When Eric Liddell declared that he has “no formula for winning the race” in Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, his words captured the imagination of a young extra whose path in shipping was still to be mapped out.
Playing the part of a French athlete in the iconic movie Chariots of Fire, Tim Huxley knew little about the maritime world beyond the shipbuilding activity that took place on the Tyne, close to his home town. His first glimpse into the business was the construction of the very large crude carrier Esso Northumbria on a slipway at Swan Hunters in the late 1960s.
However, it was another 13 years before he fully grasped the industry: he joined shipbroker Clarksons in 1982, the year the company brokered the sale of the Esso Northumbria for scrap. The scrapping of the ship that had been his gateway to the shipping world was a neat cradle-to-the-grave encapsulation of the market, and provided a unique view of the wider shipping market, an experience that would prove crucial to his later career choices.
A vicar’s son from the North East of England, shipbroking was an unlikely career choice for Tim. “Once I realised I didn’t have the talent to be a racing driver or the rhythm to be a drummer in a rock band, I wanted to be a journalist so I could write about them,” he says. “But then I realised the pay was rubbish.”
Born: Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Marital status: Permanent bachelor
Interests: Shipping, Half the Sky, writing, lively argument
Book you are currently reading: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, a brilliant observation on human life
Album you would take to a desert island: None. Freedom from noise is the best incentive to be stuck on a desert island
Favourite film: The World of Suzie Wong. Old Hong Kong at its finest
His school headmaster thankfully came to the rescue and gave Tim the tools he needed to succeed in his career choice. Tim describes Dennis Silk as “a brilliant headmaster who wanted to identify in every pupil something they were good at”. He knew not everyone could be in the first rugby team, but he knew that everyone had a talent somewhere and he would draw it out. He encouraged Tim to take up public speaking and writing, skills that last “long beyond the hanging up of your rugby boots”. While he is now fully entrenched in shipping, Tim didn’t entirely drop those writing ambitions that Silk so skilfully nurtured. “I do write a fair bit for various publications, usually under a pseudonym, and I suppose that there is a novel in there somewhere,” he confides.
Later in life, it was Hugh McCoy, the former chair of Clarksons and the Baltic Exchange, who inspired a young Tim. He was the person who persuaded Tim to go to Hong Kong, a place he has now embraced as his home.
In Hong Kong, Tim works alongside the vice chair of Wah Kwong, Sabrina Chao, covering all aspects of the operation of what is now one of the largest privately held shipowning companies in Hong Kong.
This involves everything from day-to-day ship management to financing, the commercial operation of the fleet, sourcing new customers, keeping existing customers, and positioning the company to withstand the downturn and take advantage of the opportunities that are increasingly out there.
“Being a part of a company with a great history and a bright future is a huge motivation, as is building a team of skilled professionals to take the company forward,” says Tim. “I have been in the shipping industry for 30 years, mostly as a shipbroker, but now being wholly immersed in the shipowning side is in many respects more satisfying, as you are involved in every aspect of the business.”
The experience of both sides of the shipping coin – first on the broking side and then on the owning side – gave him a two-pronged insight into the deeper workings of the market, far more so than if he had pursued just one strand.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
“I reckon if I went back to being a broker now, I would probably be much better at it,” he says. “It’s amazing how many shipbrokers think that all shipowners do all day is talk to brokers!”
The draw of the tight-knit Hong Kong shipping community also helps him drive the Wah Kwong business.
“Being a part of the Hong Kong shipping community, working with talented people and dealing with people across the globe, many of whom I have known for years and are great friends, is a huge plus. The fact that shipping impacts everyone’s life, is a truly international business and is affected by almost every economic and political development means you are really in a perfect storm all the time.”
A key challenge at the moment – one that is shared by many shipowners – is to capitalise on the opportunities of a difficult market. “My immediate goal is to help to ensure the future prosperity of Wah Kwong in a difficult market and continue the smooth transition to the third generation of the Chao family who are now at the helm,” he says.
2013 is probably going to be pretty brutal. We still have way too much of an imbalance on the supply side, China’s continued growth might have a question mark over it and problems in Europe are going to continue to affect demand, but more importantly, it’s going to make finance continue to be difficult to source. There will be a few casualties, but just like in the mid-1980s, strong, well-run companies will have plenty of opportunities to position themselves for the upturn that will eventually come.
Tim takes the depressed markets in his stride, worrying little over what he can’t ultimately control.
“There is no point losing sleep over bad markets, and managing the everyday stresses is important for a healthy life. I have seen too many people worry themselves to death. Do your best in the areas you can control, and try and manage your risk in areas where there are things you can’t.
“No matter how bad markets are or how stressful your job might be, there are still plenty of good things in life, so enjoy them.”
However, he can’t rest as easily when it comes to the threat of piracy.
“Of course there are risks with a fleet of 30 ships, and I certainly worry when we have ships in the areas affected by piracy – I consider our crews as colleagues and I don’t like them being at risk.”
Aside from that concern, Tim says he is in a great place and is enjoying the Hong Kong experience.
“In ten years’ time I hope I will still be part of the Hong Kong shipping community and living life to the full in this great city. I don’t think I will ever get bored of that.
“Hopefully it will be a while before people are saying ‘Do you remember that chap Huxley?’ When I do finally bow out, it would be nice to be remembered as someone who was always honest and decent to deal with.”
A sentiment that would have rung true with Tim’s Chariots of Fire memories. The Eric Liddell character had no formula for winning the race, but recognised that “everyone runs in her own way, or his own way”. How true that became for the impressionable extra who was to move from shipbroking to shipowning, and from England to Hong Kong, to become a familiar face in the world’s biggest business.
The experience made the Bowens realise that they wanted to help more children in China, so, in 1998, Half the Sky, named for the Chinese adage “Women hold up half the sky”, was born.
This Beijing-based nongovernmental organisation opened a Hong Kong office in 2006, and Tim Huxley was approached by executive director Jenny Bowen to become a director.
“This is a remarkable charity that aims to provide a caring adult in the lives of every orphaned child in China. We do this through a partnership with the Chinese government where we provide training for child carers in orphanages throughout China and run programmes for children of all ages,” says Tim.
“At present, we are looking after around 7,000 children, but the plan is that Half the Sky-inspired programmes will be in every child welfare institution in China in the coming years. That’s over a million kids.” In its 14 years, Half the Sky has already improved the lives of more than 70,000 orphaned children.
“All of us in shipping have benefited from China’s economic growth – this is an opportunity I have to put something back and help those who got left behind.”