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Profile: Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder & CEO, Synergy Group

Unni’s holistic approach to ship management makes Synergy unique.

rajesh unni

By Jack O'Connell 09-28-2020 12:08:33

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2020 edition.)

Tell us about yourself – your background and education. 

I hail from the southern state of India – Kerala. My father was a government employee and my mother a stay-at-home parent. Like many Indians before the globalization period, we belonged to the middle class. My younger brother and I never lacked necessities, but we were not raised affluent. Today, I run a successful company, but I’ve never forgotten my roots and continue to remain grateful for my value-based upbringing. 

While young, I was awarded a full merit-based scholarship at Sainik (Army) School Trivandrum, one of India’s most prestigious military schools, where I excelled in both academics and sports and served as School Captain. My formative years at the Army school influenced my life to a great extent. I attribute my success to the discipline and organizational skills learned there.  

What attracted you to the maritime industry? 

Necessity – the financial situation in my house was not improving. Being the eldest, I felt duty-bound to help my family and decided to start working immediately. In those days, the merchant navy was a lucrative profession, so after finishing school, I went to sea as a Cadet with Univan Ship Management, a Hong Kong-based ship management company. 

While working, I earned my industry certifications from LBS College of Advanced Maritime Studies & Research in Mumbai – from Cadet to Third Officer, Second Officer and Chief Officer. I attained the rank of Master in 1999 at age 26. 

I never imagined back then that I would end up spending most of my life in the maritime industry. Our industry is tough but built on strong people-bonds. Seafarers often share a special camaraderie, and the friendships you forge remain for a long time. I’ve been lucky to meet my mates through this profession. 

What inspired you to found Synergy? 

Having spent more than a decade in the ship management industry, I found that – despite high productivity costs – the level of service was still sub-par. The only way ahead was to continue to accept the norm or take a leap of faith and challenge the status quo. Along with a few like-minded friends – and the support of my mentor, Capt. Katsuya Abe, President of Nissen Kaiun, a 120-year-old family-run Japanese shipping company, and others – we decided to take the lead and set up a world-class, comprehensive technical ship management service based on openness, trust and reliability. That philosophy was incorporated as Synergy in Chennai, India, in 2006. 

Our strategy was simple and straightforward. We unbundled all our learning and went back to the basics to create a value proposition for our clients. Starting with contracts to manage four ships, we steadily grew to 70 ships in just under seven years. Since then we’ve built a reputation for reliable service and a commitment to safety and client satisfaction. 

Tell us about the name “Synergy.”

For us it’s always been about team and never about an individual. The sum of the knowledge capital and talent is always greater than individuals working independently. “Synergy” seemed the apt name for a company that believes in collective efforts. 

What makes Synergy different? 

In our industry, trust is the basis of all. Our vision for Synergy is to be the most trusted maritime partner. We aim to be an innovative, benchmark player in the shipping sector. We’ve been way ahead of the curve in adopting new-age technologies. We’re recognized as a forward-looking, world-class company that’s ahead of the times through successful digitalization.  

Over the past few years we’ve been progressing towards digital transformation. But I must emphasize that a cyber-enabled ship doesn’t necessarily mean an unmanned ship. Synergy in fact took delivery of the first ship to be classed with Lloyd’s Register’s Cyber AL-SAFE notation, certifying the autonomous systems onboard as safe. Simply put, seafarers' skills will also need to encompass a degree of digital competence. The core skills of seafarers – good seamanship, independent problem-solving and resilience – will remain the same. 

I think owners have recognized that our holistic approach and ability to form successful partnerships is a sound, “win-win” business model and have supported us, which we are very grateful for.

How many offices and employees are there? 

Synergy Group now has 13 offices in six key maritime centers and employs more than 12,000 seafarers. We currently have more than 300 vessels under management including LNG and LPG tankers, chemical tankers, oil tankers, container vessels in the 1,800-20,000+ TEU range and every size of bulk carrier.  

Describe for our readers the range of services offered by Synergy. 

