Aimon Jameel began his career in the shipping industry in 1981, now 42 years prior, working in the field in different countries and rising to varying high-impact ranks in national and international shipping and logistics companies and agencies. From humble beginnings as a fresh graduate joining Maldives National Shipping Limited (MNSL) as an intern, Aimon advanced enough to eventually fill the position of Chairman of the same company. He has held other prominent positions in the industry, notably as a board member of the Maldives Port Authority, and his current position as the Managing Director of Centurion PLC, the first private company in the Maldives to go for an IPO.
Learning from the Best
His interest in the shipping and logistics field was not one that he had carried through the years as a dream career, but rather, as Aimon described, a pragmatic doorway to advancing himself on a sound career path. Given the option of joining a government company or the military following his secondary studies, Aimon decided to join the Maldives National Shipping Limited. After some 18 months there, he got the opportunity to go study in the UK on a company-sponsored scholarship.
Following attending college, he worked in the UK as an intern for 06 months, doing mostly chartering operations, until late 1986, when he was asked to move to Singapore to take charge of chartering operations for some 06-07 vessels there under MNSL
“I was stationed in Singapore until the mid-90s” He recalled as he talked about the differences in working in the same trade in the UK, Singapore, and then the Maldives, “The most striking thing for me was the differences in work ethics in all three places. All three countries have very different work ethics. Initially, I found it difficult to adjust how things were done in Singapore.” .
When asked about the most interesting experience he had while learning and interning in these two foreign powers of the shipping industry, Aimon stated the UK was a very fun experience.
“Maybe it’s because I interned at one of the largest companies there, Clarksons, working with two senior brokers. They would take us, interns, to the Baltic Exchange, the equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange floor, but purely for shipping, and exchange cargo. It was a great learning experience and hub for buying, selling, exchange and networking. We basically ‘travel’ across the world looking for cargo, from all regions of the world. Bulk cargo, depending on what we are bringing. It can range from timber to sand to food from vessels in Africa, South America or Eastern Asia.”
Past and Future Evolution of the Industry
As someone who has worked for over 41 years in the field, Aimon has experienced many of the changes and evolutions in shipping and logistics in the Maldives over the years. He remembers when the Maldives switched from just break bulk operations to cargo containers in the 1990s and played a part, small but a part nonetheless, in establishing a small MNSL office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which has now evolved into a major hub. In speaking of future advancements, he highlighted the fact that the Maldives has been trying to establish a transhipment port since the 1980s, when an agreement was even signed, stating that there needs to be massive infrastructural investment to get such a service going in the Maldives.
“We would need to convince mainliners to come to the Maldives and operate from here,” He noted. “My personal opinion is that the Maldives should function as a large feeder hub, where you can take in larger feeder vessels. It would reduce our investment cost.”
He also commented on the talk that international bunkering will soon start at North Thiladhunmathi, stating that there is a great investment opportunity there.
“If you are investing, then do it as soon as possible. There is no difference between investing now and investing five years later because it is a good idea to conduct these operations out of the north. The important thing to keep in mind is that along with international bunkering, you have to add in other services. Bunkering ships require services like surveys, crew change, and spare parts, in the span of 24-48 hrs. Foreign investment for infrastructure like this would be a great idea, but for major infrastructure only, services have to come under local entities.”
Continuing, Aimon also shared his thoughts on the lacklustre appreciation for shipping and logistics as career choices in the Maldives. Shipping, he said, used to be an attractive industry in the Maldives previously.
‘I would say that the responsibility lies with us, the older generation,” Aimon said as he relayed the difficulties faced at Centurion when it comes to human resources. “We can get staff, but we can’t get specialised trained staff. We get people with experience through working, but not necessarily people who have studied this in college so while they know what to do, they may not necessarily know how to, say, read a bill of lading. I am happy though, that more and more of these courses are being taught in the Maldives Maritime Academy because I would definitely say there are a lot of opportunities in this industry.”
He further went on to say that the members of the industry themselves have to play a more active role to move further and improve on the different aspects of the trade. Like MATI for the tourism industry, the stakeholders in this industry need to work together with various institutions like the port authority towards self-regulation. It is not healthy to encourage the government to micromanage the shipping and logistics industry, Aimon declared, and for the trade to keep awaiting new government policies to fix problems they see within the industry.
“Industry Stakeholders need to band together and take the initiative to make their own regulations under the guidelines of government policy.”
Operating Amidst Covid-19
“During the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the biggest challenge for us was operational because people were locked in. In shipping, 50% is communication and the other half is physical operational work. That last part was the difficult part for us.”
“Having a good team, that’s very important. For us at Centurion, I believe we got closer during the lockdown period as we worked together to address the ever-changing situation. Our nation is very much dependent on the shipping and logistics industries to make other industries work. Shipping and logistics are the lifeline of other industries, like tourism, in the Maldives. A resort operates because a logistics company like us transports their fresh produce to them, no matter how bad the weather.”
Coming back to crises, Aimon suggests keeping a diverse portfolio so that one part of operations may survive while others suffer. He gave the example of how Centurion’s dhoni operations came to a standstill during Covid. International shipping was still in operation back then, cargo was moving in, albeit slowed during the second half of the Covid-19 lockdown period. They had to diversify their portfolio and see how else the company could operate.
“We tightened our belts, reduced costs, diversified, and survived.” He said. “Although we made little profit last year, our recovery has been very positive this year.”
Spearheading Going Public
One of Aimon’s greatest achievements, according to him, is successfully seeing his company, Centurion, through the complicated process of going public.
“Being the first, we were the guinea pigs. All our directors were scrutinised, like asking if we have familial relations. Achieving compliance was very difficult. We have challenged them and come out strong. Like on the subject of reserving seats for female board members, my company is a meritocracy. Because of this, 53% of our senior management is female, and out of 19 graduates who work for me, 13 are female workers. Reserving seats based on gender is less of a necessity in a company that runs on merit, and from a company perspective, this is more productive. Our board, to this day, comprises professionals in different aspects of the field who can all contribute equally and productively”
Regardless of the fact that a public company has a lot of disclosures, the initial process itself is fraught with red tape, and governance has to be maintained to a specific standard, Aimon would recommend other private companies to go for an IPO.
“The reason we went for an IPO is that we wanted a company that would last longer and be more resilient. Lots of companies have tried or thought of going public in the Maldives, but they hadn’t achieved this til today. People may say it is solely to raise funds, and of course, that remains a major reason, but even if you don’t manage to raise the capital you wanted, going public is still beneficial in my opinion.”
“Every operator, from the smallest one to the largest one, should be allowed to have a say in what goes on in the industry and what governing rules are created for them.” Aimon reiterated as we ended the conversation. “And I would say there are definitely a lot of opportunities in this trade, for Maldivian companies and for young Maldivians who are looking for fulfilling careers. They just need to have the interest and the passion, and a willingness to work hard to go forward in this field.”