Sir Kerry St Johnston

Container-shipping chief
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The Independent Online

Kerry St Johnston, shipping executive: born Birmingham 30 July 1931; managing director, Ocean Steamship Company 1963-65; founder director, Overseas Containers Ltd (from 1986 P&O Containers Ltd) 1965-76, joint managing director 1969-1973, deputy chairman 1973-76, chief executive and chairman 1982-89; chief executive officer, Private Investment Company for Asia 1977-82; President, General Council of British Shipping 1987-88; Kt 1988; President, Chartered Institute of Transport 1989-90; chairman, Freightliners Ltd 1996-2001; married 1960 Judith Nichols (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1980 Charlotte Taylor; died London 6 November 2006.

As a founder director of Overseas Containers Ltd, the British-owned shipping consortium formed in 1965, Kerry St Johnston was in at the start of containerisation - the big bang of liner shipping that revolutionised world trade in the latter part of the 20th century. Coming from the élite shipping company Alfred Holt's of Liverpool (the Blue Funnel Line), he rose to become chairman and chief executive of OCL, and also served as President of the General Council of British Shipping and of the Chartered Institute of Transport.

St Johnston was born in 1931 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the only son of an upper-middle-class family. His father was a wine merchant of easygoing disposition while his mother was a doughty Northern Irishwoman from whom Kerry derived much of his steel.

He had a happy childhood and the best of educations, at Summer Fields in Oxford and at Eton, where he was a King's Scholar and member of Pop and represented College in the Wall and Field games. After National Service in the 11th Hussars in tanks in Germany, he went up to Worcester College, Oxford, on an Eton scholarship, and read Law, obtaining a Second. His Provost was the great J.C. Masterman, to whom St Johnston's lively wit and exuberance appealed.

After Oxford he first worked for the Bristol Aeroplane Company, then engaged on the hapless Brabazon. But in 1955 he was head-hunted by Sir John Nicholson, the chairman of Blue Funnel and one of the great liner knights of the period.

St Johnston learnt the basics of the shipping industry in Liverpool. But after nine months, in 1955, he was sent to Japan for further training. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in, and love for, all things Japanese. Though working in Tokyo, he and Adrian Swire, and other young sparks out there for training, had a flat in Yokohama, which became a byword for merriment and bonhomie. St Johnston had a gift for acting and mimicry, and his Kabuki performances are remembered to this day. But it was not all fun and geishas. He learnt much about container terminals, and later, in 1972, was part of the team that successfully brought Modern Terminals Hong Kong into action, on time and within budget.

Returning to Liverpool he climbed swiftly up the ladder at Blue Funnel (Ocean Steamship by this time) and was managing director by the age of 32. And, when in 1965 Ocean teamed up with P&O, British & Commonwealth and Furness Withy to form the consortium Overseas Containers Ltd, St Johnston became a founder director, with special responsibilities for the commercial side. Between 1969 and 1970, OCL took delivery of its first ships, a fleet of six vessels, each with capacity to carry some 1,500 20ft containers. The service was inaugurated with the maiden voyage of Encounter Bay, which left Rotterdam in March 1969 bound for Australia.

Liverpool, being close to North Wales, provided St Johnston with more amusement. His father, having retired from the wine trade, had taken over the Black Lion pub at Llangurig. St Johnston senior, enraptured by a current News of the World headline, "I Had Her On The Hot Plate", would enliven proceedings whenever a pretty girl entered the bar by shouting, "Warm up the hotplate!"

In 1977, to the surprise of all (including himself, he said), Kerry St Johnston suddenly resigned from OCL to make his fortune in Singapore with the merchant bank PICA (the Private Investment Company for Asia). In the process his first wife left him. But he was fortunate to find a second wife, Charlotte Taylor, who looked after him devotedly to the end.

St Johnston was brought back to England in 1982 by Sir Ronnie Swayne, then chairman of OCL, to be his successor. From then on, in addition to running Overseas Containers, he became more and more immersed in the shipping industry's domestic and international politics. He was Chairman of the Council of European and Japanese Shipowners' Association (Censa) and played a leading part in negotiations with the United States through the Consultative Shipping Group (CSG). He was President of the General Council of British Shipping in 1987-88 and his presidential address shows all the hallmarks of his liberal education; not for him a turgid draft by the Director-General. At this point, he received his knighthood, rare in those days of shipping decline.

In 1986, P&O bought out the other shareholders in OCL (renaming the operation P&O Containers Ltd) and St Johnston found himself reporting to Sir Jeffrey Sterling (now Lord Sterling of Plaistow). It was not a happy relationship. One must assume that Sterling and his managing director Bruce MacPhail - even then on their way to presiding over the gradual sell-out of our premier shipping company - did not think St Johnston sufficiently entrepreneurial, and that he did not keep a close enough eye on the company finances; perhaps also that he spent too much time on industry affairs (by then he was President of the Institute of Transport). At all events, in September 1989 St Johnston was asked to clear out within 48 hours.

Undoubtedly this was a bitter blow for him, after a career of ever-upward success. But he pulled himself together well and took on a host of directorships. He had already been a non-executive director of Royal Insurance and of Lloyds Bank International. He now took on the chairmanship of a Norwegian shipping company, Wilrig, and joined up with his cousin Colin St Johnston to be an executive director of Diehl & St Johnston, the head-hunters. In 1996, after rail privatisation, he became chairman of Freightliners.

A special word must be said about his presidency of the Council of the Chartered Institute of Transport in 1989/90. This was the year when the CIT decided to encourage all overseas branches to set up on their own. The institute was fortunate to have St Johnston, a shipping man with global knowledge, at the helm at this period.

Kerry St Johnston was a most entertaining man - the sort of chap who lights up faces when he comes into the room. He was well-read, a good conversationalist with a fund of wonderful anecdotes, a good shot and fisherman, a gardener, and a loving husband and father.

Patrick Shovelton

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