CEO, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement
(Article originally published in July/Aug 2014 edition.)
Rajaish Bajpaee has been CEO of Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement since January 2011, based in Hong Kong. He was born and raised in India and received his Marine Engineering degree from the prestigious Marine Engineering & Research Institute in Calcutta in 1972. After six years at sea he came ashore and earned an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management in Manila.
A global figure, he was a founding member of the International Ship Management Association (now InterManager) and served two terms as its President. He is also a board member of INTERTANKO. He was awarded the 2003 Quality Award from the Hong Kong Management Association and an Honorary Fellowship by the Nautical Institute for his services to the shipping industry. He is a recipient of the Glory of India Award and the Bharat Gaurav Award from the India International Friendship Society for his exemplary achievements in the maritime field.
What drew you to the maritime industry?
I graduated from school when I was 14, and eligibility for a professional college, whether it was medicine or engineering or any other profession, was 17. So I needed to do something for three years. I stumbled into doing a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. Meanwhile, my old classmates from school had gone straight into professional college and were in their third or fourth year because they were older.
In those days, being a freshman was not an enjoyable experience, and it would have been worse if the seniors were once your classmates. So even though engineering was the most sought-after career, I chose to forego it and instead chose a marine engineering course, which was a semi-military kind of training with an engineering degree. It was a four-year program and offered assured employment after graduation. It also held a young boy’s fascination for white uniforms and the chance to travel the world and be paid for it. I had quite a sudden attraction for the profession without really knowing what lay ahead.
How long were you at sea?
I finished my marine engineering training in 1972 and spent the next six years at sea. On my first assignment I did not leave the ship for 21 months. I did not have a vacation, which is unimaginable today. I had a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. During my six years I completed all my certifications and competence examinations and finished my Chief Engineer’s license. I sailed for Indian, German and Norwegian shipping companies, mostly on general cargo, heavy-lift and Ro/Ro vessels.
Did your experience at sea help you as CEO?
Reflecting back, there were many lessons learned. One defining moment was when, as a junior engineer, I was on deck taking cargo soundings on a voyage from Vancouver to Japan. We were facing very adverse weather at eight in the evening when I went to take the soundings. The bosun had tied a wire rope to hold when you walked on deck, but I needed two hands to unscrew the sounding pipe. A freak wave threw me from the port to the starboard side of the deck. Luckily I didn’t go overboard. Everybody rushed to pick me up, and the chief engineer was reprimanded by the master for sending a junior officer out in that weather. That moment left a mark on my consciousness about the importance of safety.
Has there been a defining moment in your land-based career?
I started working for a shipping company as a fresh MBA graduate. After orientation in several departments, I was made responsible for business development. My boss in those days was quite a demanding person. He gave me an around-the-world ticket validated for three months and told me, “Come back with 10 ships or don’t come back.” That was my initiation into the business. I succeeded. I came back with some major joint ventures, luckily for me, and fortunately for the company because it was in dire need in those days.
Have you ever given someone an around-the-world ticket like your old boss did?
No. I have groomed many leaders over the past 40 years, but before I throw someone into deep water I also throw a lifeline so they can come ashore if they start to sink. I believe every human being was created for a purpose, and everyone has something good in them. It is up to the leader to find the right key to unlock the potential in the individual. The leader has to either get the best out of a person or the worst. My leadership style is based on this fundamental thinking, and it enables people to achieve beyond their own expectations, empowering them – getting ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results.
What sort of people do you recruit to help run BSM?
Running an organization first requires conceptualization: What do you want to achieve, and how do you want to bring value to stakeholders such as customers and shareholders in a sustainable manner? It is a continuous process, and my focus is always to have people who are first and foremost aligned to the fundamental values of the company. Whatever is expected from them in terms of technical or managerial competence, that has to come. But their values must be aligned first.
I also seek people who want a challenge, who want to challenge the status quo, challenge me, challenge the way we do things. Can it be done better? I don’t want complacent bureaucrats or administrators. They need to be leaders in their own right. Leadership is not about creating more followers. Leadership is about creating more leaders, and that is what I want at every level of the organization.
