As he prepares step down, SinoShip profiles Captain Wei Jiafu, Cosco’s great helmsman.
Step into the Beijing office of Captain Wei Jiafu and it is immediately apparent that you are in the presence of someone powerful. Adorned on the walls are countless photos of the Cosco boss alongside the leading politicians of the world from the past 20 years while any available mantelpiece is stuffed full of awards, accolades and commemorative trophies. Many a previous Cosco head moved on to become Minister of Communications; Wei’s power and influence was virtually ministerial.
As he prepares to step down as the boss of China’s largest shipping conglomerate, Cosco Group, Wei can reflect on a glittering career that has propelled him to the forefront of the industry. His replacement will likely be Ma Zehua, a man who joined Cosco in 1977 and, like Wei, held many senior positions at home and overseas before a stint at China Shipping. He became chief executive of Cosco’s Hong Kong-listed flagship China COSCO Holdings last year.
Wei’s career path has in many ways been ahead of the curve of China’s own development and ‘going out’ strategy.
Born in 1950 in Jiangsu province, Wei attended Dalian Maritime University and Tianjin University before joining the state-run behemoth Cosco in the late 1960s as a ship’s radio officer. At sea he rose through the ranks to become a captain before returning ashore and taking a variety of executive roles both at home and overseas.
Between 1992 and 1998 Wei rose to become general manager of the Chinese-Tanzanian Joint Shipping Co, Cosco Tianjin, and Cosco Bulk Carrier. He oversaw the flotation of Cosco (Singapore) Ltd, the firm’s first venture into the international capital markets while president there from 1993 to 1995 and became president and ceo of the whole group in 1998. In 2011, his role changed to become chairman of the board.
Wei’s appetite for international expansion and making the company a more nimble market player with listings of more than half of all the subsidiaries will likely be his greatest legacy. Speaking to SinoShip’s editor a number of years ago, Wei said: “Moving Cosco from being a state-owned entity to a diverse set of listed vehicles is my proudest achievement.” Multiple listings in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai are testament to this evolution.
Under Wei’s leadership the group diversified into air and land logistics, shipbuilding and terminal operations that span the globe.
Wei often acted as an ambassador for the nation, striking up relations with presidents of countries. His dealings with the US are among his greatest achievements. Previously Cosco had struggled to enter the market thanks to the Federal Maritime Commission listing it as a controlled carrier. Wei made his big US breakthrough 12 years ago by signing a joint venture with struggling Boston port. Since then the carrier has become a huge player on the transpacific, something that has not gone unnoticed by officials; three years ago the US House of Representatives for the first time honoured a Chinese citizen, Wei, as a ‘People’s Ambassador of the United States’. Cosco is now the largest employer in the US, according to Congressman Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts.
Wei is also well known as one of the best, most electrifying speakers in the industry. When he stands on stage, people listen. His own event that he created in 2004 the World Shipping (China) Summit has rightfully earned the sobriquet the Davos of shipping – where the ceos of the world’s top shipping companies gather annually.
Wei’s legacy however will inevitably be tarnished by the current downturn which has seen Cosco suffer record losses, renege on certain charter deals and generally lower the reputation of this great organisation. Like many a politician he might reflect if only he had stepped down a couple of years back, his reputation would still remain stellar.