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Gentleman Jim Davis — a crusader for common sense in shipping

Jim Davis, former chairman of the International Maritime Industries Forum, died on March 20, age 92

Jim Davis, the charismatic chairman of the shipping think-tank International Maritime Industries Forum, was one of the giants of the modern industry, an iconic figure who brought together a diverse cross section of industry leadership and became a crusader for common sense in shipping

“SHIPPING is a charming industry and it has a certain romance, even today,” said Jim Davis, the outspoken chairman of the International Maritime Industries Forum who died aged 92 on March 20. “But there are also elements of the market that resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party,” he explained in one of the many interviews that earned him a reputation as the wry oracle of shipping’s missteps (and virtues).

As a banker, Mr Davis understood as well as anyone the need for market balance and the importance of avoiding excesses that could quickly wipe out years of profits. Yet after two decades in charge of Kleinwort Benson’s shipping portfolio, he became all too familiar with the natural exuberance of shipowners in wanting to expand their fleets and order new tonnage, without necessarily looking at the wider context and determining whether there was a need for more ships.

His was a consistent voice within the industry, warning against the perils of over-optimism and structural overcapacity in shipbuilding.

“I would love to see a more realistic balance between supply and demand and if it means me having to rant away as some sort of industry Cassandra then I am sorry, but I think the occasion probably merits such a person,” he told Lloyd’s List.

Mr Davis also realised that this was partly a reflection of a global shipping industry that was divided into many different silos, with far less opportunity in the 1970s than now for industry leaders to get together to exchange thoughts and ideas, and also to get to know each other personally.

In establishing the International Maritime Industries Forum, he created a platform on which he could deliver his famous “scrap and build” message to members and their guests at an annual dinner that became one of the most popular fixtures on the maritime calendar.

In the early days, at least, the IMIF had a very serious purpose, to convince shipowners, shipyards, and their bankers that they should refrain from building new ships unless that was accompanied by a scrapping programme to avoid the risks of over-capacity, or of older ships remaining in service beyond their shelf life.

A seminar would be held prior to the dinner at which senior executives from across the maritime world could hear the views of other experts whom they might not have met before.

The term “rust bucket” was first heard at one of these events as Jim continued to campaign for a careful expansion of the world’s merchant shipping fleet.

For many years, there was also an after-dinner speaker until, on one memorable occasion, the Austrian ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development spoke for a good hour on shipbuilding. After that, guest speakers were more or less banned, with Jim taking to the stage to once again remind everyone of the dangers of reckless ship ordering, before rounding off the evening with a handful of Irish jokes — many of which he probably would not get away with these days.

But even as the annual IMIF dinners became a purely social occasion, they nevertheless continued to serve a very useful role. Those attending included shipowners, shipbuilders, shipmanagers, bankers, brokers, insurers, politicians, and many more who, over the years, forged some firm friendships and also invaluable business contacts. And that was the point, ensuring decision-makers had access to a broad network of experts who may have been hard to reach before the IMIF was formed.

Regular attendees at the dinners included some of the biggest names in shipping, during the 1980s, 1990s and later, including Jacques Saadé, who would regularly fly in from Marseilles. 

Even after Mr Davis stepped back from the IMIF, which was ultimately merged into Maritime London in 2018, his legacy remained as industry leaders recognise the importance of sharing ideas and knowhow. These days, the Global Maritime Forum has picked up the mantle, but the IMIF was undoubtedly the forerunner in understanding the importance of networking at the very highest level.

“I love the industry and I don’t regret a day I have spent in it,” Mr Davis said in an interview, prior to being awarded the 2011 Lloyd’s List Lifetime Achievement Award.

A self-confessed show-off, respected raconteur and purveyor of notoriously bad jokes, Mr Davis acted as president, chairman or director of close to 40 shipping companies or associations.

He joined P&O straight after Cambridge and stayed for 20 years, but his career since spanned every conceivable area of shipping and transport including a 15-year stint as the shipping director of merchant bank Kleinwort Benson.

Once described by Lloyd’s List as the busiest man in shipping, Mr Davis still commanded a significant degree of influence within the industry through his “semi-retirement”, only waning in recent years due to illness.

“Jim loved life and had a great sense of fun but also liked people and wanted to share and bring people together; even as he lost close touch with developments in the industry he never lost that character that made him light up the room and bring the collective smile,” said Michael Parker, chairman of Citi’s shipping and logistics business.

Despite the professional demands on his time there can be very few maritime companies or golf courses that do not retain some form of local legend about the gregarious veteran.

According to one senior Japanese shipping executive who frequented the Hirono Golf Club during his extended stretch in the Far East, Mr Davis was not only a talented artist, but could also sing a karaoke version of ‘Ginza no Kankan Musume’ better than most Japanese.

“He is without question one of the giants of the modern industry, an iconic figure who contributed so much in his own unique and inimitable way,” said Harry Theochari, vice chair of Maritime London. “Above all, he was a truly kind person, a gentleman in every sense of the word, who will be fondly remembered and missed by everyone who had the great pleasure of knowing him.” 

Mr Davis CBE K(DK) said of himself in his published memoirs: “I would like to be judged as someone who really did love and value his family, his friends all over the world, his profession and the companies he served and, last but certainly not least, ‘his ships’.”

 

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