Harjeet Kaur Joshi, Chairperson and Managing Director (MD) of Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) is the first female to head the shipping company and is one among a few women at the MD level. Before joining SCI, Joshi has served in various positions in ONGC for three decades. She has moved up the corporate hierarchy with constant perseverance.
While she feels India is better compared to other western countries in terms of women representations at the board level, she still feels India can do better.
Joshi shares with Free Press Journal's Jescilia Karayamparambil, the challenges of this sector and how SCI has overcome the odds.
There are very few women occupying the corner offices. Adding to it, the industry you are in is male-dominated. What is your take on it?
Indian women CEOs constituted about 2.4 per cent in 2020 and senior management about 39 per cent as against the global average of 31 per cent. While 98 per cent of Indian companies have at least one woman in senior management as compared to 90 per cent globally, this is not sufficient laurel for us to rest upon and the representation/participation needs to improve.
A male-dominated industry becomes an inhibiting factor and tends to exaggerate these numbers further but then a beginning has to be made somewhere. I hope I have smashed stereotypes and opened the floodgates for more women to follow.
Incidentally, the industry where I grew up was also predominantly male-oriented. Having not only survived but blossomed there I think I was mentally prepared to face hostilities and overcome them.
The gender bias does have a tremendous psychological impact and can be a great dampener for women wanting to enter the male bastion as hostilities do impact productivity and it would be more conducive if a certain amount of acceptability existed.
According to a research, female employees apologise a lot more than their male counterparts. Do you think there is anything wrong with apologising?
I haven’t particularly observed in my experience women apologising a lot more to me; perhaps I need to check whether the research talks of this pattern with male bosses. But what’s wrong in apologising in case something wrong has been done that would warrant an apology. As compared to arrogance and ego, I consider being humble is a real strength and the humility and compassion involved in apologising is an invaluable trait. It doesn’t take any strength to be arrogant but it takes a lot of character and strength to accept a mistake. If women do it more often than their male counterparts well they are proving they are a stronger and more humble breed as also why we need diversity. However, never ruin an apology with an excuse, if women are doing that I guess that needs to change.
Do you recollect any stereotypes or biases you faced in your career that shaped your career or personal life?
I consider my upbringing, my background, a very sound education, a strong family both before and after marriage, supporting kids helped in shaping my personality and carving out my career. I was born to an army officer and had a strong disciplined but protective upbringing where there was no gender bias and discrimination. This confidence helped me to overcome biases in case there were any.
I cannot say that I did not face such situations altogether but my determination and sense of purpose overpowered these impediments. I must also confess that I had superiors who encouraged and motivated me to keep raising the bar higher. I have had excellent bosses who believed in me.
I now reflect and realise that my bosses never treated me like a woman but just another employee for them and that helped me to grow as an equal.
The biggest challenge for female leadership if at all that I perceived, is to be treated equally. If given a chance, a woman is most likely to perform.
After you took over as the Chief of SCI, how have you tried to empower women employees in your organisation?
As a woman who always wanted to be treated equally, I don’t give any soft options to women employees in the organisation. That is the best way of empowering them.
We don’t grow when things are easy but we grow only when we face challenges. This is visible in our most recent milestone in bringing about a paradigm shift in the perception of the maritime sector as an inclusive one with the sailing of the “First Ever All Women Officers” aboard SCI’s tanker m.t. Swarna Krishna, an Indian Flag Ship being commanded and managed by an all Indian crew certified by the Indian Regulatory Authority. I challenged myself, the organisation, as well as all the women on board. Today, the event is being hailed across the globe as a major transition, encouragement and boost not only to the women seafarers but to the entire shipping sector in general. It is only an inclusive and diverse sector that prospers and grows.
What would your suggestions be to those women who aspire to reach the position you are in?
Persevere, dare and be willing to go beyond your comfort zone. Aspire to reach those goals that you believe in with the conviction and assert your stand. Acknowledging the ‘leader’ in you is comparatively easy as compared to pushing that leader to withstand the trials and beyond. Rather achieve, a constant enterprising ability and diligent performance with a focused vision as to where you need to reach would help in sustaining and improving the momentum of your aspiration.
Under your leadership, how have you tackled the pandemic and continued to maintain SCI's growth?
The unprecedented pandemic was dealt with effectively and with foresight and vision. A Business Continuity Plan (BCP) was finalised well before the lockdown and implemented with the configuration of the IT systems to adapt to the WFH requirements.
Business Operations and Functions continued to be executed without any exception, interruption and delay and SCI managed to deliver on all fronts well within the stipulated timelines and without availing any extensions granted by the regulatory authority, either for the publishing of results or holding of the statutory meetings. A remote audit was conducted due to the restrictive scenario and SCI managed to break its own records of over a decade.
We had a major challenge of controlled crew change which was necessitated by the IMO at the global level and the DG Shipping, nationally, as a safeguard for curbing the COVID spread. The increased cost of such crew changes did not deter SCI and crew changes were addressed with the ‘Safety First” approach and ensuring a qualitative crew change with due care, compassion, ensuring that the seafarer reached his home healthy and safe.
SCI adhered to strict preventive measures and the entire owned fleet remained COVID free – a great achievement.
Despite the slump in business, how is SCI growing?
