Lord Sterling recalls past P&O leaders
(At the close of P&O’s Annual General Meeting in London on May 13, the Chairman, Lord Sterling, made the following farewell statement.)
“And now that we have dealt with the business of this meeting, I hope you will permit me some personal comments on this my last day as your Chairman.
This great company will always be an integral part of the fabric of my life but now its time to say farewell.
To be Chairman of P&O is a rare privilege. So rare, that only 15 men have been so honored in the years since the Company was incorporated. What is more, for nearly two thirds of that time P&O has had just five executive Chairmen, and I am fortunate to count myself in this select band.
Five of us have in total served the Company for over a century. Few Chairmen today could match this. Some would say this is an argument in favor of long service, others the opposite! And in a company as venerable as ours, with individuals serving as long as they have, it is not surprising to find that often your predecessors have already said the sort of things you want to say yourself. Let me quote:
“I find it a little difficult to realize I am ringing down the curtain on a scene in which I have so long played a part. I came, as you know, to the chief direction of your affairs in days of adversity, when’.opponents who knew our weakness’.were ready to devour us. You may have heard of an old Arab proverb which says, ‘Village dogs bark ’ but the caravan passes.’ Well, our caravan has passed and goes quietly and steadily on.”
Those words are from Sir Thomas Sutherland’s farewell speech in 1914.
With 21 years and 93 days as P&O Chairman, I cannot match Sir Thomas’s nigh-on 34 years in charge. Whether my years have passed quietly and steadily I beg leave to doubt, but like him, I feel I am entrusting P&O to good hands, in his case to the first Lord Inchcape as Chairman and Managing Director, in mine to Sir John Parker as Chairman and Robert Woods as Chief Executive.
Mind you, P&O has had its quirky moments. For the first nine months or so of its existence it went without a Chairman at all. Board meetings apparently were chaired by the fourth Director to enter the boardroom on the day in question.
The first P&O Chairman, Sir George Larpent, seems to have been remarkably non-executive in that he attended less than one in four of the 50-or-so Board meetings during his 346 days in office before he resigned in 1842.
In my turn I put my feelings about P&O this way when I was appointed in 1983:
‘The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company is one of the nation’s great enterprises. Our name and reputation are of international significance’.Not only am I proud of our name and our history, but also profoundly conscious that my appointment as your Chairman comes to me as a privilege and not as a right. It is my intention, not only to maintain our individuality, but to chart our course into the next century and I look forward to that prospect with pleasure and the firm conviction that our collective endeavors will succeed.’
The first Lord Inchcape, like me, reversed his own company into P&O (in his case the British India Steam Navigation Company, in mine Sterling Guarantee Trust) and thereby transformed its adoptive parent almost beyond recognition. He had some things to say nearly 80 years ago about the support he had received:
“It came home to me, more than ever, how much I am indebted to the capable, upright, loyal and, if I may say so, affectionate [colleagues] with whom I have the good fortune to be associated, not only in this country, but all over the world’..”
I have a deep affinity with those sentiments.
P&O was always well aware of its place in British and world history. Here, for example, is Sir William Currie on March 30, 1960:
“It is well to consider where we as a nation would be, if our forefathers had not traded and established themselves in the various countries of the world. The late Lord Birkenhead once wrote, “A Nation