The Peninsular And Oriental Steam Navigation Company Business Information, Profile, and History
London SW1Y 5EJ
Throughout its 150 years P & O has been a premier British shipowner, and in its time the largest in the world. It has flown the same quartered flag, embodying the royal colours of Portugal and Spain, from its very beginnings. And it all started with a handful of paddle-steamers and a contract to carry mails--the first application of the technology ushered in by the Industrial Revolution to bring frequency and regularity to international communication. Carrying mails remained P & O's preoccupation for its first hundred years, and thereby the Company made a major contribution to a revolution in world politics and commerce.
History of The Peninsular And Oriental Steam Navigation Company
The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O) began as a shipping company. It was founded at the crucial period for the shipping industry of transition from sail to steam. Many companies were founded at this time, only to fail quickly in the early days of steam. P & O, along with Cunard, is one of the few survivors of the steamship pioneers and has outlasted its competitors through a mixture of caution, shrewdness, ruthlessness, and good luck.
P & O remained primarily a shipping company for the first 140 years of its existence. In the mid-1970s it began to diversify to become a major international group of more than 250 companies, involved not only in freight and passenger shipping but also in housebuilding, large construction projects, property, and numerous service activities. Another shift occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, when P & O divested a number of operations to focus on ports, ferries, and other logistics activities. P & O is the most internationally diverse port operator with activities at 50 ports in 19 countries on every continent. It is the largest ferry operator in the United Kingdom and is a major provider of business-to-business logistics in Europe. P & O's container shipping business is conducted through P & O Nedlloyd, a joint venture between P & O and Royal Nedlloyd N.V. that is one of the three largest container carriers in the world.
Mail Carrying Beginnings
The founding of P & O traditionally dates from the awarding of the contract by the Admiralty for the carriage of the mail between England and the Iberian Peninsula in August 1837.
In 1815 Brodie McGhie Willcox opened a shipping agency and brokers' office in Lime Street, London, and employed Arthur Anderson as clerk. Anderson was made a partner in 1822. In 1826 Willcox and Anderson were appointed London agents for the Dublin and London Steam Packet Company, an aggressive and highly successful steam packet company that ran between the two cities in its name. This connection brought together the three founders of P & O--Willcox, Anderson, and Richard Bourne, a man of great financial acumen.
In the early days, Willcox and Anderson ran small sailing vessels to Spain and Portugal. This trade forced them to take sides in the 1833 civil war in Portugal and shortly afterward in the Carlist uprising in Spain. In both cases they chose the winners and the fledgling company was granted trading facilities and official favors from the grateful Spanish and Portuguese royal families. They attempted in 1834 to float the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company but were soon in financial difficulties.
It was the contract to carry the mails to the Iberian Peninsula, awarded to Bourne rather than to Willcox and Anderson, that enabled the company to survive and develop into a giant. Mail contracts guaranteed a regular income and provided P & O with steady income for decades. The existing mail packet ships were inefficient and corrupt. P & O undertook to reach Lisbon in 84 hours, compared with up to three weeks for the mail packets, for the sum of £30,000 a year--significantly less than the packets. The first run ended in disaster when the Don Juan was wrecked off the Spanish coast, but the company's reputation was enhanced by the daring rescue of the mails and £21,000 in cash.
Expanding to the East: Mid-19th Century
In 1840 the company was awarded a contract to take the mails to Alexandria, the key staging post in the carriage of mails to India. This contract heralded the start of rapid company growth, beginning with the purchase of two large ships, the Great Liverpool and the Oriental.
In December 1840 the company was incorporated by royal charter under its present name of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, with authorized capital of £1 million, and Willcox and Anderson as joint managing directors. Despite the absence of a mail contract at this stage and the East India Company's monopolistic hold on this trade, P & O was obliged to set up a regular steamship service to India within two years.
Prevented by the East India monopoly from operating out of Bombay, the most convenient port of call, P & O set about organizing a service between Suez, Aden, Point de Galle, and Calcutta to link up with its service between England and Egypt. Before the opening of the Suez Canal, passengers to India had to disembark at Alexandria and endure an arduous and often unsafe journey by carriage across the desert to the Red Sea, where they joined another ship. P & O actively encouraged the construction of a railway across Egypt and, to secure supplies, ran farms and repair yards en route.
