When Robin Silvester left Canada four years ago for a leadership position at P&O Ports, Port Metro Vancouver was in the midst of a surge in business from an Asia export boom that fed the Pacific Northwest port all the trade it could handle.
Silvester is returning after a detour that took him around the world, and with that Asia export boom at a crashing halt. He’s excited, however, about the prospect of leading Canada’s largest and most diverse port into a new economic era.
In an interview in Sydney, Australia, last month, Silvester, who has since taken over as president and CEO from the now-retired Gordon Houston, said Port Metro Vancouver is better positioned than many of its competitors to emerge stronger than ever from the downturn.
“It’s about growth and also about what’s the right thing to do for the port, for the community and for Canada,” Silvester said. “It’s about building on what’s already been done and taking the next big step forward to back up what’s already been achieved. It’s about evolution and taking things forward, not turning things around. The team has done a very good job. Gordon can be extremely proud of what has been achieved.”
Silvester was president and CEO of P&O Ports Canada, which operated Centerm, one of Vancouver’s major container terminal operators, and Canadian Stevedoring, British Columbia’s leading stevedoring company, before he moved to London and then to Sydney four years ago to become executive director of P&O Ports, which operated terminals in 100 locations in 18 countries.
But when DP World acquired P&O Ports in 2006, Silvester decided it was time to move on.
“In the discussions I had with Dubai Ports, it was clear they were going to run the business a slightly different way and were definitely going to do it out of Dubai,” Silvester said. “My wife and I didn’t want to move to Dubai. The question was, ‘What do we want to do and where do we want to go?’ ”
He said that although he was happy in Sydney, he wanted to return to Vancouver if there were an opportunity. That was to come later.
Instead, he opted to remain in Australia, joining United Group, a multibillion-dollar engineering and property services business based in Sydney. He managed the property services part of the business, with clients including the Sydney Opera House, Kingsford Smith International Airport, major banks, Telstra, the Post Office, and Australian consular and embassy buildings worldwide.
“It’s a business-to-business service-based company with an engineering base, and it had started to go international,” Silvester said. “The company doesn’t own major assets but manages billions of dollars of property portfolios for blue-chip customers with a significant degree of complexity.”
Last December, Silvester got a call from a search firm in Vancouver.
“I was told that Gordon was planning to retire, and (asked) would I be interested in being considered for the position,” he said. “I decided I very definitely would be. It’s a very exciting prospect. Three years ago, amalgamation (of British Columbia’s three Lower Mainland ports, which took effect in January 2008) would not have been thought possible. Today, it is a reality, and to take over leadership of an organization and build on that platform is really exciting.”
Silvester said he has no illusions about the difficulties and challenges ahead, and insists he is in it for the long term.
“It’s not the sort of job you can get into for a couple of years and then disappear,” he said. “I expect to be here for several years. In other roles I have had, I have been involved not just in setting strategy but in delivering it in the long term, and that’s what I want to do in Vancouver. It’s about working with the port’s customers, the board and the federal government and the communities in the Metro Vancouver area.”
Silvester said amalgamation has provided the port with a larger land bank and enhanced opportunities to make water-to-land logistics more effective. He will continue the emphasis on sustainability and the port’s leadership role in environmental initiatives.
He is also looking forward to renewing old acquaintances. “It’s good to have some relationships already established and, I would like to think, some credibility from the time I spent at P&O Ports Canada,” he said. “But it’s been five years. There are some new players, and I am looking forward to meeting them as well.”
Silvester takes the helm at a time when Canada’s resource industry exports have been hit hard as major customers such as China slide into recession and the import container trade is in decline.
“It’s going to be a tough couple of years. I am under no illusions,” he said. “I know the team is already focused on that, but I have no doubt that the economy and the port will return to growth in the intermediate term.
“There’s a lot of concern at the moment, but, clearly, there’s a recognition that actions taken now need to be taken with a view to where the port wants to be in 20 years time.
“I have spent a lot of time in the cyclical commodity business, managing in bad times as well as in good times. It’s important to manage in a disciplined way, not in the sense of keeping your head down, but in seeking out opportunities.”
Silvester said the way forward is clear.
“The port has to think about managing and building in the short term and continuing to follow the right direction for the long term,” he said. “Port Metro Vancouver is better placed than many of its competitors. It is the most diversified port in North America in terms of the range of cargoes, and has a good balance of imports and exports, plus it has a strong hinterland.”
Silvester began his career in the chemicals industry in the United Kingdom, working in a range of project management, manufacturing management, and business development and marketing roles. He also worked in business management and strategy roles in the steel industry and was involved in British Steel’s acquisition program.
“I always said that given the right opportunity, I would come back and live here,” he said.
Contact Alan Daniels at firstname.lastname@example.org.