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Weak points? I have none, says shipmanagement chief

Mark O’Neil

THEO PANAYIDES discovers the secret behind Mark O’Neil’s success: see a challenge as an opportunity, eschew negativity and develop a firm belief in karma. A stint in the army also doesn’t hurt.

It’s all one word, apparently – ‘shipmanagement’, not ‘ship management’ – but the two constituent parts still seem a little incongruous. Ships have a romance about them, sailing free on the open seas; management is the dismal domain of bean counters and pencil-pushers. That said, the models of ships decorating the conference room don’t seem especially romantic; one in particular, the container ship APL China – 276m in length – is like a floating warehouse, nothing but columns of stacked crates with a small engine room in between.

The conference room is in Limassol, just off the Germasogeia exit, in the offices of Columbia Shipmanagement – which may soon be the offices of Columbia-Marlow, following a proposed merger between the company and another German-origin company headquartered in Cyprus, Marlow Navigation. I don’t actually know if the merged company will be housed in Columbia’s current premises – but the merger itself is apparently going through, according to Mark O’Neil who says they’re merely awaiting “a number of approvals from various regulatory authorities, which we anticipate will arrive imminently”. The merged company will be “a significant player” in the world of shipmanagement, unsurprisingly since both Columbia and Marlow are already significant players. They collectively employ over 700 staff plus “a pool of seafarers [i.e. crew members for ships] in excess of 30,000”. They have offices all over the world, in addition to the HQs in Limassol plus a big training centre in the Philippines. Mark prefers not to say how many vessels they manage (“it varies”), or what Columbia’s turnover is – but both numbers, I suspect, are quite sizeable.

Mark himself is 51, very trim, with grey hair and glasses. His eyes are hard (not unfriendly, just hard), his manner brisk and initially rather unsmiling, though he relaxes as we talk. He joined Columbia as president this past January, on the understanding that he’ll also be CEO of Columbia-Marlow – indeed, the merger is precisely why he was brought in. The new CEO has to be a neutral, not directly connected to either company but preferably with experience of both companies; Mark fits the bill, having worked in maritime law for 25 years with most of the world’s shipowners and management companies among his clients. He was previously a partner at Reed Smith, “the tenth-largest law firm in the world” – so make no mistake, we’re talking big jobs here. How big? Obviously, I don’t know what Mark’s particular arrangement was, but the Wikipedia entry for the firm includes the following: “In 2014, revenues at Reed Smith reached a record-breaking $1.15 billion. Profits per partner grew six per cent to $1,200,000”.

What kind of person does that kind of job – and indeed this kind of job, manning and managing ships all over the world? A driven person, obviously. A disciplined person. Above all, perhaps, a confident person – though whether people become confident because they’ve been successful, or succeed because they were confident in the first place, is one of those questions we’d all like the answer to. One moment in our conversation may be significant, when I ask Mark what he considers to have been his weak point as a young man of 20 – and he looks untypically flustered. “Weak point?” he repeats with an air of perplexity. “I don’t think I – um, perceive myself as having a weak point”.

There it is, in a nutshell – and of course perception is key here, as it is when he talks of his sideways move from law into shipmanagement: “People have said to me ‘Good luck in your challenge’, [but] I can’t stand the word ‘challenge’, I always use the word ‘opportunity’. ‘Challenge’ suggests something that might succeed or fail – and I have absolutely no doubt that this merger, and I, will succeed in that context”. One man’s challenge is another’s opportunity; it depends on the worldview you espouse, or choose to espouse. In the same way, asking Mark for his weak points as a 20-year-old gets a muted response (he just doesn’t see it that way) – but in fact 20 was the age when he joined the British Army, and he’s happy to admit that the army helped him “grow up” in all kinds of ways. “It taught me organisation. It taught me respect for others. It taught me teamwork”. It also taught him confidence, since he was “as a teenager, probably on the shy side – as we all are in those formative years”; having to stand in front of 45 men, most of them older, and lead them into combat changed that pretty quickly. Should we say he had weak points, though, or was he just a normal youth learning to mature? It’s the same, yet subtly different.

This was real combat, by the way – certainly towards the end of his five-year stint (1986-91) when he served in the first Gulf War as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, leading the charge into Kuwait City. In a way, his situation was different to most of his comrades. Most soldiers enlist straight from school, but Mark already had a good degree (in Law, from the University of Southampton) and could easily have gone straight to civvy street. The reason why he joined up is unusual, in this day and age: he comes from a military family, indeed every male O’Neil for “the last couple of hundred years” has gone into the services. “My father was in the army, my brother was in the army. It was inevitable I was going to go into the army”.

He grew up as “a gypsy army brat being taken around the various army bases in Germany”, where his father was posted (his mum is German; Mark speaks fluent German, which presumably helped in being chosen to lead a merger between two German companies). He must’ve been a forceful, aggressive young man, shyness or not. “My father brought us up to be very competitive,” he admits with a wry chuckle – and he mostly channelled that into sports, especially once in the army. He was captain of the regimental ski team, and narrowly missed an Olympic place in the winter triathlon. “I did horse riding, running, shooting. It was a great environment for a young man to keep fit and grow up”.

