The media have picked up on the words of David O'Brien, Canadian Pacific's chief executive, who hinted that the CP group's current structure may be downsized. With at least one publication suggesting the future of CP Ships hangs 'in the balance,' perhaps the subject of this growing container line is worth a closer look.

At a recent press conference, O'Brien indicated that the diversified company may eventually narrow its focus to two or three industries in which CP can develop a global presence. 'We're obviously not going to build five global businesses,' O'Brien said. 'We don't have the financial capacity to do that, nor the intention. But we think we can build a couple of global businesses.'CP Ships obviously qualified as a global business. CP Ships now includes Canada Maritime, Cast and Americana Ships (holding company for Lykes and TMM), Contship, ANZDL and Montreal Terminals.

CP's other businesses include hotels (Canadian Pacific Hotels), railways (Canadian Pacific Railways), oil and gas interests (PanCanadian Petroleum), and coal producing and exporting operations (Fording). All were profitable in the first three quarters of 2000.

Canadian Pacific has invested heavily in CP Ships, and CP Ships has successfully pursued its strategy of allowing its subsidiary lines to cooperate on back-office and support activities while marketing their services under separate brands.

So is the parent company about to get out of the shipping business?

Some people may think so, but O'Brien's recent comments may have gotten more attention than they warranted.

Shortly after O'Brien told the Toronto reporters, 'We think we can build a couple of global businesses,' a Canadian spokesperson told me that CP Ships ranks among the 'three' entities that will affect future growth prospects.

So the likelihood of CP Ships being up for sale is to me very remote.

But here's where the plot thickens. I am informed by some very good sources that CP Ships has been knocking on the doors of OOCL in Hong Kong, and Hapag-Lloyd in Hamburg, and I have no reason not to believe them.

The door-knocking has come after invitations from the Hong Kong and Hamburg giants, which may be keen to talk acquisition or merger where they, rather than CP Ships, would be the acquired entity.

Now if a straightforward acquisition by CP Ships of OOCL or Hapag-Lloyd took place, it would raise lot of concerns from European Commission regulators in Brussels. That's because the market share of CP Ships, through either acquisition, would place CP well into the territory in which carriers might incur the regulators' wrath.

And strange as it may seem, the door-knocking stopped a few weeks back, when the Grand Alliance, which interestingly enough includes OOCL and Hapag-Lloyd, finally put together its own Atlantic trade network with -- yes, you guessed it -- Lykes and TMM, both part of the CP Ships grouping.

Now CP Ships and its chief executive, Ray Miles, are not names you link with the 'Oh, well never mind, let's try something else' approach. There are ways around Brussels and the official protocol.

Take P&O Containers and Royal Nedlloyd Lines. They managed to put together a merger a few years back. And what a similarity between Canadian Pacific and the P&O Group. Lots of nice earners, as long as you read hotel for cruise, and real estate for real estate, and coal production for bulk carriers.

What a perfect way for Canadian Pacific to continue to reap the benefits of what it says will be the world's fourth-largest container shipping line in the future.

The answers are here for all to see. CP Ships in the future will not be a swallowed-up entity that has no standing; not a sold-off, bought-up entity that has the ability to make money for others, but simply a hived-off shipping company that has the ambitions to realize its ability in the real world.

It took P&O Nedlloyd several years to get there, but the starting blocks were slightly different.

CP Ships is making money, and can carry on making money for its parent.

Whether it achieves that objective through OOCL or Hapag-Lloyd, or some other carrier, that matters little. CP Ships is not for sale, and its future is not in the balance. It is very much a focused company, with true global ambitions, but perhaps not in its current environment.

Paul Richardson can be reached at 011-44-208-942-1993 or Richardson is the editor of PR News Service, an e-mail news service covering container shipping.