In the shipping business, says Anita Gajadhar, you never forget the first cargo you mess up because you learn so much, you never make the same mistake again.
Luckily, for the last two years, since she took on the task to oversee Swiss petrochemical giant Proman’s shipping arm as its managing director, it’s been smooth sailing.
“Shipping is a high-pressure job. We deal with three different time zones: Asia, North America and Europe. We have 12 vessels in our fleet and at any given time we have five or six vessels in Europe, another 4 for Asia and another for on the sea to North America. Plus, we often have another four spot vessels for short runs. So, every month have probably about 16 voyages/vessels on the water. That’s six million tonnes of product a year or 500,000 tonnes a month.
Our team is nine people. It’s never a dull moment because from docking to discharge, it’s exciting. You might lose sleep but once there’s an issue your adrenaline starts to rush,” Gajadhar, 39, told Business Day in a phone interview last week
Gajadhar spent 15 years of her 18-year career with the Proman Group, at the Methanol Holdings (Trinidad) Ltd office in Point Lisas as a business analyst and over the years progressed to become head of ammonia-urea ammonium nitrate-melamine (AUM) marketing, to head of logistics and marketing for methanol, then commercial manager for all of Proman’s petrochemical products in Trinidad. (Proman is the biggest tenant of the Point Lisas Industrial Estate, at just about 60 per cent of occupancy.) She already oversaw most of the company’s shipping operations from Trinidad, but as Proman expanded – notably with production plants in North America – the company decided to formally incorporate a shipping arm, Proman Shipping, in 2018. Given her experience in Trinidad co-ordinating
and often crafting the policies and processes for shipping the company’s product from Point Lisas, Gajadhar was the natural fit to head the new entity.
“Yes, I’m heading the shipping arm of the business, but for 13 years my experience was shipping and marketing, so I’m quite familiar with the whole value chain, starting from production to the point when it gets delivered. I know all our customers, and have even met some of them personally over the years.”
Gajadhar moved to Switzerland in May 2018 to join Proman’s senior management at the company’s headquarters near Zurich. She was the lone Trini at the time to make that transition, so in addition to the new challenge of joining the company’s senior management team, she also had to deal with the culture shock of moving to a new country with a different language.
“It started as a one-man team when I moved.
“Now, with my Swiss team here, there’s seven of us, and I’ve been able to build that team and shape the culture to bring a bit of TT knowledge and culture to the head office as well. In the beginning it was a challenge. Now, I’m so proud when I look at my team because I helped build it. It’s a great bunch and we’ve been successful.
“TT is still the core of our business and where our heart lies. I didn’t forget my TT team, because they did help create the shipping business, so I tried to blend both teams.”
Switzerland makes more sense as mission control because of its time zone, situated in the heart of Europe, but also just a few hours behind or ahead the Asian and North American markets, making it much easier to keep in touch. But the TT team has an important role.
“The team there has a lot of experience and we wanted to utilise that experience. We still use the TT team to maintain business in the Americas because we have product that goes to South America, for example Brazil, so I have my team in Trinidad directing that. It’s been interesting when they come across here (Switzerland) or vice versa to blend the cultures and it makes getting the job done easier. When you understand the people you have to work with, getting the task done becomes easier to manage.”
And shipping from Trinidad is actually world-class. “The Point Lisas port has been there so long that it adheres to all the global best practices. The quality of service in TT on par with any international company we work with. Our agents in TT know our business, so they are able to think even before we can what we might encounter, so they work for quick turnaround. All the service providers are world-class.”
Before Proman Shipping became official, the company’s vessels, leased on a time charter, reported to MHTL in Point Lisas. And the Trinidad influence is evident – 11 out of the 12 vessels are named after places in TT.
The latest, delivered last year, is called Castara, as an early retirement present to one of the company’s longest serving staff members, who grew up in the Tobago village.
The company also expects two new fleet members in 2022. These boats are special for several reasons. First, they will be 50 per cent owned by Proman. These boats will also run on methanol, a more environmentally friendly fuel than the traditional diesel, in keeping with the International Maritime Organisation’s 2020 regulations, which phased out high-sulphur diesel from January 1. And the first vessel, expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2022, will be named the ProPatria, in honour of Dennis Patrick, MHTL’s former CEO, who died last year.
“Dennis was my boss my entire time at MHTL. When he became CEO in 2014, I got his job (commercial manager). He was the person who taught me everything about this business, so I lost my mentor when he passed away. One of his last business trips with us was actually to determine the choice of vessel, so we named the ProPatria after him.”
For Gajadhar, it’s still surreal sometimes, living in Switzerland as a top executive in an energy multinational.
“I never thought I’d be living here heading a shipping company. I had a more analytical approach to life. I thought I’d be a business analyst (forever).
“I’ll never forget the speech I got from Dennis when I got the opportunity to head the AUM marketing unit. He said I could choose to be an analyst all my life or learn something new and forge a new path. Every three years I think in the business with Proman I’ve been given some new opportunity and I can say I’ve learnt something and achieved something. It’s been an adventure.”
She’s also proud to see that the industry has evolved to become more gender-diverse.
“I always remember my first methanol conference in 2005. I remember thinking how few women there were. And today, almost 15 years (later), you can see how the workforce has changed, including management. I’ve been very fortunate at Proman, where I never felt that my opinion didn’t count. I guess that’s why I’m here now.”
She acknowledges the challenges in maintaining a healthy personal life while balancing an executive role.
“I don’t have any kids, but I do have a husband. So you have to find that balance with maintaining a personal life when you have a senior role that demands all your attention. It’s important to have a supportive environment at work and at home. It takes a village – to raise children and to manage your life as an executive.”
Her husband is still based in Trinidad and flies back and forth to visit, but will be moving to Switzerland soon. And her team has been her proxy family, helping her to acclimate so far from home, including helping her with the language – although she’s not quite fluent just yet.
“I’ve been learning basic German. ‘Ja’ (yes) is my extent so far, and my team always laughs when I speak the language – but I am getting better.”