Synergy provides end-to-end maritime solutions and services tailored to the specific requirements of clients. We view ourselves as thought- and operational partners to vessel owners. We manage and crew their ships to ensure they’re operated to the highest efficiency and safety standards on a day-to-day basis. We also apply our technical expertise to ensure they stay ahead of the competition. This can mean anything from helping them reap the benefits of digitalization to partnering with them to reduce carbon emissions. 

We also provide a wide range of crewing and training services. We manage major projects such as newbuildings and scrubber installations on behalf of clients. We commercially manage vessels to maximize profitability, and we take on many back-office functions including accounting and insurance. It’s a full-service and operational portfolio! 

Can you tell us about revenues? Synergy has existed for less than 15 years and it’s already one of the biggest players in the industry. How did that happen? 

We’re delighted to be among the market leaders, of course, but I should point out that we’ve never seen the size of our fleet as an end in itself. The basic premise of how we work is it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about 20 or 200 ships. The only real consideration is ship management service and quality deliverables. There’s no point in growing if that results in inefficiencies and a lack of focus on what the client wants. 

We’ve always been very careful to avoid those sorts of diseconomies of scale, which is why most of our growth has been organic – as our clients have grown, we’ve grown to facilitate their requirements. The Synergy mantra is, and always will be, that fleet size is secondary to client service and satisfaction. 

You are an outspoken champion of seafarer rights at a time when seafarers are being refused repatriation and treated by many countries as persona non grata. Tell us what needs to be done in this regard. 

Quite simply what has happened to seafarers during this pandemic can never be repeated. It really is an outrage. As you know, hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been stranded at sea, unable to return home since the first quarter of the year because ports and airports have been closed to them, preventing crew changeovers. Nobody, anywhere, should ever be treated this way, and most definitely not key workers on whom the world depends. It really has become a humanitarian catastrophe and is entirely man-made. 

At Synergy, we’ve been doing our best to help where we can, including forming a shipping alliance of leading owners and stakeholders to push for more rapid change and promoting and trialing the idea of safe corridors, which is now being more widely adopted. Thankfully, we’ve made some progress. In early July Synergy completed its 2,000th crew movement since lockdown. More importantly, our overdue relief rate has more than halved to less than 15 percent from its peak in May. 

However, we still need governments, especially the major crew-supply governments, to streamline airline permitting and crew visas, open up ports and create pathways so crew can return home or join ships more easily. 

That global shipping operations have continued to function with amazing efficiency and limited interruptions throughout this crisis, even as seafarers and their families have faced unprecedented strains far beyond what should be acceptable, is testament to the professionalism and resilience of those who work at sea. They should not be asked to carry this burden any longer. Everyone has their own individual stress threshold, and we should not be waiting for seafarers to reach theirs. 

In the long-term, to ensure this debacle is never repeated, governments and U.N. bodies, including the IMO, need to put in place a rigorous system that identifies seafarers as key workers and opens up legal corridors so we can keep global trade flowing even in the midst of a pandemic. Shipping cannot tackle this cross-border issue alone. 

You are also a champion of decarbonization in shipping and what you call “negawatts.” What specific steps are required to achieve those goals? 

Shipping must be sustainable in the future because the world is demanding a reduction in emissions. It’s inevitable, in my view, that we need to decarbonize supply chains. I also believe personally that it’s the right thing to do. Shipping should take the lead in this, not wait until punitive actions and regulations force our collective hand. We can digitalize to make vessel and fleet efficiency gains, and we can take a range of ship design and operational steps to save energy because saving energy is the first step to cutting emissions. This is the concept of the “negawatt.” Not using energy is the easiest means of cutting emissions. 

What’s your vision for the company? Where do you see it in, say, five years? 

Our vision is be a trusted partner for our clients and we see it as our responsibility to continue to improve. We’re always on the edge seeking to find, redefine and deliver ship management services in a more efficient, sustainable way. We want to make operating ships a simple and pleasant experience for everyone in the chain. It's not an easy two-step process, but I know we can do it. 

Jack O'Connell is The Maritime Executive Magazine's senior editor.  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.