Building a global company

Captain Wei Jiafu, president and chief executive officer of the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (Cosco), is the charismatic leader of China’s shipping giant, a leading member of the country’s economic and business establishment and a warm supporter of closer ties between Greece and China. A team of Kathimerini journalists met with him earlier this month on China’s southeastern Hainan island. The 10th annual Boao Forum for Asia, which takes place at Cosco’s resort and conference center on the island, was just wrapping up and Captain Wei, as he is known, was an expansive and gracious host. Talks focused on Cosco’s 3.5-billion-euro deal for a 35-year concession, giving the company control of part of Piraeus’s port, Greece’s current economic problems and Cosco’s place in the world. «I wanted to meet you here,» he said, «so that my friends can see the whole picture of Cosco. We are a shipping company, but not only that. We are a global company, not only a Chinese one. We also provide services to international nongovernmental organizations: We are participants and organizers of the Forum, to which we provide investments worth at least 3 billion yuan.» Captain Wei is proud of his company’s achievements in China and on the global scene, after its founding in 1961. «We started off with four ships, today our fleet has 800. In volume we are the number two shipping company in the world,» Wei said. «We have also invested in logistics. We provide our services globally, we have our headquarters in Beijing but also regional offices in China, India, Europe, American and Japan. Cosco Logistics, one of our subsidiaries, is number one in China for the past five years, and maybe in the future we will be active in Greece,» Wei said. «We also manage ports. This is an activity with a bright future. In China, Cosco has container handling terminals in almost every port, from which Chinese goods are exported. Abroad, we are active in Hong Kong, Singapore, Port Said (from which we may leave), Naples, Antwerp in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Long Beach in the United States. We have great experience abroad. Aside from Piraeus, we have invested in many other ports. In fact, in Belgium, because of the successful operation of the Antwerp port, the king of Belgium honored me with the medal of commander of the Legion of Leopold II.» Another honor which Wei displays in his office is a plaque from Boston’s longshoremen’s association, for his contribution toward creating jobs in the city. Other items in Wei’s office include a luxury edition of Homer’s «Iliad» which was given to him by Greek officials, two smaller-than-life-size statues of Mao Zedong and photos of the captain with Chinese and foreign political leaders. Cosco’s investment in Greece is just beginning to take shape, with the company due to take over the handling of two quays at Piraeus’s container terminal in a 35-year concession. «We are now starting operations in your country, after winning the competition for Piraeus port, for Quay 2 and Quay 3, which we will have to build. In 2008 we signed an agreement for a 35-year concession, in the presence of then Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and our President Hu Jintao. The agreement was ratified by your Parliament and so it is law. The government may have changed but the agreement cannot change. According to the agreement, from June 1 we will use our own employees in the port. We say ‘our own,’ but they will not be from China: They are Greeks whom we have hired. Our cooperation is very good and their work ethic excellent. Every day I get a report from Piraeus with the day’s activity. Yesterday, [April 11] we handled 3,000 TEU [containers]. On this basis, I predict that this year we will handle 800,000 TEUs. But, to be frank, we lost some time. The figure would be greater if we had not lost time,» Wei said. This was a reference to a stevedores’ strike late last year and in early 2010 in protest at the changeover in the port. Wei does not appear fazed by the strike, saying that the Greek government has assured him everything is under control. Cosco’s chief believes that workers will see things differently once cooperation with the company begins. Captain Wei wants to see Prime Minister George Papandreou when he visits Greece next month. «I must say I have a high regard for your government. Prime Minister Papandreou is a very good leader. When he came to power, he faced strikes in Piraeus but he handled this very carefully and sent a clear message, [saying] ‘We cannot expect Cosco to change anything in the agreement. If we did this, Greece would have no face in international society.’ That is why I admire this prime minister. He may have had to deal with a domestic problem but he protected Greece’s reputation internationally,» Wei said. «Now the situation has calmed down and the workers have returned to work. That is why, when I come to your country in May, I want to visit the prime minister and explain my plan. I need to see him and he needs to see Captain Wei, because I will do something to support your economy and jobs.» Cosco’s chief said that he is fully behind his company’s investment in Greece and he has instructed eight of his largest ships to stop at Piraeus each time they are passing eastwards and westwards in the Mediterranean. He is also lobbying Cosco’s partners in an alliance of shippers to move their operations from Egypt’s Port Said to Piraeus. Regarding Greece’s current problems, he is optimistic. «The European Union will support you, otherwise it will fall apart. I say this as the CEO of a global company. I have faith in your government.» His own investment, he added, is not affected by Greece’s problems as it is mainly concerned with transshipments. Moreover, Cosco may be able to bring money into Greece through its investment in Piraeus. Expressing his admiration of the «oldest international shipping nation,» he said that he was examining the possibility of bringing ship repair activities to Greece and is looking for a local partner for a logistics venture. Wei is also looking into the possibility of shifting Cosco Europe’s headquarters to Greece, following the necessary viability studies. «I am the captain who supports you, this is Cosco’s policy,» Wei said. «You have many precious assets. Change your mentality and use them!»

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