When Ng Yat Chung takes over as group president and CEO of Neptune Orient Lines in January, the former head of Singapore’s armed forces will bring a very different set of skills to the job of running its container shipping business than his predecessor Ron Widdows.
Widdows, 57, is retiring after spending his entire career in the container shipping business, rising through the ranks of APL, the world’s sixth-largest container line, to become its CEO and then moving on to run its parent NOL in 2008. During his almost 40-year-long career, he became a tireless advocate for the container shipping industry and its most visible spokesman.
By contrast, Ng, 49, spent 28 years in Singapore’s military and held the rank of three-star general. With a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University and an MBA from Stanford, he brings analytic capabilities, strong organizational skills and experience in transforming the armed forces, as NOL put it, into a networked, knowledge-based force and driving close integration between the Army, Navy and Air Force. After leaving the military in 2007, Ng became a senior managing director at Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, which owns about two-thirds of the shares in Singapore-listed NOL. Temasek also owns PSA, the world’s largest terminal-operating company.
“It’s not the ideal background to run a container shipping corporation,” said Philip Damas, division director of London-based Drewry Supply Chain Advisors. “On the other hand, NOL and PSA are very much linked to Singapore Inc., so maybe it’s a strategic and political move on the part of Temasek.”
Ng was appointed executive director of NOL, effective May 1, and will work closely with Widdows for the rest of the year before becoming president and CEO next Jan 1. As chief of Singapore’s armed forces, he worked to bolster its capabilities to meet new security challenges, such as terrorism and low-intensity conflicts and raise capabilities for conventional operations.
Ng commanded the deployment of the armed forces to support the independence of East Timor and in humanitarian and disaster relief operations in Thailand after the December 2004 tsunami and natural disasters in 2006.
He also helped broaden the military’s extensive network of professional relationships with other armed forces, to further Singapore’s role as a partner in regional security, which helped suppress the piracy that once flourished in the Strait of Malacca.
At Temasek, Ng was head of its energy and resources investment portfolio, a co-head for Australia and New Zealand and a co-head for strategy. With this background, he brings a strategic investment perspective to his new position and experience in the Australasia region’s investment world.
Ng will inherit a company that Widdows led to a $461 million profit last year, a $1.2 billion turnaround from the $741 million loss it suffered in 2009 during the economic and trade recession. Following last year’s container shipping industry recovery Widdows decided the time and price was right to order new ships to replace charter tonnage and to meet the shortage of capacity he expects to develop by 2013-14.
“He has been very cautious in making investments and has been biding his time,” Damas said. “He has lasted a lot longer than his predecessors.”
When Widdows was named president and CEO in 2008, he succeeded two predecessors appointed from outside NOL who had very short tenures. He replaced Thomas Held, the former chairman and chief executive of German logistics provider Schenker who had became CEO of NOL in 2006, in part to engineer a potential acquisition of German carrier Hapag-Lloyd that never happened. Held had replaced David Lim, a former Singapore government Cabinet minister who became CEO in 2003.
Ng’s appointment stemmed from NOL’s ongoing succession planning process, the company said. “After a comprehensive global search, the board is fully satisfied that Ng Yat Chung is the candidate to succeed Ron Widdows in leading the group forward in its next phase of strategy,” NOL Chairman Cheng Wai Keung said. “Yat Chung brings with him exceptional credentials and has demonstrated outstanding leadership and management abilities.”
Widdows will stay on as a senior adviser to the company. He has made no secret of his desire to cut back on business travel that has taken him away from his family in Singapore, which includes a young child.
Widdows has served as a pioneer of innovations in the container shipping industry throughout his career. He drove APL’s breakthrough development of operating multiple large gateway terminal facilities with integrated on-dock rail on the U.S. West Coast, a key step in the progress of multimodal transportation. Under his leadership, APL developed double-stack intermodal rail service from Mumbai to Delhi, India. He also has been a key figure in developing carrier alliances, including the New World Alliance of APL, Hyundai Merchant Marine and MOL, which have created worldwide service networks.
Widdows also has been one of the industry’s most visible spokesmen and taken on tough topics well beyond NOL’s own corporate boundaries as the first chairman of the Transpacific Stabilization Agreement, and more recently as chairman of the World Shipping Council. At the depths of the global trade recession in March 2009, he warned an industry audience at The Journal of Commerce Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference that shipping rates were due for a steeper decline because of a supply-demand imbalance, foretelling deeper financial losses for maritime carriers.
He will remain chairman of the Washington-based WSC, the association of 27 container shipping lines and two auto carriers that acts as a global watchdog of their interests, until his term ends at the end of 2012.
“Ron has been a very public and very articulate spokesman for the industry and has worked hard to promote the industry’s positions and interest in a very effective way,” said Christopher Koch, the WSC’s executive director. “He’s always been interested in infrastructure and in trying to identify the long-term issues the industry must address.”
Contact Peter T. Leach at email@example.com.