“Success is a byproduct of perseverance and determination”, believes Raju Varghese, Vice President GH Transport. In fact, his career, spanning diverse sectors and countries, is demonstrative of the spirit of flexibility, patience and drive that is often required for success. With over four decades of experience, Mr. Varghese, fondly known as “RV” among his peers, sits on the board of multiple companies and handles a wide array of responsibilities such as being the VP of GH Transport, VP of Gahtani International Maritime Agency, VP of COFCO Agri – to name a few. The logistics magnate shares with BTW some of his wisdom accrued over decades of rigorous hard work and commitment to business.

    “Focus is the most important thing you should have,” asserts Mr. Varghese. However, abstract it may appear, conceptually speaking, he believes that boosting concentration in one’s work, engaging in it with a high level of focus and dedicated rigor allows one to develop a sense of confidence that becomes an integral component to ensuring success.

    “You need to feel that what you’re doing is right and you need to feel good about what you do. Do what you love and love what you do.”

    The start of a journey.

    Having his origins from the South Indian state of Kerala, Mr. Varghese grew up watching his father trade in natural cash crops and spices. He believes the experience he gained with his father initiated his journey from the green fields of Kerala to the arid oil-rich deserts of Kuwait and laid the foundations to where he stands today. After he landed in Kuwait he was hand-picked by the German Federal Railway to study shipping and freight forwarding at the Chartered Institute of Shipping in UK.

    With such coveted experience and knowledge, Mr. Varghesereturned to Kuwait where he held a
    post as a representative for DB Schenker
    | Global Logistics Solutions & Supply Chain Management.

    During this time, interestingly, Egypt closed the Suez Canal after the breakout of the war between Israel and Egypt. As a result, all ships had to pass around the Port of Cape Town in South Africa taking upwards to between 35 and 50 days to travel from Europe or from America to the Gulf Countries. This gave an opportunity to seek for alternative faster route to serve Middle Eastern and Gulf countries. Thus Schenkers, jointly with German Federal Railway, introduced daily wagon movements from European freight stations to Baghdad and Basra in Iraq with groupage cargo..

    “At that time, we were doing fantastic business, with a team of about 20 to 25 people in Kuwait; we were moving everything. We used to have between 100 and 150 trucks moving out from each freighting station from Basra and Baghdad to various GCC countries” he added.

    In 1975, with the reopening of Suez Canal, Mr. Varghese focused on unearthing the potential of new possibilities in Saudi Arabia. He took over as General Manager of the now-defunct Orri Navigation Lines, a leading firm at the time, with offices in Jeddah, Dammam and other major ports. When he started with Orri Navigation, they pre-dominantly focused only on providing vessel agency services. But Mr. Varghese could foresee the tremendous possibilities in the shipping industry of Saudi Arabia and had much bigger plans for company.

    “We decided to add Stevedoring operations (loading and unloading cargo),” Mr. Varghese explained, highlighting that more laborers were needed at that time due to the ongoing construction in the ports for adding more berths and other infrastructural developments. “We were one of the first ones to start a full-fledged stevedoring company in Jeddah.”

    Riding the wave of growth

    By this point, Mr. Varghese had added
    two more key weapons to his arsenal – first, a strong network of influential allies and loyal employees, and second, a vast amount of practical exposure to the shipping sector with his hands-on approach to business. This experience translated into a keen ability to pick up trends and insights into the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s economy and how to respond to opportunities and challenges before his competitors. With the boom, right around the corner and oil prices picking up steam, Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure was headed for a total revamp.

    “The real boom actually started towards 1975,” he shared.

    Though progress was moving at a faster pace than before, Mr. Varghese remembers that he often had to operate in conditions that moved slower than the speed at which he wanted to execute. Mr. Varghese explained that the only available telephone connection was through the Saudi Railroad in Dammam and Riyadh.

    “If I wanted to call my Jeddah office, I had to book a call through the Railroad Organization and wait for three to four days to get a call back with a connection.”

    Despite of all these hindrances, Mr. Varghese explained that more ships were coming in and that stevedoring was becoming more and more lucrative. It coincided with the general growth that Saudi Arabia was experiencing at that time. During the boom, he had as many as 2,000 employees under his management in various Saudi Ports.

    “We also had to do ship chandling service.

    “There are 24 to 34 crew on board ships and they need water, gas, diesel and all kinds of things to be supplied. The ships had to wait for three months to one year to discharge cargo due to heavy congestion in all ports.

    “So, it was good business for shipping companies like us.”

    Further progress in Saudi Arabia.

