AFTER almost half a century with the same company and the best part of twenty years as managing director, John Lines is looking forward to a well-earned retirement.
Mr Lines announced late last year his time at the helm was ending, an announcement followed by a large send-off at the RACV Club in Melbourne.
But before the official send-off, Mr Lines conducted one last interview with Daily Cargo News where he reflected upon some of the highlights of his time at the helm.
Time at the helm
“I think overseeing the sale of ANL and the preservation of ANL as an Australian company,” he says, when asked about the big achievements in his time at the helm. “The success of ANL. The general level of satisfaction customers have for ANL’s service and the expansion of ANL I would say.”
He speaks highly of new ANL director Xavier Eiglier who is in the process of moving to Melbourne from Marseilles.
“I think he has a nice personality and very much of the view that ANL is a good strong brand.
“Rodolphe Saadé is also very impressed with ANL’s profit and image in the market place.
“He also has indicated that his plans for ANL are to continue to grow and become stronger for the foreseeable future.”
Australian flagged shipping
Mr Lines is perhaps more optimistic about Australian-flagged coastal shipping than many others, noting a growing freight task should enhance its relevance.
“But the emphasis needs to be on the ability to handle Australian coastal vessels,” he says.
“I always aspired to set up an Australian-manned, Australian coastal service. But there was always problems with facilities, there’s no berths.
“The international ships quite rightly have priority on the berths and there’s been no investment in multi-user berths or anything like that where you could put a coastal ship.”
Mr Lines says for a coastal service to work it had to be competitive with road and rail.
“There’s definitely a place and I think the more our country grows in population, the bigger the task to move freight around Australia the more appropriate it is for Australian coastal shipping,” he said.
But he is less bullish about Australian international shipping.
“I think the idea of Australian shipping internationally with Australian crew on board I think that’s very difficult, because of our wage structures, you can’t be competitive,” he says.
“If you can’t be competitive you shouldn’t be in that sector.
“But around Australia it should be possible.”
Mr Lines dismisses suggestions international labour could be used for Australian coastal shipping.
“I don’t believe in that. I believe that if you have Australian shipping it should be no different from having an Australian driving a truck,” he says.
“If you operate an Australian ship on the Australian coast, it should be jobs for Australians.
“If the cost is that the standard of employment contracts in Australia and the productivity is at a level that is acceptable, then I see no reason why you wouldn’t have Australians on board.”
Mr Lines is not among those insisting laws need to change to allow for coastal shipping, preferring to focus on infrastructure.
“There is a need for infrastructure investment to make it viable. For that to be done, you need to come forward with a viable proposal that is sustainable in the longer term,” he says.
“You need to have all stakeholders buying into the vision and making sure they are committed to the vision. Maybe even the Maritime Union might be prepared to invest if it is creating jobs for its members going forward.”
Asked about his relationship with the MUA, Mr Lines was positive and it’s worth noting both Paddy Crumlin and Anthony Albanese were invited to his retirement celebration (unfortunately they were unable to make it).
“I think with the Maritime Union I’ve had good relationships with all of the leadership for as long as I’ve been employed at ANL,” he says.
“I recognised very early on that they were an important stakeholder in our industry and that you needed to be on good terms and work with them. I also recognise that they have a job to do for their members and they will be doing the best they could to secure the best result for their members.
“It may not be consistent where you as a shipowner wants to go but I think everyone recognises you have to negotiate and negotiate for the best outcome.”
DCN asked Mr Lines for his perspective on the 1998 waterfront dispute the twentieth anniversary of which is fast approaching.
“My biggest disappointment was that the stevedoring tariffs were not as low as people were speculating they might be afterwards, that is my biggest regret,” he says.
“I think that dispute needed to occur and full credit to Chris Corrigan for bringing it on, I think productivity needed to improve.
“But we’re now at a point were productivity is stalled and if you look at the benefits of the scale we’re being limited because of the facilities not able to handle it in Melbourne.”
Mr Lines prefers to target his wrath at the stevedoring businesses rather than labour.
“The stevedores’ investment has been slow, the number of cranes on the vessels is not where it needs to be and the delays being incurred, whether productivity or management issues, are at levels that are unacceptable,” he says bluntly.
“I think there is a need for a bit of a shakeup in the stevedoring industry.”
The Australian waterfront has seen some change in recent years, notably the arrival of third container stevedores in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
“People talk about whether or not Hutchison and VICT starting up was a good thing or a bad thing – definitely it was a good thing because the two incumbent stevedores – Patricks and DP World – haven’t been able to accommodate all of the volume on offer,” he says.
“At the rate of growth we’re seeing, there’s going to be more demand for the third operator.”
The future of Melbourne
Mr Lines has been an advocate of getting more out of Melbourne’s Webb Dock for years.
“I think they should extend the length of the wharf face at Webb Dock for a start – that would be a positive development,” he notes.
“I think it’s clear that the river ports (Swanson Docks) are reaching their end of life and the government needs very quickly to make a decision about where they expand the port facilities.
“Now whether that’s extending further the Webb Dock facilities or whether it’s at a different location I don’t know.
“They need to start thinking about it because inevitably within the next five years, the size of vessel coming to Australia will be 8000TEU, 8500 moving up to 10,000TEU.”
He downplays suggestions of Melbourne being obsolete but describes a scenario where smaller ships would operate into Melbourne and sail out via South East Asia, while larger vessels would sail into Sydney and Brisbane and then sail straight into China and East Asia.
“Which means Melbourne runs a risk of becoming a small ship port and the cargoes will be trans-shipped in South East Asia or alternatively railed up to Sydney to accommodate it,” he said.
“That is not forgetting the fact, as I understand it, VICT can handle up to around 8000TEU vessels, but that facility is not large enough to accommodate the demand going forward.
“So something has to give.”
Aside from spending more time with his family, Mr Lines certainly will be keeping a keen eye on the fortunes of his beloved Geelong Cats AFL team, especially given the return of ‘prodigal son’ Gary Ablett Jr from the Gold Coast.
“We’re all excited about ‘Little Gaz’,” he laughs when asked how the team would perform in 2018.
“With Little Gaz I think there will be disappointment if they don’t finish in the top four.
“Whether they’re good enough to win a premiership remains to be seen.”
Editor’s note. This writer first interviewed John Lines in 2011, a flag year for the Cats. Perhaps an omen?