"I have always enjoyed the twists of my life" - farewell interview with David Skillen

When David Skillen went to Tokyo in 1977, he planned on leaving after three months to return to his home country of England. He ended up staying in Tokyo for 17 years. There, he started his long career in shipping at UASC. Now, he retires as Managing Director Area South East Asia at Hapag-Lloyd after almost 40 years in the Asian shipping industry. In his final interview, he talks about the breathtaking growth of Asia, his secrets for talking to customers, and what a lunch break tells you about the success of a merger.

You have been in the industry for decades. Now, your retirement is approaching quickly. What are your emotions at the moment?

David Skillen: I think there is a mixture of emotions. Looking back at my career, I am very proud that I have been able to survive this long in our competitive industry. When I retire, I will have worked in shipping for 39.5 years, almost four decades. I will truly miss the many friends I have made during that time. This includes my new friends and colleagues at Hapag-Lloyd. I am grateful for the great teams I had the honor of leading and for the managers that in turn led me over the years. Even though I will miss a lot of people, I will also enjoy taking it a bit easier after working very hard for four decades. Looking back at my career, I am also proud that my entire journey in shipping has been here in Asia, which has been an incredibly dynamic market from the day I started. And shipping has changed, too. In my early days at UASC, the company started operating their first container ships with a capacity of 2,000 TEU. Before that everything was breakbulk, which posed its own unique challenges. The vessels that UASC used before containerization often had a heavy lift capacity of 120 tons. As we moved into containerized shipping, efficiency and productivity went through the roof. I remember looking at the first 2,000 TEU ship; it was absolutely marvelous. Today, nobody is wowed even by a 20,000 TEU vessel. There is no way we could have imagined today’s ships back then.

Tell us a bit about your journey. How did you get started in the shipping industry?

In late 1977, I went to Tokyo, which at the time was an incredibly interesting place. Initially, my plan was to stay for only three months. I ended up living there for 17 years. I started working for United Arab Shipping Company in early 1981. When I joined, I had no real experience in the shipping industry. But Tokyo had an expatriate community that, at the time, was quite small. That’s how I got to know a lot of people from UASC socially. Because of containerization, UASC was expanding their business in Japan. I spoke some Japanese and knew the Japanese culture, which was important to UASC. They offered me a job. And I stayed with them until the merger with Hapag-Lloyd.

What did your first assignment look like?

My first role was an extremely good learning experience. UASC sent me to the Port of Yokohama to work as a ship runner. For six months, I took on very basic tasks, making sure the arriving ships had everything they needed. Through that, I also got involved in operational stowage. These jobs taught me how ships and ports functioned. After Yokohama, I moved back to the Tokyo office and started in a sales role. My Japanese colleagues saw great novelty value in me. The sales people liked to take me with them to see customers and tell them: “We are bringing this very strange Englishman with us. He even speaks a little Japanese.” I found out that one of my strengths was building relationships. After getting more involved in sales management, I eventually became the Sales Manager for Japan and Korea.

When did you ultimately move away from Tokyo?

In 1994, UASC decided to move the regional office away from Tokyo, which became increasingly expensive. The new office was located in Singapore. I was reluctant at the time. First of all, I didn’t want to leave Japan. It’s a fascinating country with a rich culture and history. Also, I had made many great friends there and built a good business network. Second of all, I had been to Singapore before and wasn’t terribly excited about it. But I went along and became the Regional Sales Director for Asia at UASC. I stayed in that role for eight years. Then UASC went through structural reorganization that was closer to the structure of Hapag-Lloyd. This means it had a division by trades with regional divisions that ran all the offices. Through that restructuring, I became Vice President for Asia and continued in that role until the integration with Hapag-Lloyd.

Let’s talk about the merger for a moment. At that time, you had been with UASC for close to 35 years. How did you feel about the merger?

The merger came as something of a surprise to me and many of us. I always thought my shipping career started with UASC and would end with it. I pictured myself as a one company employee. When I heard of the merger, to be honest, I didn’t think that Hapag-Lloyd would offer me a permanent role in the company. When you have these large integrations, older and therefore more expensive employees are often quite useful during the transition period, but are then let go, once the integration has been completed. I was extremely pleased to be given this opportunity. It has been a wonderful way of ending my career.

We know that many mergers fail, because company cultures don’t match. What made the UASC and Hapag-Lloyd merger so successful?

I was thoroughly impressed by how well everything worked out during the merger. The merger was officially completed in May of 2017 and by August of that same year, all of UASC’s business had been fully integrated into Hapag-Lloyd. The way Hapag-Lloyd approached this integration showed a great deal of sensitivity. I can only speak for myself and the team in Asia, but we weren’t expecting that. The Hapag-Lloyd integration team was willing to see the merger as a collaboration instead of a takeover. There was one benchmark that I was observing to the success of the integration: Every day, when we went to lunch, I looked at who went to lunch with whom. In the beginning, Hapag-Lloyd people went with Hapag-Lloyd people and UASC people stayed amongst themselves. Very quickly that changed and the distinction between the companies disappeared. That’s when I knew that this merger would be a success.

You spent two thirds of your life in Asia. What is your fascination with Asia and what does it mean to you?

When I went to Japan the first time, it was purely by chance. Until then, I had no real interest in working in Japan, let alone Asia. What I can say about Asia is that the work ethic here is extremely strong. This resonated with me immediately, because I also think of myself as being a hard worker. When I arrived, Japan was still rebuilding to a degree. The first thing that struck me was how dedicated and focused the Japanese were on doing a great job consistently. As a manager, one challenge is always how to motivate your team. This is something I don’t have to think about, because my team here is always motivated. Being in Japan taught me a lot, because the Japanese are extremely respectful of one another. That was not necessarily a characteristic I had at 23 years old. My early days in Japan were a tremendous adventure. At that time, no road signs were written in English. If you couldn’t read Japanese, you were completely lost. A good asset to have as an expatriate is the ability to laugh at yourself. Otherwise, you’ll get frustrated easily.

How has Asia changed during your career?

It is such a dynamic continent with many unique places. The pace of growth over the last decades was astounding to watch. I just have to compare Singapore as it is now to how it looked when I arrived. The country is almost unrecognizable. Today, Singapore has the second biggest port in the world. Another great example for that is China with its unbelievable growth. I first went to Shenzhen in 1984. Then, the city was basically a fisher village with a population of barely over 100,000 people. Today, it is a metropolis of over 12 million. Back then, I entered Shenzhen from Hong Kong. You walked over an open bridge to get to the Shenzhen immigration point. If there was a line and it rained, you got wet. Since then, so much has changed. If you didn’t witness it first hand, it is hard to fathom the growth that China and Asia in general achieved.

Logistics is a people’s business. What have you learned over the course of your career about the shipping industry?

One thing that I found in Asia is that despite the many different countries and cultures in Asia, the sales approach is quite consistent. First of all, you need to be a good listener and understand what your customer needs. That applies universally, whether it’s a customer from Tokyo or Jakarta doesn’t matter. Secondly, you have to know your own products. Thirdly, treat all customers with the same amount of respect. I am a firm believer in the old phrase: You should treat people how you would like to be treated yourself. Another important point is that you should be honest. This may sound strange as part of sales is convincing someone to buy a product they don’t necessarily need. But you will get better results if you are honest about what you can actually offer the customer.

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