    With the rapid progress being experienced in the kingdom, Mr. Varghese shares a fascinating story that highlights the audacity one requires to overcome extraordinary circumstances. Around that time, the late King Faisal had a dream to see the tallest building in Jeddah. But, during construction of the building there was a significant shortage of the required building materials including cement.

    Mr. Varghese smiles as he shares this memory, “They came to us saying we had run out of cement and needed about 300 tones delivered to the site quickly by whatever means necessary.”

    Faced with the challenge, Mr. Varghese turned it into an opportunity. Mr. Varghese innovatively decided to hire a helicopter to make the deliveries. “The chopper went over the ship, hooked- up the bags wrapped inside canvas slings and carried them over to the site. We airlifted over 200 tones for the project,” Mr. Varghese explained.

    In addition to the struggles of the evolving market, Mr. Varghese also faced what he described as a growing disillusionment with the company’s direction and principles, which ultimately led him to leave the firm.

    By the time Mr. Varghese left Orri Navigation in 1989, he had developed the company from being a vessel agent to full- fledged shipping company owning around 45 vessel sailing across the globe in addition to developing the stevedoring and ship chandler services to the various Saudi Arabian Ports.

    He then moved to Dubai by 1989 where his next venture was  to establish a grain trading house for G. Premjee Ltd. based in Thailand. By the end of same year, Mr. Varghese moved back to Saudi Arabia to establish a Shipping Agency network in Saudi Arabian Ports under the name GIMA (Gahtani International Maritime Agency) jointly with HAKA group under the able leadership of the young visionary Shaikh Khalid H. Al Gahtani, the CEO and President of HAKA group of companies. He also continued trading of Agri-products such as, corn, barley, wheat and soybean meal, in the Saudi Arabian market for the grain trading company in Thailand. His experience in the logistics business enabled him to develop a synergy between the Agri- trade business and the shipping business as well the transport division under HAKA group to provide a more holistic service to his customers in Saudi Arabia.

    The need for perseverance.

    Mr. Varghese strongly believes in hard work and dedication above all. He remarked that often he had to play various roles beyond his title or his job description. He believes leading without titles is what makes a true leader. Getting the job done is all that matters.

    “In those times, I had to work through many nights trying to show the laborers who were not familiar with hooking and unhooking the containers using spreaders for unloading containers carried on the deck of Car Carriers and General cargo vessels. For almost three days I was there throughout the day and night on site when the first vessel called at Dammam port carrying containers,” Mr. Varghese explained.

    Fostering loyalty

    “In the words of Andrew Carnegie-dealing with people is like digging gold. When you go digging for an ounce of gold, you must move tons of dirt to get an ounce of gold. But when you go digging, you don’t go looking for the dirt, you go looking for the gold. You have to see beyond the obvious and nurture the talents of your employees.”  Quoted Mr. Raju Varghese.

    For Mr. Varghese, handpicking and guiding new employees is a matter of duty and passion for the work. He said that he prefers a hands-on approach in dealing with the problems and issues faced by his staff.

    “I take them around in my car, give them a tour of the facilities. They then know that this company is worthwhile for them to work with and they have a long and prosperous future with the company.

    “It is matter of pride to see your employees grow and evolve over the years. I even have some people who have been with me, working, anywhere between 25 to 28 years but still won’t retire unless I leave.”

    This personal approach has been the driving force in establishing rapport and trust with his staff. Mr. Varghese said that he gladly helps his employees out of his own pocket, just to make sure that they feel comfortable and at home.

    “My doors are always open to them. That makes them think that they have two families, one of which is the company. This builds loyalty and loyalty gets
    you better results workwise,” Mr. Varghese added.

    Confidence to believe in yourself

    As essential qualities of success, Mr. Varghese rates confidence, positivity and focus as supreme.

    “If you go for something in which you truly believe, even though others might think it is not going to work, don’t give up. You need more concentration and loyalty to yourself and your ideas. You need to feel that what you’re doing is right and you need to feel good about what you do. Do what you love and love what you do,” Mr. Varghese stated.

    As a final point, Mr. Varghese also warned against the dangers of doing things outside your scope and knowledge. He pointed towards the risky adventures some undertake in the stock market.

    “Many people spend money on the stock market without truly understanding it and only do it because they see others doing it,” he added.

    Mr. Varghese reminisced the fond memories and fortunes that Saudi Arabia has gifted him in life, including his wife of three decades whom he met at ARAMCO. He also has two sons and a grandson.

    With his many successes, Mr. Varghese still doesn’t believe he is anywhere near done. He is now taking his decades of experience and diversifying into green businesses, software solutions and trading. “People retire from their jobs, not from their passion. I will only retire when I die, that’s the extent of my energy,” Mr. Varghese laughs.