Tuesday 20th Nov, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: Remembering an icon of Australian shipping

Jim (left)with his brother Vic, also a much-loved figure
Jim (left)with his brother Vic, also a much-loved figure

I AM standing alone under the Sydney Harbour Bridge one Saturday midnight in 1972, watching the approach of a black 10,000 DWT cargo ship and, as it passes by, its lettering in white on the hull is Orient Overseas Line. At that moment an unscheduled shadow emerges at my shoulder. Watching in silence with me the feature of MV Hong Kong Truth is Jim Fitzgerald. Together we were noting the start of OOL in the Australian/Far East trade.

To run the OOL Australian operation, our company Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd had been appointed to the role of general agents for Australia. I was the owner and CEO of OSS and Jim joined me from the outset, rapidly becoming our general manager. In these capacities our relationship continued for almost 30 years.

The trade between Australia and the Hong Kong, Taiwan, Manila triangle had been served for circa 150 years, mainly by British, Dutch, Swedish and later Liberian-flagged lines, in their tight Conferences ANSCON (northbound) and ANZESC (southbound). By definition, the conference cartels prevented any free competition, and very often the shipper clients had to sign loyalty contracts or face penalty rates.

The British participants remain ancient household words in Asia. The United Nations recommendation was that international shipping should ideally be served by 40% each for the national operators at either end and the remaining 20% to be allocated to third flag nations, the “crosstraders”. The UN resolution carried little weight and was ignored in this scenario, where third country flags carried 100%.

Against this background I had persuaded OOL into entering the trade with its roots and flags being in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and with its highly prominent global presence lending enormous experience to the venture. My hope was, that with half of my 34 years to date having been spent on shipping from the base up, our role would well supplement that of OOL, and this optimism was shared by OOL. On the basis that each party financed its own contribution, i.e. they laid on the ships and myself the Australian Agency. At our own risk and with my own suburban mortgage doing the Australian financing.

To start such a break-in service with three middle-aged ships giving an irregular two-weekly service needed much nerve. To develop it successfully would require a teamwork second to none. I advertised for staff, and Jim stood out, primarily because I had met him earlier and was highly impressed by his many obvious qualities.

Deep in thought along with his good mate, Captain Harry Mansson (on right)
Deep in thought along with his good mate, Captain Harry Mansson (on right)

Jim was born in 1933 at Lilyfield, New South Wales. After only one year as an above average High School student he had to leave and start working to support the family. He joined the Union Steam Ship Co of New Zealand in administration and then at sea as purser for several years. He married Monica and they had two sons, Peter and Rusty. He then joined a US mining group as shipping manager in Perth until the drop in the mining sector by 1972, when he joined OSS.

From the outset it was obvious we had a momentous task ahead, and Jim readily filled the vital role of “morale keeper”, where his vibrant and humorous personality combined with loyalty and compassion to support his tremendous dedication and energy. Work was often seven days per week, and many weekends Jim and I brought our little kids to the office to play with the roller chairs while we did the telexes. Jim was totally devoted to Monica in a loving marriage for close to six decades. His only comment about long marriages being that “the good ‘uns don’t last long enough, mate!”

We all shared his fondness for his devoted brother Vic, a no-nonsense anchor to have around at times of need.

Our staff adored Jim. One of them recently wrote to Jim:

“You have been like a father figure to me over the past 35 years ever since the early days of my shipping career at Orient Shipping. I was inspired and in awe of you, and the way you conducted yourself in life is inspirational. This has not changed over time and I am not sure you realise the impact you have had on my life…it was and will continue to be enormous.
You gave me the confidence to have a go…you are a great role model and provided advice whenever needed, and you helped me to get to be the person I am today. I will never forget all that you have done for me.
I will miss you, mate… I am very proud to call you a friend and I am forever thankful for your support and guidance over the years.
Love you Jim, Thank You. You are a great man”.

We rapidly developed a client base of several hundred in all states. Jim adopted the key role as being the first line for trouble-shooting, and if needed we would sort the matter together.

Improvisation became our guiding light. The conferences had a much bigger fight on their hands than anticipated, and it took about two years for the chips to fall where they rightfully belonged.

Today Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL – renamed after the introduction of cellular container ships) is the leading player in our trade, 45 years after our start-up on that 1972 midnight calling.

Meantime, OSS was approached by, and accepted from, the government lines of New Zealand, Malaysia and Indonesia their agency representation for Australia.

The New Zealand and OOCL/ Tung connection brought us the ANZDL service with North America, whereby cargo was delivered door to door to North America-wide from Oakland, California.

The prize commodity was and remains the export of Australian beef, which was under quota. This became a new and highly important niche for Jim, who ended up as the coordinator of customer relations with both the Australian exports and their US importers.

After his passing, the following was received from the Meat Import Council of America, Inc. (MICA):

Former shipping executive Jim Fitzgerald passed away over the weekend after a long fight with illness. The term legend can be sometimes used when remembering those from the past but in Jimmy Fitz’s case we had a living legend until his passing this week. I had the great pleasure of knowing Jim for most of my meat industry career and a truer and more appropriate reference to someone who always had the interests of others top of mind didn’t exist.
Always larger than life Jim was a true friend of the industry and everyone in it, both here and in our export markets. His exploits during the 1970s, 80s and 90s to bring the export shipping and meat industries together at a time of significant change in both was legendary and his love of the meat industry and the many characters in it, remained until his final day. Even in retirement he was always there to help and build relationships between people and to help and encourage individual careers.
His love of golf extended to organising AMIC’s annual golf tournament at National Conferences for as long as I can remember, always done with precision and never for any remuneration other than a round of golf with his meat industry colleagues. Our deepest condolences to Monica, family and friends. A toast to a life well lived and to someone who did make a difference. – Steve Martyn

Jim made no less than 59 trips to the United States, several of them after his formal retirement. He then refused all offers of remuneration, saying that the job was enough reward for him.

Jim Fitzgerald meeting former Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen
Jim Fitzgerald meeting former Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen

At OSS our customer relations were of total importance, and with Jim’s help we established many off-work liaisons with clients. These would include things like tennis tournaments, golf weekends, Sydney Marathon Team, theatre clubs, etc. A favourite was our Oriental Association which sponsored 30 orphans via World Vision in Asia, and Jim was the first of us to visit the five-year old Christina Ma in the Manila slums (now happily a grandmother).

Customer service was our great motivator, and we won several awards from the Export associations and Principals.

Towards and after retirement Jim and Monica travelled the world widely, including a ‘home boarding’ visit to Havana, much of Europe, and together with my wife Julia and myself a foursome 10-day trip to Vietnam. Jim and I had visited on business during the war and still harboured some possible concerns, because when the ladies went shopping, Jim and I simply hired a tented barge with an esky of Sapporo Beer, anchored it mid-stream on Saigon, and just said and remembered and meditated on what had been. Much as I am doing now.

From the print edition May 11, 2017

* Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

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