P & O's first voyage to India was carried out in 1842 by the Hindostan, its largest ship to date. This ambitious undertaking necessitated the setting up of coal and supply stations at intermediate points along the route and of arrangements for the overland part of the journey. The greater speed and reliability of P & O's service in comparison with that of its rival, the East India Company, eventually won P & O access to Bombay.
In 1844 Anderson introduced the novel concept of leisure cruising to Victorian Britain. The first cruises took place in the Mediterranean Sea and involved shore excursions to Malta, Smyrna, Constantinople, Jaffa, and Egypt. The Crimean War of the mid-1850s put a stop to cruising until the 1880s, when it was taken up by other companies. P & O only reentered this business in 1904 with the conversion of a liner, the Rome, into a cruise ship, the Vectis.
Meanwhile, P & O pressed further east and built more ships. In 1845 the Lady Mary Wood, the first P & O steamship to travel to Singapore, completed the journey in 41 days (sailing ships could take up to a year to complete this journey) before opening a service between Ceylon and Hong Kong. The company's steamers took silk out of and opium into China. Its first connection with Australia was made in 1852 and with Japan in 1859.
Problems were looming on the horizon, however. Substantial increases in coal prices played havoc with operating costs. The Crimean War brought great disruption to services; in 1855 one-third of P & O tonnage was in the Black Sea transporting men, horses, supplies, and equipment. The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal was also a mixed blessing. P & O's ships' draft and breadth were inappropriate for the canal, and the company's regional offices and dockyards became redundant after the canal opened, as it became more economical to send ships back to England for repairs. Passengers still had to be transferred overland across Egypt for a decade or more after ships that could use the canal had been built, because the Post Office took years to be convinced it was safe for the mails. Other companies were not thus restricted, and within a couple of years the company's income was falling by £100,000 a year.
It was at this stage that a new regime took the helm. In 1854 Willcox resigned as managing director but remained on the board and became chairman from 1858 until his death in 1862. He was succeeded by Anderson, who remained chairman until his death in 1868. Thomas Sutherland became chairman in 1872 at the relatively young age of 38. At the age of 18, Sutherland had become a P & O office boy. He had spent a dozen years of impressive service in Hong Kong and upon taking charge of the company was faced with the burden of cutting expenditure and of rebuilding the fleet.
Sutherland gradually turned P & O's fortunes around. By 1884 P & O's fleet contained 50 ships, only six more than in 1870, but the ships of 1884 had almost double the gross tonnage of 1870. The end of the 19th century was a period of calm for British shipping generally. Consolidation of the empire was under way and ships were increasing in size, speed, and comfort to the extent that Bombay could be reached from England within 15 days.
Expanding Through Acquisition: Early 20th Century
In 1910 P & O bought the Blue Anchor Line, a company that specialized in the carriage of emigrants and general cargo from the United Kingdom to Australia and of Australian wool on the return journey. Until this point, P & O had concentrated on first-class passenger trade. This purchase gave P & O an interest in all classes of passenger traffic.
The process of expansion by acquisition accelerated. In 1914 Sutherland masterminded secret negotiations leading to the merger of P & O and British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). BI was Britain's largest shipping company, with 131 vessels totaling 598,203 gross registered tons (grt), compared with P & O's 70 ships of 548,654 grt. BI's routes complemented those of P & O; it was strong in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and Southeast Asia, but rarely ventured west of Suez. There was no change of company name following the merger, but until the 1950s P & O and BI shared the same board of directors.
At this point, after leading P & O for more than 40 years, 78-year-old Thomas Sutherland retired and handed over the reins to James Lyle Mackay, Lord Inchcape, chairman of BI. The change at the top coincided with the outbreak of World War I, during which the merchant fleet had to contend with torpedoes, submarines, airstrikes, and mines. By the end of 1914, 100 ships of the enlarged P & O fleet had been requisitioned.
