November 30, 2020

In the 1990s Mr. Michel Lobo the genealogist who has studied and written a lot about the Kanarite Catholics, wrote a book about 100 prominent personalities of the community in the 20th century. Among them were only 3 couples. One of them were my parents.

Hence I started with as they say a silver spoon if not a gold one. My mother a housewife had two favourite books which she ensured her children read. ‘How to make Friends and Influence people’ by Dale Carniege and ‘Think and grow rich’ by Napoleon hill. Over the years these books have helped me as a professional and businessperson. They are best sellers for long and I recommend everyone to read them.

My first challenge in life came in the late 1950s when I was just 18 years old. I was in the best Engineering College in the state of Karantaka with my own efforts, which happened to be just in front of the office of my father who was then the first Chief Electrical Engineer of Newly formed Karnataka State. I was in the comfort zone living I’m my own room in a Bungalow. By chance I came to apply for entry to a Marine Engineering College just to get some exposure and see Bombay. To my surprise I was selected in all India entrance competition. It was a difficult decision to make, to be away from home in a hostel where I had to live with four other cadets in a big room. The course was an apprentice in a workshop quite different from an Engineering college atmosphere. A lot of discipline and restrictions were imposed which I was not used to. I seriously considered returning to Bangalore, but something made me wait a few days.

Then an incident occurred that changed the situation. On a Sunday morning we the first-year students were asked to gather at the quadrangle and a Senior who was a weightlifter, boxer and a bully, asked one of us step up to box with him. No one did and we were ridiculed as being sissy. I had regularly boxed in school and junior college and being a good basketball player was fast on my feet. Though much thinner than this guy, being a bit taller and a south paw I decided to take the challenge and put on the gloves. Thinking I was a novice and weak the senior charged at me without much thought. Within a minute he was down on his knees with his nose bleeding. This made me an instant hero of the batch and someone respected by the seniors. Some of my batchmates still talk about it. I decided then to make Marine Engineering my Career, took up the challenge of a difficult environment and have never regretted that decision. It helped me to be independent and out of the shadow of my illustrious parents.

The second challenge came my way after I obtained my Chief Engineers competency certificate which I got in my first attempt. Till then I had worked only in Indian Shipping Companies. Indian shipping was expanding, and the jobs were plenty for qualified engineers. I had already worked as a second engineer of a ship. Just then I got an offer to join British flag vessel belonging to a Hongkong Shipping Company, Worldwide Shipping. Being one of the largest in the world I knew it would be a challenge, since I would be working with other British senior officers and Chinese crew. Again, I was stepping into a non-comfort zone. I decided to take a chance.

I joined as the 2nd Engineer of a bulk carrier which was having some engine problems and a long list of pending surveys. The Chief Engineer a Britisher in his early fifties was one who did want to do any work and had asked for shore repairers assistance in Japan. I was wondering whether I had taken a right decision to join a foreign flag ship. Fortunately, the ship was loading iron ore regularly in Goa for Japan and we were getting around 10 days in port to load the cargo. Knowing there was a Lloyd’s surveyor in Goa, I undertook to do the surveys with the Chinese ship crew. At the same time having earlier experience of working on Sulzar engines I also undertook to do the necessary Main Engine repairs and improve the performance. The Japanese superintendent who is to visit the vessel at Japanese ports regularly was aware that what I was doing on board was beyond what was required of me to do.

With time as the pressure of carrying repairs eased and the engines worked well, I was enjoying my sailing days, when suddenly I got a call while the ship was in Tokyo to sign off and join a sister ship as the Chief Engineer. I was just 27 years old and many were surprised as until then mainly Britishers in their 50s were working as Chief Engineers on Worldwide ships. But when I was told the ship on its way from Los Angeles to Japan had stopped ten times at sea, I wondered if I should take the risk of being its Chief Engineer. However, the Superintendent assured me that the ship was going to the dry dock and he will be there with the shore workshop to help me to carry out the required repairs and he had full confidence in me. So, I took up the challenge and after the docking repairs sailed with the ship with different cargoes around the world without a single stop. On return I got a 250,000-yen bonus from the same charterers who before the repairs wanted to off hire the ship. Good money for a bachelor to have in Japan.

The third challenge I faced was when after marriage and two years of sailing with wife I took up a shore job. The job was good, relatively well paid for a shore job. I had been selected by a general Manger from BP Marine London from a panel of 30 candidates. He was surprised that I had worked as Chief Engineer in Worldwide. I had a long designation: BP Marine Technical Representative for South Asia. Again as I had two other offers on hand, one in Bangalore , I hesitated when I realised that BP India though part of British Petroleum was actually a small agency company in India, which had not changed since independence and had no prospects for any promotion. Living conditions in Bombay were not good compared to Bangalore.

I took the job as it was a challenge to start a fresh type of job with an independent charge and BP marine had just signed an agreement to supply SCI ships with marine lubricants round the world and I had to ensure it worked smoothly. Soon I realised there was no one looking after the sales in the company and more importantly no one interested to do so. There was a big market in India, and I took up the Challenge. To the surprise of BP marine International, BP soon had almost 70% of the Indian International Marine lubricant market and also 20% of the Bunker fuel market which made me one of their best sales person in the world..

