by Mark Cardwell

Omar Shamsie says there are a lot of reasons why he enjoys working in the international marine shipping industry. But the thing he loves most is the opportunity to meet regularly with people from all walks of life, from port workers and truckers to exporters and captains of vessels and industry. “It gives me a real high,” says Shamsie, the new President of Maersk Canada. “I also love the fact that things are changing constantly (as well as) the ability to reach out to remote corners of the world and have an impact on trade and development. This is a fascinating and fantastic business.”

He became hooked on shipping, he says, from the day he went to work for the agents of Sea-Land in his hometown of Karachi in 1987. Though Karachi is on the Arabian Sea and his father was a commodore in Pakistan’s navy (and penned its official history when he retired), Shamsie, then 21, says he wasn’t dreaming of a maritime career. “I just wanted a job,” he recalls. “I applied to ad agencies and some other places and (the shipping agents) were the first to call.  But I quickly discovered all the things I love about the job, and I’ve never looked back.”

Promoted to Sales Manager for Pakistan and then Branch Manager Northern Pakistan,  positions he held for seven years, Shamsie was named the country’s first logistics manager for Maersk Logistics in 1996, which he was responsible for setting up.

In 1999, a year after Shamsie had moved with wife and their two young boys to Muscat on the eastern shore of the Arabian Sea to take up his first overseas posting as Country Manager for Oman, Maersk acquired Sea-Land, a pioneer in containerized shipping founded by American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean.

Over the next 20 years, Shamsie served in a series of increasingly senior positions in some of the world’s biggest, busiest and most exotic cities and regions. 

It began in Tehran, where as Managing Director of Maersk Iran, he handled all of the company’s commercial activities in the sanctioned-strapped Islamic republic for three years. “My family and I went there with an open mind (and) we really enjoyed it,” recalls Shamsie. “Seeing such a different way of life (and) realizing you can’t stop people from doing business, even with so many restrictions in their lives, helped me to grow personally and professionally.”

Another great learning experience was his next stop in Cairo where, for five years, until 2007, he managed and directed the company’s operations in and around such historic and internationally strategic Egyptian waterways and facilities as the Suez Canal and Port Said. “The need and ability to get involved in all levels of the business there really added to my toolbox in terms of experience and knowledge,” says Shamsie.

After a year in Nairobi, Kenya, as Managing Director and Cluster Manager for East Africa – requiring frequent travel across a massive swath of territory that encompassed more than a dozen countries, including post-war Rwanda, which he calls “a really awe-inspiring and positive place” – Shamsie was posted to Kuala Lumpur in 2008, where he spent what he says were “three fantastic years” as Managing Director and Cluster Manager for Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Maersk Malaysia – one of the company’s biggest and fastest-growing business regions.

From there it was on to Dubai and a promotion to Regional Chief Executive Officer and Vice-President of Maersk West and Central Asia. In addition to the company’s operations in 18 countries, Shamsie was also responsible for Safmarine, which Maersk had also purchased in 1999 shortly after closing the Sea-Land deal.

Named earlier this year to his first post as President of Maersk Canada – a mandate that began in March when he came from sun-soaked Dubai for a 2-week familiarization visit to the company’s winter-bound headquarters in Mississauga, Ont. – Shamsie says he is looking forward to running the operations of Maersk Line, which makes weekly vessel calls in Halifax, Vancouver, and Montreal in what he calls “an interesting market” like Canada.

“Things aren’t as competitive here as there are in some emerging markets,” Shamsie told Canadian Sailings in a recent phone interview from his new office. “But whether you’re in Canada, Pakistan or Kenya, the responsibilities remain unchanged.”

His goal as President of Maersk Canada, he adds, “is quite simple.  It’s to lead a strong and engaged organization that excels and offers great, value adding service to our clients and to contribute to Maersk Line’s success. To get to that end state, we need to keep our business simple, efficient and continuously improving. That means staying close to the market, dealing regularly with manufacturers and retailers and food suppliers and trucking companies and port people, and that’s the thing I love about this business.”