At the outbreak of war, the tonnage of the P & O fleet was greater than 1.1 million grt. More than 500,000 grt were lost during hostilities, but by the war's end the P & O fleet stood at more than 1.5 million grt. This expansion was achieved by an aggressive program of acquisition to prepare P & O for the postwar era. In 1916 P & O acquired the New Zealand Shipping Company and Federal Steam Navigation Company, prominent in the frozen food trade from New Zealand to the United Kingdom. In 1917 it acquired interests in the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; the Hain Steamship Company, which had worldwide tramping interests; and James Nourse Ltd., which operated between India and the West Indies. P & O bought the Orient Line in 1918 and the Khedivial Mail Line in 1919. In 1920 P & O bought Britain's oldest steamship company, the General Steamship Navigation Company, founded in 1824. By 1923, when P & O bought the Strick Line, the P & O fleet was composed of 500 vessels.
The first ten postwar years were prosperous for P & O: the war had created a backlog of trade; passenger traffic picked up briskly; and emigration from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand reached new highs. The growth of foreign competition was loosening the hold of British ships in many markets, however. Building and operating costs were rising rapidly, and there was a ship surplus. These problems were exacerbated by the civil war in China, which badly hurt P & O's trade, and the Wall Street crash of 1929, which heralded the start of the Great Depression of the 1930s. P & O encountered severe financial difficulties, necessitating salary cuts of ten percent in 1931. By 1932 P & O was unable to pay a dividend to its shareholders.
Alexander Shaw, Lord Inchcape's son-in-law, became chairman in 1932. He inherited a modern fleet with which to combat the crisis. This fleet included the most successful vessel of the decade, the 20,000-ton Viceroy of India, which was completed in 1929. This ship was quieter than its predecessors, traveled at 19 knots, and brought a new level of luxury to sea travel, including the first onboard indoor swimming pool.
As the 1930s progressed, international politics again disrupted the merchant shipping market. In 1935, following Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, nine BI ships were requisitioned to support League of Nations sanctions. In 1937 Japan began eight years of undeclared war on China. These events, plus growing uncertainty in Europe, disordered supplies and routes. Nevertheless, business improved and Alexander Shaw--now Lord Craigmyle--retired in 1938, two years after restoration of the company's dividend.
Shaw was succeeded by Sir William Crawford Currie, who remained as chairman until 1960. World War II began. The Rawalpindi was requisitioned in August 1939, only to be lost three months later. The pace of requisitioning accelerated, and by Easter 1940 all of BI's 103 ships, composed of 55 passenger ships and 48 cargo ships, were under official direction. P & O contributed 16 troop carriers, which transported more than one million troops during the conflict.
In 1939 the fleet of the P & O group contained 371 vessels totaling 2.2 million grt. During the course of the conflict, 182 vessels, equivalent to 1.2 million grt, were destroyed. P & O itself lost more than 40 percent of its fleet in tonnage terms. Elsewhere within the group, Hain lost all 24 of its cargo vessels; Nourse lost seven vessels; BI lost 45; and one quarter of Union Line and 85 percent of Strick Line was destroyed.
Emphasizing Cargo and Cruising in the Postwar Era
A steep rise in shipbuilding prices and increased foreign competition, particularly from developing countries, characterized the immediate postwar period. The postwar era also saw the end of the British Empire; India regained its independence in 1947, causing a rapid decline in the number of steady passengers, such as soldiers, civil servants, and their families.
P & O responded to the new situation by refocusing its activities on cargo. By 1949 P & O's cargo fleet had been rebuilt to its prewar levels, whereas the passenger fleet was at only 60 percent of its 1939 strength. P & O also began its involvement with the tanker market in the late 1950s and by the mid-1960s P & O was the main independent tanker operator in the United Kingdom.
International politics intervened briefly again in 1956 with the Suez Canal crisis and the closure of the canal. The canal was crucial to the company's U.K./Far East and U.K./Australian routes. Longer voyages and the fear of war, however, led to higher returns and a short-term stimulus for P & O.