The slump in the market, especially, the Tanker segment has negatively impacted the ship-owners. SCI’s diverse fleet, judicious practice and strategic deployment of its vessels on a mix of voyage and period charter as also the selection of trade routes helped to absorb the volatility of the market to some extent and leverage the strength of the market in the segments doing well. And although, the dry bulk market is now improving with China driving the demand, during the time of slump in coal demand SCI balanced its deployment by focusing on the relatively better demand for grain transport.
Impact of the covid-19 pandemic and slump in oil prices was also felt in the offshore market in 2020-21 leading to postponement or cancellation of the ongoing E&P projects by many E&P companies and limited employment opportunities for the offshore vessels which made us look for diverse customers instead of being focussed on a single one. Also with Brent crude crossing US$ 60 and projected bunker prices at the higher range, offshore activities are expected to rise opening up further opportunities in the offshore services sector.
In the container segment, the demand from consuming regions of the world increased due to a staggered resumption of normalcy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and, with greater demand for containers and vessel space, the shipping freight also witnessed a rise. Secondly, the container rates also increased due to the demand-supply gap dynamics as repositioning of empty containers got adversely and severely impacted due to delay in container de-stuffing and clearance at discharge locations owing to the congestion and resultant increase in the turnaround time for the containers. With demand intact, supply scarcity and freight rates holding firm for the short term, the results of SCI were encouraging and the trend is expected to continue during the next quarter too.
Overall, with its intrinsic advantage of a diversified fleet operating in different business segments and the strategies in place, SCI has been able to not only sustain but fare exceptionally well during this tumultuous period.
What are the challenges the shipping industry is facing? How much has low- sulphur fuel increased input costs?
The shipping industry has still not emerged from the depression which commenced in 2008 alongside the global financial crisis and is also somewhat reeling under the impact of the Covid crises. Shipping and trade are closely linked to economic development and with the pandemic impacting the logistics/supply and, with the onset of the second wave of Covid-19 in many countries, recovery remains uncertain.
Asia contains economic powerhouses mainly China, India, Japan, South Korea along with ASEAN nations where gradual slow trade growth off-shoots are visible after the disruption caused by the pandemic. However, this trade growth presupposes a requisite that the western countries should be able to overcome the pandemic. Further, the US-China relationship will also have an impact in deciding full-fledged trade recovery.
Currently, the biggest challenge faced by shipowners is the slump is the tanker market with freight rates at an all-time low. Subdued demand and excess tonnage put pressure on freight rates, in some cases, yielding negative gross operating profit basis round voyage. TCY earnings for the Middle Eastern Gulf to India routes have been negative in recent months.
The Indian tonnage has not grown vis-à-vis the Indian Exim business in the last 2-3 decades; a major share of Indian trade is still catered to by foreign lines depriving the Indian shipping companies of business opportunities. Indian tonnage growth would complement the growth of the shipbuilding industry and the overall economy, under the Make-in-India initiative of our Government. However, a conducive environment, level playing field and policy support are required to provide the required impetus for the growth of the shipping industry in India.
In a positive development, the Government in its budget has announced a subsidy scheme of Rs. 1,624 crore to encourage the growth of Indian tonnage. Further, the industry has been canvassing for Dedicated Financial Institution for providing long term loans at competitive rates to Indian shipping companies to enable them to compete with their foreign competitors availing such low-cost finances.
No doubt, low Sulphur fuel has increased the input costs but during the Covid-19 pandemic, all the equations of demand-supply dynamics changed substantially. Crude oil prices fell at the start of 2020 due to demand contraction, global economic slowdown and huge inventories; due to which the switch over to low sulphur led only to a marginal increase in fuel cost.
Bunker cost has however started rising from November-December 2020 on account of the cut-down in crude production by OPEC, partial shutdown of production for maintenance and increasing demand after opening up of economic activities in most parts of the world. A steep increase in bunker prices has been noticed in the last two months as crude rates increased by nearly 50 per cent during the same period and is expected to impact the direct operating costs.
It is usually during the slowdown in economies that vessel purchase and sales gain momentum. Any activity there?
Asset prices in the tanker, dry bulk and gas segment are quite attractive at the moment whereas, the containership prices are prevailing at exceptionally high levels due to the present demand surge in the container trade. Acquiring assets at the opportune time has been SCI’s policy. The prevailing scenario of stable financials of SCI and attractive vessel prices is the right moment and SCI is actively looking at opportunities for enhancing its fleet. Presently SCI is in the process of vessel acquisition for which tender has already been floated and vessel inspection is underway.
Future growth plan for the company.
On the fleet enhancement, SCI may contemplate the acquisition of vessels soon in a wider spectrum depending on the market conditions, fund availability, and other factors. SCI is looking at consolidating its position as India’s premier shipping company and continues to explore new business opportunities in the EXIM trade, Coastal trade has also increased its global footprint in cross trading opportunities by looking at new partnerships as well as tonnage through in chartering which is always an open option.
SCI, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Inland & Coastal Shipping Ltd. (ICSL), has also entered a new segment of Inland Waterways from January 2021 and has started regular service on National Waterways no. 1. Presently SCI is operating 2 vessels on this route and is expected to induct a third vessel in near future. These 3 vessels are owned by the Inland Waterways Authority of India and have been taken over by ICSL on a bareboat charter basis for operations in the inland waterways.
As a well-diversified shipping company with a strong presence and expertise developed over decades, there is no dearth of opportunities for SCI as we explore every sphere of activity in the shipping segment.
(This article was originally planned for International Women's Day.)