Mr MMJ Subramaniam, 68, Port & Logistics Consultant

Mr MMJ Subramaniam, 68, Port & Logistics Consultant

The Straits Time

Life began a new at 62 when Mr MMJ Subramaniam “retired”.

Far from relaxing or playing golf to his heart’s content, he forayed to far-flung frontier lands such as Yemen after setting up his own port and logistics management and consultancy firm in 2003.

This bold venture came after a solid 37-year career with the Port of Singapore Authority, now PSA Corp, where he drove its strategy on shipping containers, beginning in the 1970s.

Mr Subramaniam, whose last post was senior vice-president of PSA’s international business, was already planning a second career in consultancy when a Yemeni contract hastened his decision to start his own firm, Overseas Port Management (OPM).

The timing was perfect, ironically. In 2000, terrorists attacked the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden. Then in 2002, terrorists bombed the French-registered oil tanker Limburg. Insurance premiums in the region’s waters spiked, and shipping lines kept away.

The PSA withdrew as manager and shareholder of the Aden Container Terminal. Looking for a strong man to fill the gap, Yemen awarded the contract to Mr Subramaniam. He had previously been based in the Middle Eastern state for about five years to build, start up operations and manage the terminal, when PSA was developing the facility.

That first big break was the beginning of his frontier strategy. “We found that there’s a market for emerging ports with a handling capacity of two million TEUs (standard-sized containers) or less,” he says. “We start them right, hold their hands as they increase capacity, then move off after two or three years.”

OPM has since provided consultancy services to 14 countries and managed three ports – from the Middle East to Africa to China. It has a 10-man office and eight consultants of varied specialities in Singapore, plus another 10 managerial staff in Libya, Dubai and elsewhere.

The boss spends half of his time on the road. That work pace is “not easy” for a man of his age, he will admit. “But I have been doing this many years and the body has adjusted. I am very fit and the doctor has given me a clean bill of health. I feel alert and sharp,” he says.

Then he flips the perspective, saying: “Age is more an upside, because clients in places like the Middle East are very conscious about seniority.”

He says he also finds ready acceptance because of PSA’s international brand name and his credentials. He speaks of his experience in managing container terminals in terms of service, turnaround, and operations, from A to Z – and even encounters with tough unions.

“From age 23 to 62, I had been through the whole process of the port business. That makes you quite comfortable about challenges. To bring Port of Singapore to the status of number one port is not easy.”

Such hands-on, operational work has equipped the industry veteran for far-flung markets, where he has to customise solutions resourcefully.

“It’s also how you improvise in these places,” he says. Data is not available at the click of a button, for instance. “don’t wait for data before you submit business proposals. Look for alternatives. You may have to do your own short studies and research,” he counsels.

“For 37 years, I answered to sombody. Now I make my own decisions, and I also live with them of course.”

“The pressure of course is taking a risk with your own money. It’s different thinking. You don’t have so many people to consult. This makes you more creative. Sometimes it’s gut feeling.”

He works every day because of the time difference, and offices in the Middle East operate on weekends. Most days, he puts in eight to nine hours. “I was always in the express lane in PSA. I fear boredom. I could just deteriorate fast if I stopped working.” he says.

“I don’t want to waste my experience. I grabbed the opportunity to start OPM and I still enjoy it. I have a good team that shares the same passion. It’s not the money – what I have saved is enough.”

While work is his passion, he enjoys playing golf, walking and working out in the gym when time permits. Fortunately, work trips involve lots of walking too.

His travel also means he does not have much time to spend with his wife Josephine Doo, 63, a iShanghainese housewife. They live in a Katong condominium. Their first daughter, aged 40, is a researcher with the University of Hawaii, and she has three sons. Their second daughter, who is 36, is a marketing analyst.

Like him, his offspring thrive in other lands. However, he is not entirely sure if older Singaporeans will work stints in foreigh lands, where work awaits at any age. “It’s not easy to get consultants to go to frontier places,” he says.

At the same time, Singapore has not made the best use of older workers and managers, he believes.

Despite that, the nation is not short of role models who work at an advanced age. He admires the hardy founders of shipping lines, such as Mr Y.C. Chang of Pacific International Lines who is 90 and still active.

Full retirement is not on Mr Subramaniam’s horizon. “No retirement, until my doctor says so,” he quips.

Still, the entrepreneur has a gentle exit strategy. The next step is for his firm to enter into more joint ventures with big companies that wish to set up a port arm.

“Then I can play a more advisory role that is less intensive, and build up younger people in their 30s and 40s,” he says.

With so many possibilities, he sometimes looks back in wonder: “A different life for me began at 62. Maybe I should have started earlier. But maybe the opportunities would not have been there.”

By Senior Writer Lee Siew Hua

@ The Straits Times, 1st May 2010