Channels of success
What is common between eighteen container-feeder ships plying the deep seas and exclusive classical music evenings for Dubai’s art connoisseurs? For starters, both are helmed by one man: Ramesh Ramakrishnan, chairman, Transworld Group. Rajeev Nair met him
As a boy, Ramesh Ramakrishnan would have watched catamarans and boat-houses cruising the backwaters that criss-cross his native place in India. A little older, he might have watched wonderstruck cargo ships disappearing into the horizon from the township where his father worked.
Today, as chairman of Transworld Group, a position he has been holding since his father’s death in 1989, his thoughts are largely centred on the high seas. That is where 18 of his company’s ships are. Well, the ocean holds his business empire; it is a conglomerate of diverse divisions, all a spin-off of the company’s core strength – shipping.
Down-to-earth isn’t a cliché when it comes to Ramesh. It is a lesson in humility he has learnt from those illustrious individuals, mostly accomplished musicians, whom he patronises by way of stage events that eye discerning audiences.
Helming the stage shows of seasoned veterans like the Grammy-award winning Indian classicist, Viswa Mohan Bhatt, and celebrity violinist Dr L Subrahmaniam, as well as opening the international headquarters of Transworld Group in the southern side of Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZ) with the same level of dedication, Ramesh believes that success is directly proportional to effort. That is a learning from his hard-working father, who started off as a stenographer in a shipping company and went on to achieve his dream of managing his own shipping company.
The new JAFZ facility houses a logistics centre with 8,000 sq m of covered space with high rack storage system, 2,000 sq m of open area for stocking goods unaffected by weather, and 2,000 sq m of open storage area that can be used to set up assembly lines. “Logistics is a forward integration of our basic business,” says Ramesh. “It was one critical link in the chain that was absent earlier, and we have always wanted to give our customers a comprehensive one-window solution.”
The Transworld Group, with annual turnover of $700 million, is today involved in ship agency, ship-ownership, ship management, freight forwarding, container repairs and logistics, among others. “Our cutting edge is our strong presence in the Indian sub-continent, where we have been in existence for over three decades,” says Ramesh. “We are the agents for six leading shipping principals.”
Complementing it are offices in Singapore and Malaysia to channelise the Far East Asian market and China. However, Dubai is crucial to the company for not just business reasons but sentimental ones too. The company was seeded in the UAE by his father, who had moved into the Gulf in the late 60s. In the early 70s, as agent for a renowned European shipping organisation, he suggested that the ships also move to Mumbai on the way back to Europe from Dubai.
That marked the genesis of Transworld Shipping Services in Mumbai, India, which was to serve as agents for the dominant container operator at that time. His father fulfilled his ambition of buying a vessel in 1982. It was a second-hand French-built ship, which he named Khaleej Express. Since then, Transworld Group grew without losing focus of its core competence. Ramesh, who had started assisting his father by running office errands while he was still a student at a Mumbai college, and his Singapore-based brother, who is now the vice chairman of the Group, strategised the company’s future prospects by creating “independent bodies that primarily service the principals’ requirements.” This was to maintain utmost confidentiality, which is vital in the shipping business.
Growth was steady. Today, Transworld Group controls 15 to 20 per cent of India’s liner business at any port, and the ship-owing venture has grown to cover 18 container-feeder ships of size 500 to 1,500 containers. “Our focus is to be a strong regional niche operator and have extensive domain knowledge of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Arabian Gulf, Singapore, Malaysia…,” says Ramesh.
The Group has offices in the US and UK and is on the look-out to set up representative offices in growing regional markets. Transworld Group’s ships come under the flag of Orient Express Lines, and OEL has placed an order for another four vessels from Singapore, one each to be delivered every three months in 2006.
The Group has over 2,000 employees, over 200 based in Dubai, which Ramesh says is the company’s nerve-centre. He attributes the success of the Group to his team. “We have extremely committed members in our organisation,” he says. “Two of them, V Ramanarayan, a vice-chairman; and LP Khullas, managing director of International Operations, both based in Dubai, have been our pillars (of growth).”
He describes the employee relationship as one respecting family ties but rooted in professionalism. “We have a different set of ethos, where professionalism is respected and family ties do not interfere with the decision-making process.”
Having delegated responsibilities to dedicated teams, every arm of the company has a clearly laid out strategy of growth, which is monitored through monthly and weekly meetings. “Decentralizing without having people who are committed is a recipe for disaster,” observes Ramesh. “In that vein, we are extremely blessed with committed team-members.”
Positioning the new facility on the southern side of JAFZ has come as a strategic initiative for the company. With the proposed airport to come on the same sphere, Transworld could tap into air-cargo, an area of business it has not focused largely, up until now. Transworld is also a strategic partner with six per cent stake in the Vallarppadam Container Terminal in Kochi, Kerala, which is being developed by the Dubai Ports Authority.
Ramesh is aware of the cyclical nature of the shipping business. “There are good times and there are difficult times. It is important to stand up to both,” says Ramesh, attributing his own personal strength to his spiritual side and regular work-outs at the company gym.
The other stress-buster is music and organising them. “My father was a great connoisseur of fine arts and following his death my brother and I decided to commemorate him by building an auditorium in Mumbai. Every year, from July 21, we host various cultural activities for three days. It is meant to showcase seasoned performers as well as highlight the talent of upcoming artists,” says Ramesh.
For him, music and musical events are a passion. “I believe it is my duty to take our cultural heritage to like-minded people in other parts of the world. It is part of our corporate social responsibility. And all proceeds from the events go back for a worthy cause.” The Group is also a Gold Patron of the Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre at the Mall of the Emirates.
A taste for fine arts runs in his family. His wife Geetha has been responsible for the décor of the new facility not to mention the huge painting she did, which now adorns the conference hall.
Ramesh loves to keep a low-profile. “We want to have a quite presence and keep on doing our work. We are very focused on our line of work, and there is so much more to be achieved that we cannot think, right now, about areas that are unrelated to our core expertise.”
An achiever of goals and dreams, Ramesh’s advice to dreamers all is not to lose their feet from the ground. “Keep dreaming but don’t forget hard-core realities.”