Despite the threat to passenger shipping from the growth of civil aviation, the passenger business was not neglected, and in the mid-1950s two new prestigious passenger ships were ordered--the 2,050-berth Oriana for the Orient Line, launched in 1959, and the 2,250-berth Canberra, launched in 1960. In May 1960 P & O bought the remainder of Orient Line, and briefly renamed its passenger operation P & O Orient Lines.
The 1960s were difficult years for shipping. P & O suffered from the general shipping slump and competition from the growth of flags of convenience&mdash⁄ips usually were registered or flagged in the country of ownership, but certain flags attracted ships by offering financial or legal advantages and became known as 'flags of convenience.' The company also entered new areas of business during this decade. In 1961 the abolition of national service marked the end of BI ships as troop carriers and the beginning of a program of educational cruises. In 1963 P & O, now chaired by Sir Donald Anderson, concluded a long-term agreement with Anglo-Norness Shipping Company, the world's major tanker and bulk shipping operator, to market its fleet of bulk and combination carriers. In 1965, through Ranger Fishing, which was sold in 1974, P & O entered the freezer trawler business. Through North Sea Ferries, P & O bought and operated its first roll-on roll-off vessels--cargo ships or ferries on or off which cars, trucks, and trailers drive directly.
The most important development of all, however, was P & O's pioneering role in containerization, one of the most important changes in shipping in the 20th century. P & O was at the forefront of the containerization revolution through the creation of Overseas Containers Ltd. (OCL), which was formed in 1965 by four British shipping companies--P & O, Alfred Holt, British and Commonwealth, and Furness Withy. Sir Andrew Crichton was seconded from the P & O board as OCL chairman.
In March 1969 OCL's first fully cellular container service began between the United Kingdom and Australia. Initially a lossmaker, OCL gradually became a success, and in 1986 P & O bought that part of OCL that it did not already own, changing the name to P & O Containers Ltd.
Reorganization and Diversification: 1970s and 1980s
In 1971 Ford Geddes became P & O chairman. He took charge of a group composed of 127 companies whose profits had fallen to £4.9 million, from £12.6 million in 1969. Geddes immediately set about a thorough overhaul of P & O's structure. The company was divided into five divisions: bulk cargo, passenger, general cargo, a general holding company, and European and air transport. This rationalization led to the disappearance of old names such as Hain and Nourse, BI, General Steam, and many others.
The effects of the rationalization were slow to filter through, and P & O increasingly cast around for opportunities in other sectors. In the early 1970s the property market was booming, encouraging P & O to make a bid for the construction company Bovis. The bid stirred up serious opposition within P & O, based in part on resistance to diversification but, mostly, on a belief that the bid was pitched too high. This led to the resignation of Geddes in November 1972. He was replaced by the third Lord Inchcape as non-executive chairman, with Alexander Marshall as managing director. P & O's purchase of Bovis went through in 1974 at about half the price of the original offer.
Competition from air travel caused the withdrawal of regular liner passenger services, with the final scheduled trip to the Far East taking place in 1969. Passenger business now consisted of the ferry service and cruises. In 1974 P & O bought Princess Cruises, which then formed the cornerstone of P & O's extensive U.S. cruise business, augmented by the 1988 purchase of Sitmer Cruises.
Lord Inchcape became chief executive in 1978 and initiated another reorganization. This entailed the sale of all interests in the North Sea and the U.S. oil and gas industry acquired in the 1960s, the dismantling of the energy division, and a reduced role for general cargo and the bulk division. During the period 1974--80, the number of ships in the P & O fleet fell from 178 to 89. Because of the introduction of much larger ships, however, total tonnage fell by only three to four percent, standing at 2.45 million grt in 1981.
By the late 1970s Lord Inchcape was searching for younger talent for the board. His eye alighted on Jeffrey Sterling, a City financier who had built up his own group of companies based on the Sterling Guarantee Trust. Sterling joined the board in 1980.
Shortly afterward a hostile bid for the company was received from Trafalgar House, the owner of Cunard and also a competitor in the construction business. The bid was referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which allowed it to proceed in early 1984. This interlude gave Jeffrey Sterling, who became chairman in November 1983, time to organize P & O's defense, however, and the bid was not renewed.
