too many opportunities, too few tappers

Mr. Benoni W. Urey, Commissioner of Bureau of Maritime Affairs


Interview with:

Mr. Benoni W. Urey
What has been your professional background before your appointment in 1996 as Commissioner of Maritime Affairs?

I do have a Master of Science degree in Public/Private Planning, a Master of Arts degree in Public Finance and an undergraduate degree in Chemistry. I got my undergraduate degree in Liberia from the Cuttington University College and both of my Master degrees from the University of Southern California. In terms of professional education and achievement, I have attended short programs ranging from three to six months at the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh… I worked for the Liberia Electricity Corporation for 13 years first as a training officer and I rose to the position of Deputy Director General for planning and training. I also worked internationally at the African Development Bank in Abidjan for two years. I worked for the County of Los Angeles in the U.S. as a city planner and when I returned home I worked as Managing Director of a rubber factory in Liberia and after that I was appointed President of the Agricultural Cooperative and Development Bank and later appointed Commissioner of Maritime Affairs.

Maritime was relatively new to me, but with my experience and education I didn't find it very difficult in getting a good understanding of what it is really about. Really, to be honest with you, except for the legal aspect and the technical know-how, the rest of it is basically a glorified car registry. It follows the same process, except in maritime you have bigger investment… it requires more guarantees because of the risks, more documentation, but it all follows the basic principles.
I have been here for a little over four years as Commissioner of Maritime Affairs, and during my tenure, we have been fortunate to change our agents. Basically how our maritime program works… the program is about 53 years; the first vessel World Peace was inaugurated around that time. In fact we are as old as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), both got started about the same year. We participated in the creation of the IMO. We were founding member. In the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s we enjoyed the privilege of being the world's largest maritime nation. We lost it as a result of the civil conflict and also it is my opinion that we lost it because our agents, who really didn't do the necessary marketing required to keep us going.

Since we took over, we changed our agents, from one American company to another and we've given them a mandate to replace the Panamanian registry as having the world's largest amount of tonnage, and not only that, we Liberians have gotten actively involved in marketing, so we are not going to leave it to anybody again.

What measures have you taken as far as your marketing strategy is concerned?

We have developed three stages of marketing; the immediate marketing strategy we have planned would first and foremost be to get that change over from one agent to another as expediently and error-free as possible, and that we did. We anticipated that we would have a decline in our registry of about 25%, but we experienced less than 5% decline, so the critical part is over. We were very concerned about this change over…we didn't want to rock the boat and so we went through that much slower than we thought we would have. After that, our next marketing goal was to make the program as user friendly as possible. Right now, we are the only registry in the world that you can get seamen identification on-line. You can get your seaman ID by sending an E-mail and within one hour you can get it. We are developing a new software for our program where billings can be sent out on-line and in addition, where problems ca be answered on-line. Usually, there was a backlog in seamen's ID inquiries, registration of vessels, and all of that. But we have spent a lot of time and money in correcting these errors and trying to create a registry that is answerable to customers' demands almost immediately. I think we have gone quite a long way in that. The software is being tested… the seamen ID is on line… you can presently do it. Another effort we did was to take our maritime program to the public positively. Before all you heard was about the government fighting her agent, so now we've settled with our agent and the problem is over. So now we are taking positive things about the program to our clients…and what positive things can we take include some of what we are telling you. We have many web sites. LISCR has one… the Bureau of Maritime has one. We are trying to get our registry on par with developments in the world.

What would you say is your main competitive advantage over Marshal Island, Panama or Cyprus?

Our emphasis has not been on tonnage or ships in our program. We have the world's largest new fleet. Most vessels registered under our flag are between the ages of 10-12 years. We have the world's best safety record. For us that is more important than having the world's highest tonnage. In terms of our performance, I think, compared with Panama and Marshal Island, we are number one on the white list presented by the IMO. We are much higher than any of them. Our casualty rate is so low that it is negligible. This is our greatest marketing tool. Our safety records too. What advantages do we have to encourage vessels to come under our flag? The first thing is our safety record. And what does that entail? Now there is a rigorous inspectorate program all around the world that has been sanctioned by the U.N. and we have agreed to those stiff controls where every vessel calling at a port will be inspected to make sure that it has those minimum safety requirements.

Is that the reason why you set up the office at the port?

