Paul Imossi, Director of Smith Imossi, one of Gibraltar’s staple names in the maritime sector, is clear about what makes a good ship agent. “The thing that makes a good agent, anywhere, is local knowledge,” he said. “That’s the key.”
An agent needs local knowledge because this business goes far beyond simply checking a ship in and then checking it out again. The agent comes to the fore when things go wrong, when a problem needs fixing. Take, for example, the elderly cruise passenger that Smith Imossi once had to care for after the vessel’s crew requested medical assistance on shore and then refused to take their passenger back. Or the four dead stowaways found in the hold of a cargo ship that arrived in Gibraltar from West Africa at the height of the international health scare over the Ebola virus. Or the stowaway they found dehydrated and close to death after a week hiding in the rudder stock of a merchant ship as it sailed north from Africa.
“You have to be good at problem solving,” Mr Imossi said. “You have to know how to find solutions to problems. When a shipowner came to a port, traditionally the ship agent was his credit card, his representative and the man who sorted out any problems and had the local knowledge to be able to source everything the vessel might need. That could mean anything from safety pins to food or general repairs to the engine.”
Mr Imossi, who runs Smith Imossi and its sister companies together with his brother Arthur, has been in the business since 1980, when he returned to Gibraltar after being schooled in England and later studying Spanish literature at Southampton University. “I knew I was going to go into the ship agency business, so I wanted to something that I wouldn’t be able to do at a later date,” he said. “I did something which I enjoyed.”
After university Mr Imossi did a graduate conversion course to accountancy and worked in London for three years. But he quickly realised that this was not a job he enjoyed and, with the border about to reopen, he returned to the Rock and the family business.
The history of Smith Imossi can be traced back to 1837, when William James Smith, the son of a Dublin Barrister, arrived in Gibraltar to act as agent for the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, the precursor to P&O. A few months later he started his own business. Since its inception in 1837, the company’s principal business has been that of Shipping Agents and, in the days of steam, coal merchants. Smith Imossi has been Lloyd’s Agents since 1884. In 1859 the founder’s son, William Henry Smith, took Francis Imossi into partnership and the company was renamed Smith Imossi & Co., until in 1948 the firm was made into a limited liability company. Since 1859 to the present, the two families have conducted the firm’s business together.
As a child Mr Imossi would spend many afternoons in the company’s Irish Town headquarters, finishing school homework as the daily business unfolded around him. When he could, would ride on the Smith Imossi vessels as staff visited ships at anchor, delivering paperwork, crew and stores. By the time he returned to Gibraltar three decades ago to join the company, he was familiar with many aspects of the business. But he started, like all good ship agents, at the bottom and worked his way up.
“The importance of starting from the bottom is that you get a detailed understanding of the industry you’re in, where every vessel is different, every circumstance is different,” he said. “There are hundreds of different permutations, so experience is what gives you the ability to deal with any occurrence. With the Lloyd’s agency, I learnt very quickly how to deal not just with the easy ships which were coming in for bunkers and then leaving, but also with vessels arriving with collision damage, stowaways, insurance claims. You get to know all the different layers in the operation of a vessel.”
Over the years, the ship agency business in Gibraltar has changed dramatically. The Rock’s success in the bunkering sector has led to a massive increase in the number of ships calling here. But while that has created additional business for traditional ship agents, it is also something of a double-edged sword. The focus on fuel means that other services are harder to sell, with most vessel charterers wanting a swift turnaround that minimises costly time in port. The fact that bunker suppliers now also offer in-house agency services in an all-in-one package means companies like Smith Imossi have to work harder.
“The ship will come to wherever the bunker is cheapest and most convenient to the charterer,” Mr Imossi said. “That’s the attraction and that’s why the ships are coming here, so we’ve got to make sure that we have a robust bunkering industry to bring the vessels in. The shipowner, on the back of that, will then request services, be it charts, be it crew changes, the delivery of stores, spares. But that’s not important to the charterer, who is focused on the fuel. So what we need to do is move the ancillaries.”
Mr Imossi firmly believes that Gibraltar should seek ways to increase the contact with shore by requiring the presence of a ship agent on board each vessel that calls at the port. At present, the only physical contact between many vessels and Gibraltar is the bunker barge that delivers the fuel.
“Physically boarding a ship opens up the door to offering different services,” Mr Imossi told B2B. “In Gibraltar the business has become a volume business, which in itself is not a bad thing. But it’s become depersonalised. The shipowner now no longer sees the agent as his facilitator, but almost as an expense that they need to have in order to bring the vessel in. The charterer is only interested in the fuel. So the agent is only required when there’s a problem, or there’s a need.”
The changing nature of the agency business means leading companies like Smith Imossi have sought to adapt and find new markets. While others have opted to increase the volume of business albeit on lower fees and, inevitably, smaller margins, Smith Imossi has branched out. “My brother, who handles the administration side of the business, quickly showed me that a lot of volume didn’t necessarily mean a lot of profit, so we’ve now specialised in different areas and found niche markets, for example ship to ship transfers. When that market becomes saturated, we’ll have to find another one. We still have our traditional clients, but the volume business where you expose a few thousand pounds for a gain of £200 is no longer an issue.”
Like other prominent companies in the sector, Smith Imossi also looks beyond Gibraltar to the other ports in the region, namely Algeciras and Ceuta. The new port in Tangier will also become important in the future too. The reason for this wider regional focus is that the company’s shipowner clients increasingly switch from one port to another as necessary, reacting to factors ranging from price to congestion. This is a critical issue for Gibraltar, where space constraints, both on land and an anchorage, place a cap on the amount of business that companies here can handle at any one time. Mr Imossi believes that this capacity constraint is the most important challenge currently facing the Port of Gibraltar. He would like to see initiatives to address, for example, finding ways to rearrange the use of land within the port.
But in the interim, Smith Imossi works through sub-agents in the Spanish ports in order to accommodate the needs of their clients whenever that becomes necessary.
“What’s clear is that we try and get the business through Gibraltar,” Mr Imossi said. “But if we can’t do it here for a variety of reasons, mainly space restrictions, then we use Algeciras or Ceuta. We have to be in all three ports because our major clients are now getting bunker stems from all three ports. They will go to the port that is most convenient.”