In 1985 P & O merged with Sterling's Sterling Guarantee Trust (SGT). This deal brought the group numerous nonshipping interests, including Town and Country Properties; the ownership and management of the Earls Court and Olympia exhibition centers; the catering company Sutcliffes; a security company called Sterling Guards; various other service-related concerns; and Buck & Hickman, a maker and distributor of tools. In 1986 P & O bought Stock Conversion, a major property company, then the following year purchased European Ferries, which had activities in ferries, property, and ports.
Focusing on Ferries, Ports, and Logistics in the 1990s and Beyond
Acquisitions continued in the early 1990s. In 1991 P & O purchased a half-share in Laing Properties, another major property concern. That same year, P & O acquired the bulk of the Ellerman cargo shipping business from Cunard, giving it more than a quarter of the British share of container trades between Australasia and Europe, 100 percent of the United Kingdom-Australasia run, and 15 percent of the Europe-South Africa trade. In late 1993, P & O made its first large investment in China since 1949 by purchasing a 25 percent stake in the Shekou Container Terminal in southern China for about US$40 million. P & O began managing the terminal at the start of 1994. Further investments in China followed. Meantime, a number of the nonshipping companies gained through the purchase of SGT were divested in 1993, including Sutcliffes, Sterling Security, and Buck & Hickman.
Pressure for restructuring increased in the mid-1990s as P & O's ferry operations suffered from the new competition from Eurotunnel, the channel tunnel between Britain and France that opened in 1994 and soon gained 40 percent of the market for car and freight crossings. Other P & O businesses, including containers, bulk shipping, and property, also were struggling; on the positive side, the company's cruise lines were experiencing rapid growth, so much so that Princess Cruises ordered the construction of the world's largest cruise ship, Grand Princess, which made its maiden voyage in 1998 weighing 108,900 tons.
Meantime, restructuring commenced in the other sectors, starting in late 1996 when P & O merged its containers business with that of Royal Nedlloyd N.V. of The Netherlands to form P & O Nedlloyd Ltd., a 50--50 joint venture that instantly became one of the world's largest container shipping companies with annual revenues of US$4 billion. In 1997 P & O spun off Bovis Homes, a housebuilding unit, as a separate, publicly traded firm. P & O the following year formed another joint venture, this one involving the company's short sea routes on the English Channel--the routes in competition with Eurotunnel--which were merged with those of Stena Line AB of Sweden, forming P & O Stena Line (Holdings) Ltd. The new entity was 60 percent owned by P & O. Through the merger, the two partners hoped to reduce their operating costs by about £75 million a year and thereby improve their competitive position. A third joint venture was formed in July 1998 when P & O merged its bulk shipping operations with those of the China steel group Shougang to form Associated Bulk Carriers Ltd., which was incorporated in Hong Kong and was 50 percent owned by P & O. In April 2000, however, P & O bought out its partner and announced that it would spin off the subsidiary through an IPO. But unfavorable market conditions scuttled the public offering that had been planned for Oslo.
The divestment drive continued in 1999 and 2000. During the former year, P & O sold off Bovis Construction, Earls Court and Olympia, its Australian services operations, and the bulk of its investment property portfolio. Most of the rest of the investment property was sold off in 2000. Having already reduced itself to cruises, ferries, ports, and logistics, P & O took the further step in October 2000 of demerging its cruise line unit as P & O Princess Cruises plc, which was listed on the London and New York stock exchanges. P & O also planned to sell off its bulk shipping unit, Associated Bulk Carriers, and float its containers business, the P & O Nedlloyd joint venture, when market conditions had sufficiently improved. Thus the future of P & O was to be centered on the management of ports, the operation of ferries, and the providing of logistics for the business-to-business supply chain. At the dawn of the 21st century, the P & O units operating in these areas were growing, fueled by increasing e-commerce, world trade, and tourism as well as consolidation in the industry. Although it had jettisoned its more glamorous cruise line activities, P & O appeared to have a bright future in the lower profile but equally profitable logistics sector.
