Leaving everything shipshape

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Doug Bannister has never thought of himself as a civil servant.

But when he arrived in Jersey seven years ago as the first chief executive of the newly merged Airport and Harbours departments that is exactly what he was – for a short time at least.

In the years since, it has been Mr Bannister’s number-one priority to oversee the incorporation of the department into what is now known as Ports of Jersey, and therefore the extraction of the operation – and himself – from the States public-sector machine.

It is a job he is well-known and well-respected among his own staff for having overseen with passion, energy and drive, and one which he says he is proud to have accomplished.

This week it was announced that Mr Bannister, who is originally from New Jersey, is to move on, having secured a job as chief executive of Port of Dover – one of the UK’s busiest ports.

But while it is an exciting opportunity for a man whose career before to moving to Jersey had always focused on the shipping industry, his departure also comes with some regret.

‘When I first got here we were two different departments of the States of Jersey. We probably weren’t really business-minded or commercial in our thinking, we were more thinking on how the public sector works,’ he said.

‘And when I came here I didn’t feel like the organisation felt like we had customers. There was a kind of feeling that if you want to get off Jersey you have got to come through us whether you like it or not.

‘Where we were and where we are now, I feel we have made great progress, and looking back on that it has been very rewarding.

‘But there’s regret because I am not able to carry on this transformation. The opportunities that are in front of us are huge.’

For an ambitious character who previously never spent more than a couple of years in jobs that saw him leading international companies such as Maersk, the world’s largest container ship operator, and container line P&O Nedlloyd in different locations around the world, the lure of the next big challenge was perhaps predictable.

The move to the other side of the Channel also presents an opportunity for Mr Bannister and his family to be closer to the important medical specialists involved in caring for his youngest child – 18-month-old Elodie.

Diagnosed not long after she was born with a rare liver condition that affects only one in every 19,000 births in the UK, Elodie requires ongoing medical care.

And while full of praise for the Island’s health services and those locally who quickly picked up his daughter’s condition despite its rarity, Mr Bannister says that ultimately the move to the UK has come at the right time. And that is not just for Elodie but for the whole family – his wife Naomi, seven-year-old daughter Holly, six-year-old son Zach and even Rigby the poodle as well.

‘This is the longest job I have ever had,’ said Mr Bannister. ‘I went through a period of my career changing jobs and country every year and a half or so. And I think the reason I have stayed as long as I have is because the job here has filled me with fun, excitement and challenge. The people who work in the company are all really impressive and inspiring and I have enjoyed my time with them, the company and the board.

‘But it is now also the right time to move back to the UK for my family.’

He added: ‘I have found the health service in Jersey to be extraordinary. We have had such tremendous support.’

Mr Bannister says there is no doubt Jersey is a wonderful place. But as only someone who has lived – and perhaps more importantly worked to effect change – here can truly attest to, it is a funny old place.

And whereas in other jurisdictions the general public would largely let someone like Mr Bannister just get on with making decisions without much scrutiny or fuss, that has certainly not been the case in Jersey.

‘Jersey is a wonderful place – the people are really welcoming and very friendly and it has got this sense of community where you find people doing day jobs by day, charity by night and helping out with sports and associations at the weekend,’ he said.

‘But, I think, for people coming into a job it can be hard to get to grips with the intensity of this place.

‘All the good community stuff is very impressive but the flip side is when you are doing things and going about your business you have got a lot of eyes watching you. You have got two TV stations, two radio stations, a daily newspaper and much deeper penetration of social media these days.

‘I wanted to see how I would perform in delivering change in such an environment, because I thought I would be pretty good at it. But you don’t know until you get into it and it has shaped my approach.’

Mr Bannister, who says his approach to the scrutiny has been to be open and transparent and communicate with both staff and the public, is leaving the States-owned Ports of Jersey in good shape.

In its recent annual review, the company announced it had made progress on all of its strategic objectives. A total of 2.3 million passengers travelled through Ports gateways in 2017, with a 17-year high at the Airport but a decline in sea passengers, and revenue grew by £2.9 million (6.6%) due to a combination of traditional activities and new commercial ventures.

There are plans for a £42 million overhaul of the Airport. Ports recently received planning permission for three new airport hangars, following an unsuccessful third-party appeal from a neighbour, and the Island is on course to have the first remote air-traffic control centre in the British Isles, which could be used as a contingency solution for Jersey and other jurisdictions.

And one of the company’s sonar-equipped vessels recently went to Kent to help with a project to excavate an 18th-century shipwreck – the equipment’s first commercial contract in the UK.

Progress is even being made on the new restaurant at the Elizabeth Terminal, with Casual Dining Limited aiming to open a new operation next spring.

However, there is a rather large fly in the ointment currently holding Ports of Jersey back in its business plan – CICRA.

Unlike in Guernsey, the competition watchdog regulates Jersey’s ports, and therefore ultimately decides if they can increase various charges, such as Airport landing and marina fees.

Mr Bannister has said Ports of Jersey is missing out on £1 million a year in revenue because it cannot reach agreement with CICRA about increases. Ports had asked CICRA for a 5.2 per cent increase in tariffs for 2018, reflecting a 2.16 per cent per annum rise for 2017 and 2018. The proposed rise was to take into account critical investments needed and to reflect inflation since the last increases in 2016.

But the increase was not granted and instead Mr Bannister says Ports, which appears finally to be making progress with CICRA behind the scenes, is now having to work harder each year to cover its increasing costs but without being able to put up its own prices.

And the result? Even less money to invest into the necessary projects, let alone those that Ports undertakes for the good of the Jersey community, such as the recent refurbishment of Corbière Lighthouse and of the Maritime Museum roof.

One project that Ports of Jersey will not be taking on out of the goodness of its heart any time soon, however, is the Steam Clock. Because, as is the Jersey way, alongside the multi-million-pound projects, budgets and international deals with airline giants, there also comes the local fascination with what some may regard as less pressing matters.

But there simply is not the money at this time for Ports to do anything with the Steam Clock. Instead, the issue, and the never-ending public interest in it, is a gift to the next chief executive, jokes Mr Bannister.

However, the hand-over certainly will not all be white elephants, because while Mr Bannister arrived with a mammoth task ahead, which many said could not be done, his successor will take over an operation that has a clear, and it seems positive, trajectory.

The challenge for whoever comes next, however, will lie in keeping up the momentum, and steering the ship (or plane, or both) on its next journey.

‘For my successor there is such tremendous opportunity – the business has got 360 degrees it could travel in,’ said Mr Bannister.

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