What do you mean by achieving sustainable goals for your stakeholders?
Any organization’s stakeholders – its customers, shareholders and people – have conflicting aspirations and expectations. Customers want the highest quality for the lowest price. Shareholders want growth and return on their investment, and a company’s employees want job security, better pay and conditions. So all of these conflicting demands have to be met by the leadership. If we can do this in a sustained manner, a continuous manner, then the organization is sustainable.
It’s a never-ending process, and it creates value for society and the environment. Your circle of influence gets bigger as you grow. Today we have close to 20,000 people, more than 40 nationalities and 30 offices. We are active in every time zone. As we continue to work on sustainability, our circle will grow even larger.
Your circle includes reaching out to university and college students in your spare time. What motivates you to do this?
I have two sons, and I used to visit them at their colleges and ask their classmates what career options they had. They all said the same thing like investment banking and IT. When I asked them if they had considered shipping, they invariably answered that either they didn’t know anything about it or “You mean like UPS or DHL?”
In the shipping industry we keep on preaching to ourselves that we carry 95 percent of world trade, that half the world would starve and half would freeze if shipping stopped. Yet the common man on the street does not know this. That struck me as something that needed to be corrected. If the industry cannot attract the best and the brightest, how can we be assured of a bright future?
What will the next generation of seafarers be like?
They will be very different from my generation. We had very little choice in terms of career. The world was not as connected or as complex as it is today. Today’s college graduates have a lot of career choices, and by the end of their careers they will have changed companies many times and professions as well. They are impatient. They have big aspirations. They want everything quickly and are very sure of themselves. I see it in my two sons. They have strong likes and dislikes because they have so many things to choose from.
How are seafarers adapting to all the new technologies being used onboard modern ships?
There’s a mismatch between technology development and human development. To give a simple analogy, you can build a ship from cutting steel to delivery within six or eight months, but you cannot train a cadet in that time. It takes six or eight years to go from cadet to captain or chief engineer. Onboard a ship, a shrinking team of seafarers is confronted with all the new ideas, technologies and legislation. They are the ones who have to carry out the tasks associated with transporting cargo safely, reliably and cost-effectively, with the threat of criminalization hanging constantly over their heads.
When an incident happens because of this mismatch, we as an industry are quick to say that 85 percent of all accidents and incidents are due to human error. It is very convenient to say that, to point a finger at the crew. But there are five fingers on each hand. Attitude change is required by the shore industry, the stakeholders, the regulators and the maritime academies. We have to see the shipping world in a new perspective. Until we do, the situation is that seafarers are not happy. They are not motivated. They are not proud to be at sea.
How can seafarers' pride be restored?
It’s important that we restore pride in the seafarer’s job and make today’s youngsters dream of becoming seafarers by putting the emphasis back on people. At BSM we entrust the ship’s top four officers and their teams with full accountability onboard because we believe it is essential to make them understand the very important positions they hold. Our tagline says “powered by people,” and making them accountable serves to deepen their sense of identity, belonging and involvement.
What is your vision for the company?
To be the best – that is our vision. We do this through leadership, through people who challenge the status quo, who are constantly bringing new value to our customers. And not just our customers but our customers’ customers – we strive to make them happy too. It’s not easy. It’s a never-ending journey. But we have an extensive suite of services that continues to grow and expand. As long as we have enough scale and scope to meet our customers’ ever-changing demands, we will be successful.
That brings us back to leadership. Is that what differentiates BSM in the market?
Let’s think of General Electric and the huge range of products it makes. What differentiates GE in every one of their product segments is that they make the best. It’s not just the product itself. It’s the desire to be the best, because the best is a journey without a finish line. Whatever you are today, it can become substandard tomorrow, just like the first mobile phones compared to the ones available today.
That is the underlying theme of our leadership in quality ship management and the diverse spectrum of services we provide. It is what we try to achieve in our company. We are focused on people, powered by people. What differentiates BSM is the motivation of our people to challenge today’s status quo and find new ways of doing better tomorrow.
Wendy Laursen is the magazine’s Asia/Pacific News Editor.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.