became Lord Mountevans of Chelsea and was promptly elected to sit as hereditary crossbench peer in the House of Lords. Further, he is just coming to the end of a “high octane” year as mayor of the City of London.
It is his contribution as lead author of the UK’s new plan for maritime growth that he feels to be most significant. In fact, the report states clearly that “the marketing activity of other countries such as Denmark and Singapore is currently considered more coherent, targeted and effective than the UK’s efforts.”
In his view, potential business could, he says, slip away from the UK “not because of a lack of activity” but because of a lack of coherence. Although he says the industry covers a truly huge range of priorities, he reiterates that correcting this requires “more coordination” than investment: “By working together and promoting ourselves effectively, we could extend our reach.”
In fact, he highlights the need for the UK Ship Register to adapt: there’s been an overall decline since a high in 2009 and not all to due to scrappage, some have gone to other flags, notably Singapore and Liberia. Although there’s recently been a modest upturn it remains a worry: “A weak ship register could also risk the status of the UK as a strong international maritime centre.”
LEVERAGING UK STRENGTHS
“The UK offers a first-class maritime business service,” he says. “Britain is ranked as sixth in the world for ease of doing business. We have unrivalled strength in professional maritime services - for example shipbroking, insurance and legal representation. More, we have a skilled workforce, competitive tax regime and we also have a good position on the clock - you can work both the East and the US on the same day. And the rule of law means people know where they stand.”
Growing the maritime client base extends to the Far East. Although the study predated the Brexit vote and he is clear that “Europe will always be our biggest trading partner” he adds “it’s important that we now focus on other opportunities”. He goes on to say that the potential for more refined trade deals has not been overlooked by China, Taiwan and Korea, the last being “one of the first to respond after the vote was announced”.
However, to achieve this broader client base the Maritime Growth plan points squarely at the need for leadership by both government and industry. On one side this outlines the need for “a more commercial and responsive UK maritime administration within government”, and on the other “an industry-led promotional body”. Added to which it recognises the need “to be clearer about its long-term skills requirements – and establish both strategy and a voluntary Maritime Skills Investment Fund.
So, has it been followed through? While he admits there is a lot more to do, he’s seen significant moves; a new ministerial working group has been established and “a full-time appointment has been made for the role of sector spokesman” plus there is also a review of the UK’s training needs underway. Importantly, the roles of the UKSR and the MCA are beginning to separate to allow each a sharper focus.
Despite the economic situation, he says he sees the emergence of “a very strong streak of creativity”. His point is that the UK’s maritime offering is “based on resilience”, and more has a history of success. The industry that made Britain the centre of international trade two hundred years ago “remains a very big sector” even if it’s largely unacknowledged; surprisingly “the direct economic contribution is at least £11 billion, while directly supporting at least 113,000 jobs and 6,600 businesses”.
All this has prompted a rethink of his place in the sector, “as you can’t be ‘halfway’ in the brokering business” and his time at Clarksons will “probably end” sometime in the New Year. So, a new life is beckoning, one which will leave him free to get behind the initiatives outlined in the growth plan “and push” for their implementation: you don’t need a crystal ball to know the industry hasn’t seen the last of Jeffrey Evans.
One last note: last year he was finally made an honorary Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy. “It’s taken me a long time to get here,” he jokes.
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