How I work: James Cooper

James Cooper doesn’t want to raise the flag for Brexit and he’s under no illusions about the challenges ahead. But he does believe that the UK’s maritime sector has a duty to help find solutions to those challenges and to make the most of the opportunities. And while the post-Brexit future seems opaque in so many respects, he says that the debates and discussions since 23rd June, 2016 have delivered one significant ‘plus’: “At least the issue of trade has found echoes on the political agenda,” he says. “Brexit has made people think about trade a little bit harder.”

As Chairman of the UK Major Ports Group and CEO of Associated British Ports, Mr Cooper is adamant that we should be promoting the UK ‘as a place to trade with and very much a place in which to trade’.

“As part of a general attractive business environment, we are blessed with a significant number of well-managed, competitive ports, where people can have confidence that their goods will be efficiently handled. We often hear about the UK being a good place to do business because of the language, the legal system, etc. One should also reflect on the UK’s extremely good ports industry – and people don’t always know that it is there.”

Years of largely private capital and continuous improvement in efficiency and operations mean that customers get a good deal out of UK ports, he believes. “And surveys indicate that people do take into account the efficiency and location of ports when they consider inward investment.”

When he became chairman of UKMPG in November 2015, the first task was to get the industry to cohere around a clear set of objectives – crystallised, he says, as promoting a set of policies essentially pro-trade, and raising the profile of trade in political and public minds and the role that ports can play positively to support the pro-trade agenda.

“We have the finance, the skills and the capacity and we want to see the nation exploit its potential in that regard.”

Alongside the pro-trade focus, the industry has focused increasingly, and successfully, on safety and skills, he says. “We are getting better at sharing best practice amongst ourselves as to how we can make ports safer places to work, and we have a revitalised Port Skills & Safety (PSS), which is jointly run with the British Ports Association (BPA).

“We are driving skills and education across the industry. Even if you didn’t have the challenge of an ageing workforce, you would want to provide people with the skills they want and need.”

At the heart of this agenda, the industry has slowly been moving towards a more proactive stance. “We used to react to policy initiatives from Brussels and Westminster. Now we are saying – these are the policies we would like to see. Again, it’s about raising the profile of the industry.

“If the ports industry matters, if our ports are good and important, we deserve to be listened to – and we must focus on what it is we want to say. We can do so much more as a country to promote trade and the benefits of trade for society as a whole.”

Mr Cooper has been on the ABP board for nearly 10 years, and CEO for nearly five years. He describes his strategy as CEO as ‘making a good company in many respects into a much better one in a number of respects’.

“We have worked on our operational performance and efficiency; we have worked on our safety performance and culture; we have worked on how we talk to and engage with our customers and work more closely with them; and we have worked hard to improve the quality of infrastructure and equipment we provide in delivering our services.

“In particular, we have worked hard to engage with our workforce and help them to understand what we are trying to do and why they should become involved and engaged in that mission.”

He says the past four-plus years have seen a repositioning of ABP in the minds of numerous stakeholders – not least its customers and employees. Major investments, meanwhile, have included Greenport Hull in partnership with Siemens and Immingham Renewable Fuels Terminal in partnership with Drax.

“We have also worked hard on our profile amongst people who, whether locally or nationally, decide our future, trying to impress upon them the important role that we can and do have in efficient supply chains.”

Mr Cooper believes that London International Shipping Week (LISW) has made good progress in highlighting the importance of trade within the industry and among policymakers but says there is long a way to go.

He is particularly pleased that this year’s LISW is reaching out more to regions such as the Humber and Merseyside, as well as Scotland and Wales. “A lot of that isn’t just about ships but also about ports and the services that ports provide. This year we have made a particular effort to embrace the regions and get them involved and that is a major step forward.”

As for Brexit, he says that for ABP and across the UKMPG, no one denies that there are challenges. “We live in a democratic country; we have to respect the mandate and we have the responsibility to work with people constructively to find solutions. I think those who sit there just pointing out problems are not making a particularly positive contribution to the debate.”

The ports industry is ready to find solutions to potential and real problems, he says. “Ports have a clear aim to make sure that trade is as frictionless as possible. Most of the solutions will be found through technology and by being practical and pragmatic.

“And further – as an industry, we also have an obligation to make sure we exploit the opportunities that are presented by Brexit.”