The grand setting of its offices may have unwittingly inspired tug operator JP Knight to apply an old-fashioned duty to its modern business practice, writes Ken Norman - The office was like something from an old Hollywood film set. The address was no less impressive. And the 115-year-old company that resided there had already booked its place in our island’s maritime history.
Tug and barge operator JP Knight of The Admiral’s Offices, Chatham Historic Dockyard has managed to achieve what is seen by some as the impossible in today’s commercial climate; maintaining a sense of history and still managing to stay in business. It suddenly struck me that during my 50 years in shipping it had taken me this long to visit Chatham Historic Dockyard, which is a mere 90 minutes drive from my home.
It is an Aladdin’s cave for maritime enthusiasts being littered with maritime artefacts, each one with its own story of past endeavours and glories and its own contribution to Great Britain’s rich maritime heritage. Reeling from such sights as the Second World War frigate Cavalier and the sailing ship Gannet while revelling in the fact that it was here that Nelson’s Victory was built, I was greeted by Richard Knight, the managing director of the company and the great-great nephew of founder James Percy Knight.
The spacious room into which I was directed reeked of history, helped by the commanding view of the dockyard through its huge Georgian Bay window. But this is not a museum since from here the JP Knight Empire of tugs and barges employing 250 people is controlled. Although the business was founded at Blackwall Pier London in 1892 as The Kaiser Steam Tug Company, old hands in shipping will associate JP Knight with tugs on the River Medway, which was the case until 1991 when, faced with the spectre of large-scale competition, Richard Knight realised that the company did not have the resources to survive a rate war and the tugs were sold. Unlike many shipowners, however, this was not the end of the line for Knights but the beginning of a thriving niche business operating in some of the most inhospitable business environments in the world. Mr Knight believes that it is in the selection and training of the personnel that lies at the heart of the company’s success in this specialised field.
He goes further by reiterating, with considerable emphasis, a quote from the company brochure: “I believe our crew members are the business”. The appreciation of the company staff was a recurring theme during our meeting, as is the emphasis of team work and co-operation with those on the ground. For example, the decision to seek ISM accreditation was introduced to the crews “as the spirit of improvement of service to the clients” rather than a necessary box ticking operation.
In conversation with Mr Knight it became clear that the company would not have achieved the degree of success it has if it were not for his unique low-key style of management and grasp of the business — a quality obviously recognised by the industry since he is a member of the executive committees of both the British Tugowners Association and the European Tugowners Association.
The secret of any company’s success is a mixture of factors among which it could be argued might feature tight financial control, prudent investment, market awareness and good labour relations. While JP Knight’s record suggests that they have all of these attributes and more, one gets the feeling that there is an element to the company’s success which cannot be listed in any business manual or found in the auditor’s report. Clearly, Mr Knight’s management expertise and sure touch, together with the backing of a loyal team, are key factors in the company’s success. Yet I gained the strong impression that the X-factor was something which has been hard to find in recent years, not just in business, but in life generally; that is, an old-fashioned sense of duty.
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First published in Lloyd’s List on 6th Feb 2007