We were the first West African country, if not African country, to be port state ready. We have organized seminars to train our port state officers. We have already built an office at the port here. So when you register under our flag, you have certain things to your advantage. You are registering under one of the world's oldest maritime flags…with one of the best safety records; you can be assured that the U.S. Coast Guard is not going to run you around once they see the flag because they know you have met the standards. In fact, when the IMO set up her criteria, she just did it last year, we were already enforcing these things years before they were introduced, so we already had 98% compliance.
You mentioned your investment in software. What other major investment and development plans do you have for the Bureau of Maritime Affairs?

In regard to the registry?

In regard to the registry, infrastructure development and training…

Training? We have spent quite a lot of money on training. Almost one-fourth of what we make, we put back into the program. Inspectors, training…having inspectors to fly all over the world… having offices in approximately 15 cities in the world. These are things we do, even though we make the money, we put back at least a fourth to make it the caliber of program that we envision.

What are your financial expectations for 2001?

We anticipate that we would have at least a 20% increase in revenue. Which means increase in tonnage also. And we keep emphasizing safety because we want to even improve our safety record.

We saw in town a Maritime International Bank to be opened opposite ECOBANK. What is its relationship with the Bureau of Maritime Affairs?

The relationship is we own the maritime program, the agent runs it for us, so in actuality they run the bank for us. They are also shareholders in the bank as we are. We are going to encourage private investment in the bank. You see what we have done that might interest you is that we have tried to make this organization as private as possible. In third world developing countries, there is a lot of government intervention in public corporations and autonomous agencies and organizations of this nature. But what the government has done is to provide the kind of legislation that would ensure no intervention in the operation of this program. It is too important to Liberia to have government constantly intervene in the work of this agency. So there is very little government intervention into this program. In fact, I am the only cabinet member that can travel without permission from the President.

You mentioned the fact that you have a number of offices around the world. Where are these offices located?

Hong Kong, Switzerland, London, Germany, Monrovia, Athens… I'll give you a list of them.

What relations have you established with Asian partners and what is the potential for ship registration in Asia?

They are some of our biggest clients. We have an office in Hong Kong, which controls Mainland China, Taiwan and that area. But I tell you, we have some traditional friends that have been with the Liberian maritime program for years. There is some politics with Mainland China, but the will of the people always prevail…and where there are more people in one place than the other the voice gets louder, so hopefully this whole situation with Taiwan and China will be solved because they are one people and I think the government believes it is their problem, and hopefully when they solve this problem, we can all sit together and benefit from this unity.

Where would you like to take the maritime program?

I would like the maritime program to take its rightful seat not only having the world's best safety record, but having the world's largest tonnage under our flag which entails having the largest number of ships registered under our flag. We like to regain our post-war position, but we don't want to regain this position at the detriment of our safety program..

What has been your most challenging and rewarding experience as Commissioner of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs?

To cope with all the political problems in this world of conflicting ideas. Unfortunately, in this natural and unique destiny of consciousness we call life, we are faced with people of all kinds of ideas, ideology, goals and aspirations that at times are detrimental to yours and that of your country and organization. One might know and believe that his cause is justified and it is right to do what he's doing, but there are people, ideas and programs that are there, that are constantly hindering ones efforts. So one of my biggest problems has been that. Politics. If we could just rid ourselves of politics in this world, then we could all go somewhere far, especially African and third world developing countries. There is too much politics and power play from the big countries on to the small countries. We hope that there would be equality in this world where people would be judged …

What message would you address to the half a million readers of Far Eastern Economic Review?

The economic wheel of the world continues to turn. We are on this wheel and we are endeavoring to put as much energy into the whole process. We, as Liberians, have come through one of the most devastating civil wars in the history of the world…we want the rest of the world to know that we were there before and we will get back to where we were. At conclusion, on the day that we are there, it would be good if we can call on say Japan, Hong Kong, the United States, they were our friends and they helped us a long way. We hope that people will see that there is a need to help a once powerful country, though small; we are a powerful nation in many ways. We are founding member of the United Nations…we hosted the first meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Sanniquellie…we founded the ECOWAS, Mano River Union…all these organizations. We are not saying they owe us something, but they owe us the right to succeed.

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© World INvestment NEws, 2001.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Liberia published in Far Eastern Economic Review.
June 21st, 2001 Issue.
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