Even the actual business of fighting didn’t faze him, indeed it was only after being posted to Sandhurst as an instructor, after the war, that he decided to go civilian. “Probably, had there been more of that soldiering, I would’ve stayed in the army longer,” he muses (it was all the “waiting around” that got to him). Sorry if the question sounds naïve, I venture – but does he think he ever personally killed anyone, while in Iraq? Mark laughs in embarrassment: “Uh, I’m not sure it’s a relevant question. I think – soldiers do what soldiers have to do”. Not to belittle ‘Gulf War syndrome’ or PTSD, he adds hastily, but he himself was never troubled by traumatic memories – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that every soldier will “box away in his mind” those experiences which are best left forgotten.

Once again, it’s a matter of perception. “I’m sure if I went to see a psychiatrist and spent days and days talking, there would be boxes that would be opened – but, d’you know what?” He shakes his head, as if to say ‘I have a better idea’: “Get on with life, and always look ahead and be positive!” Mark leans forward fervently: “One thing I say to people here, is that the only thing I dislike in people is negativity. Positivity is such a great thing. If you’re positive, and you’re proactive and you give everything, 150 per cent, you’re going to succeed. And there will be mistakes on the way,” he concedes – “but you’re going for it, you’re giving yourself every opportunity to be successful”.

The Columbia offices

It occurs to me that there may be a reason why some people become CEOs and others don’t. Big jobs, after all, mean big decisions – and it’s part of the deal that you never really know what the right decision is until you take one. Maybe the most important trait isn’t ultimately drive or intelligence or the ability to motivate others but precisely this proactive positivity he talks about, the confidence – “who dares wins” – to make a move instead of getting tangled up in what-ifs and dwelling on negatives. “There’s so much paralysis-by-analysis in business that people are frightened to take decisions,” he confirms, “or else they defer the decision-making to others, to protect themselves when the decision’s wrong. I’m never frightened of taking a decision”.

What if it’s wrong?

“Then you live with the consequences,” he replies briskly.

I assume that’s a little disingenuous, if only because successful people (by definition) can’t afford to take too many wrong decisions. Still, his general style seems sincere enough – an uncomplicated, even potentially ruthless alpha-male dynamism (“I was always a pretty hyper individual”) and go-for-broke passion for the task at hand, burnished by all the various experiences in Mark O’Neil’s life. His army training, obviously. His lifelong love of sports, bringing an athlete’s focus and decisiveness. Maybe even his nomadic childhood, teaching him the art of detachment.

Speaking of which, there’s another factor we could mention. Mark’s wife used to be a lawyer (they met at the very first law firm where he worked after leaving the army), but stopped practising to look after their two children. She’s now found her second wind as a yoga teacher – and Mark, after much pestering, also took up yoga a couple of years ago, and has found it transformative. It relaxes him, and takes off his edge, but also helps in business – fostering detachment, “the ability to remain calm” in emergencies – and even as a life philosophy. “I’m a firm believer in karma and ‘what goes around comes around’,” he says earnestly, “and if you adopt some of these really good principles in life, I think you’ll benefit”.

This, I suspect, may be the final piece in the jigsaw – the fact that, despite his new big job, I’ve caught Mark O’Neil at a relatively mellow phase of his life. He’s still hyper, but a bit more measured than he was as a young man. He still doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but “as I’ve got older, I tend not to categorise people as fools so readily”. Even his working hours are less inhuman now: “I’m used to legal hours where I’d be getting up at four in the morning, be at my desk at six, and leave at seven or eight o’clock at night”. Now it’s about 11 hours – though of course it never really ends, especially with ships at sea which might be plunged into crisis at any moment (“Work is so fluid,” he shrugs. “Nobody’s switching off their mobiles or iPhones”) – and he’s also commuting at the moment, going back to England every weekend where his family still live. His son is doing GCSEs, he’s “the anchor” to the UK for now – and he’s also, incidentally, the first O’Neil in two centuries who won’t be going into the army, at least if his father has anything to do with it. Soldiering has changed, says Mark soberly, the risks are so much greater now; “I don’t think I could survive the worry of my son joining the army”.

Meanwhile he’s in Limassol, as active as a man in his 50s can be (he runs, he swims, he skis, he horse-rides, he sails, he plays squash, he cycles: “I pretty much do everything”) and enjoying a sense of well-being. He loves Cyprus – he was here for six months with the UN, back in 1989 – both for lifestyle and as a place to do business. I’d cynically assumed it was mostly our tax regime that attracted foreign companies here, but Mark praises the place to the skies. Our workforce is dynamic, hard-working, “better qualified than many other, if not all other, Europeans”. Our family-support networks – a.k.a. grandparents – mean that women aren’t lost to the workforce (as his wife was) after having kids. Our courts are reliable, our accountants “second to none”. Our much-maligned government is actually our trump card: “I cannot think of another government that supports shipping in the same way. In every single conference, I am rubbing shoulders with your Ministers of Finance and Transport who are there, flying the flag for Cyprus. No other government is doing this!”. Limassol could be a global shipping hub, in fact it already is.

There’s a sense of closure too – not just in coming back to Cyprus but because shipping is a lot like the army, surrounded by rugged seafarer types devoted to an age-old institution (I suppose the law is similar, but it lacks that sense of adventure). He feels like he’s come full-circle, he muses, even as a new chapter opens. “Professionally and personally, I’m in the happiest point in my life,” says Mark O’Neil, sitting in the conference room with the models of ships all around, “in the sense that it really does feel as if this was meant to be”. Our 45 minutes are up. His handshake is firm and dry, then he plunges back into shipmanagement.

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