Principal Subsidiaries: PORTS, FERRIES, AND LOGISTICS: Century Group Pty. Ltd. (Papua New Guinea); International Terminal Operating Co. Inc. (U.S.A.); Larne Harbour Ltd.; Pacific Cold Storage Inc. (U.S.A.); P & O Australia Ltd.; P & O Australia Ports Pty. Ltd.; P & O Cold Logistics Ltd. (Australia); P & O European Ferries (Irish Sea) Ltd.; P & O European Ferries (Portsmouth) Ltd.; P & O Ferrymasters Ltd.; P & O Maritime Services Pty. Ltd. (Australia); P & O New Zealand Ltd.; P & O North Sea Ferries B.V. (Netherlands); P & O North Sea Ferries Ltd.; P & O Polar Australia Pty. Ltd.; P & O Ports Ltd. (Australia); P & O Ports (Europe) Ltd.; P & O Scottish Ferries Ltd.; P & O Trans European (Holdings) Ltd.; P & O Trans European Ltd.; P & O Trans European GmbH (Germany); Three Quays International Ltd.; Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal Ltd. (India; 95%); Container Terminals Australia Ltd. (79.9%); P & O Stena Line (Holdings) Ltd. (60%); Asian Terminals Inc. (Philippines; 53.4%); Terminales Rio de la Plata S.A. (Argentina; 53.1%); Southampton Container Terminals Ltd. (U.K.; 51%); Partrederiet International Offshore Services ANS (Norway; 50%); PT Kuala Pelabuhan Indonesia (50%). CARGO SHIPPING: Associated Bulk Carriers Ltd. (Hong Kong); P & O Nedlloyd Container Line Ltd. (50%); P & O Nedlloyd B.V. (Netherlands; 50%); P & O Nedlloyd Ltd. (50%); Roadways Container Logistics Ltd. (50%). PROPERTY: P & O Developments Ltd.; P & O Properties International Ltd.; P & O Properties Inc. (U.S.A.); TCD North Inc. (U.S.A.); Technology Park/Atlanta Inc. (U.S.A.; 94.4%); Vector Investments Ltd. (50%); Boston Wharf Company (U.S.A.); Charlwood Alliance Holdings Ltd.; Chelsea Harbour Ltd.; P & O Property Holdings Ltd.; P & O Properties Ltd.; P & O Shopping Centres Ltd.; P & O Properties Boston Inc. (U.S.A.); Maxxiom Ltd. (50%).
Principal Competitors: A.P. Moller; APL Limited; Crowley Maritime Corporation; CSX Corporation; Eurotunnel Group; Evergreen Marine Corporation (Taiwan) Ltd.; Hanjin Shipping Co., Ltd.; Hutchison Whampoa Limited; Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd.; Neptune Orient Lines Limited; Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha; Sea Containers Ltd.; Stolt-Nielsen S.A.
- 1840: The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company is incorporated by royal charter.
- 1842: P & O makes its first voyage to India.
- 1869: The opening of the Suez Canal forces the company to rebuild its fleet and economize.
- 1914: P & O acquires British India Steam Navigation Company.
- 1923: A series of further acquisitions increases the company fleet to 500 vessels.
- 1960: P & O takes full control of Orient Lines.
- 1965: P & O and three other U.K. shipping companies form Overseas Containers Ltd. (OCL); the company also begins operating roll-on/roll-off ferries.
- 1971: Company is reorganized into five divisions: bulk cargo, passenger, general cargo, a general holding company, and European and air transport.
- 1974: Princess Cruises is acquired; diversification begins with the acquisition of Bovis, a construction company.
- 1986: P & O becomes the sole owner of OCL, which is renamed P & O Containers Ltd.
- 1996: P & O merges its containers business with that of Royal Nedlloyd N.V. to form P & O Nedlloyd Ltd.
- 1997: Bovis Homes is spun off.
- 1999: P & O sells off Bovis Construction, Earls Court and Olympia, and the bulk of its investment property portfolio.
- 2000: Company demerges its cruise line unit as P & O Princess Cruises plc.
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