It also gave me the opportunity to convince BP marine to have a tie up with Bharat Petroleum to blend and supply locally BP branded lubricants. This provided me exposure to manufacturing problems in India, custom and exercise regulations and refinery procedures, pricing and taxes. Without asking I was getting big pay increments. My British boss at that stage decided I should take a year’s evening management course which I reluctantly agreed to, as with all my travels around the country and to UK I had very little time for the family.

As soon as I completed it, he decided against my wishes to ask me to take overall charge of 3 other operational departments, Marine Crew, Marine Agency and Exports headed by Persons who had worked in BP India for more than 30 years. I realised vast savings could be made by taking a few policy decisions but had to tread carefully to have the support of the departments. So, within 6 years of joining BP India my designation had reduced to just Ast. Manger (Marine) but effectively number two in the organisation. I am narrating this is only because by my joining a small company where there were opportunities to make changes, gave me the opportunity to shine and make a mark and learn a lot of different things, which I would have not been able to do in a big efficiently run company.

The next was a bigger challenge. While in BP India, a BP tanker came to Bombay port and wanted just 50 tons of Diesel oil. I was surprised to find none of the 3 oil companies supplied Bunker fuel oil to ships and the agents of the ships had to make the arrangements. There were no Bunker fuel oil barges to supply Bunker fuel to ships in stream and the ship had to be berthed at heavy cost just to receive Bunker fuel. To avoid the berthing I had to use BP India’s influence to get a dumb construction barge from Mazagon docks, have it cleaned, fill it with the oil from trucks and with a hired diesel driven pump supply the tanker with the required Bunker fuel in stream. We then had to clean the barge at BPs cost and return the barge to Managing docks. It was a shocking revelation that the largest port in India had no Bunker oil barge facility which was available in almost all major ports of the world.

Meanwhile, due to change in local regulations BP Indian agency had to become an Indian company with just 40% share with BP London. I came up with the Idea that BP should offer 30% shareholding to the employees and 30% to the Guzder family which had shown interest to be shareholders. BP then had never heard of employee shareholding and turned down my suggestion. I then took a very difficult decision to resign from BP India and try to see if I could start for the first time in India a Bunker fuel oil barging company. There were no businessmen in my family or those of my wife. All were professionals. I did not have enough finance required to build barges. Just an idea and a dream. The decision was a shock to the extended family. Fortunately, the decision came as big surprise also to BP marine in London who had not been kept informed of the developments by the Regional Director of BP. They called me to London to make me change my mind, but as I had already taken steps to start my own company with a few friends, they accepted that I be a Consultant to them only looking after Marine sales in India with a bigger consultancy fee than the salary I was getting.

Seatrans group of companies started with two fibre glass deep sea fishing trawlers belonging to Britain’s biscuits converted into workboats to supply lubricant drums to ships in stream and butcher Island. The next one was a 300-ton self-propelled bunker fuel oil barge converted from a deck loader iron ore barge laid up in Goa under the supervision of Indian Register of Shipping and Mercantile Marine department. It was first such Bunker fuel oil barge in the country. Very soon we had black furnace oil barge, and a white diesel oil barge. Indian oil chartered the barges to deliver for the first time Bunker fuel oil to merchant ships directly. Quality of oil delivered, and proper quantities supplied in time were ensured.

Just five years ago I was invited by the Indian oil Sewree installation for a function to honour me. The terminal manager said at the meeting that he had just joined IOC in the early 1980s, when he witnessed a young 40-year-old BP manager enter the installation. He gradually shook the bunker fuel oil industry not only at Sewree but all over India, from being non friendly arrogant organisation to one that served the Shipping industry like in other parts of the world.

There was no looking back as business boomed. Seatrans turned into an innovative company with chemical stainless-steel barges and naval supply tanker, molasses barges, the only double decker bulk lube oil barge etc. Looking back, we can say that Seatrans introduced for the first time in the country around 17 new services.
When you are an innovative company things do go wrong with some of the projects you take up and it did with us. In a country like India where bureaucrats wear blinkers, change is difficult but not impossible. However I have never regretted moving from a highly comfort zone of being a professional to become a businessman in a unknown business environment.

And finally coming to CHEMS- Catholic Higher Education and Mentoring Society, whose seed was sworn at one of your monthly meetings about 6 years ago. I heard one Mr. Kamdar from Jain Jagruti society talk about a Fund they had giving interest free educational loans to deserving poor students from their community. When I heard him, what surprised me most was that though we had a number of educational institutions of repute in the Archdiocese we did not have a single similar financial NGO. Being from a poor parish church located in a village of Mankurd, I was aware there was an urgent need for such an NGO in the community.

Fortunately I was part of a very dynamic Deonar Small Christian Community which decided to help me start Chems. The then parish priest was also helpful and though an independent unit be located at the Church. We have so far mainly gathered funds from our own parishioners, our friends and relations. The details of what we have achieved so far is given in our latest annual report which you can pick up and read and so I will not delve on it.

The point I will like to emphasise is, if there is a need, even if the conditions are adverse and unknown, one can grasp the opportunity and have a success story. I am sure most of you will get similar opportunities in life and hope what I have narrated will make you grasp the opportunity. Success is not always about amassing money, but to know you have made a difference in the lives of people and institutions.

  1. Eric Dsa

Founder – Seatrans,