Ships Ahoy!

6 Dec

Looking back through the annals of time, Aitken Spence Shipping, having been in existence since 1868 from whence the Group records its establishment, features prominently in Sri Lanka’s seafaring and logistical past. From its inauspicious initiation, headquartered within the Galle Fort in the “Clan House,” Clark Spence, as it was then known, was to become the foundation stone of today’s multi-national Aitken Spence PLC.

In the fairytale of shipping, the company which began as a trading company, plying plumbago and spice and importing coal for the power plants, acquired its first agency, the Scottish-owned Clan Line and history, as they say, was truly made. In 1873, Clark Spence became the local agent for Lloyd’s of London.
Not long after, P.G. Spence made the epic decision to move his headquarters to Colombo and formed a new partnership with Thomas Aitken. The company, which was to become Aitken Spence PLC, was born in 1876. In time it became the Colombo representative for Lloyd’s of London.
At a time when shipping was in its infancy in Sri Lanka, Aitken Spence Shipping, along with E. Coates, the only other shipping agency of the era, practically ran the operations at the harbour, supplying labour and general administration for its smooth running. It was during this time that the company first started targeting casual callers, building up a reputation for excellent service and quick attention, gaining it many more agencies. To date, Aitken Spence Shipping’s reputation ensures that it is the most sought-after agency for casual callers, as they require speedy assistance for varied tasks, ranging from radio repair to appropriate handling of the recently deceased.
However, it is noteworthy that Aitken Spence Shipping’s continuation throughout history and into the future, was not only based on a reputation for high standards of ethics and services that the company has become synonymous with but, also for the culture of sustainability that can be traced back to its very roots. Journals of internal memos, dating back to the early 1900’s show a concern for the environment and in-built mechanisms for re-using and re-cycling. For example, instructions to employees to utilise the back of old envelopes for internal notes.
Speaking with Mr. Nimal Perera, Joint Managing Director of Aitken Spence Shipping and Mr. A. Bews Rodrigo, a former Manager at the Galle office of Aitken Spence Shipping, it becomes apparent that the tale of families and histories, intertwined, did not end with the formation of Aitken Spence.

As Mr. Perera and Mr. Rodrigo reminisce of days, berths and shipping lines gone by, it becomes plain to the bystander that whilst Aitken Spence Shipping was tangibly built on shipping lines and a reputation for excellent service, the true foundations were in fact the bonds of camaraderie between the employees, of storms weathered both on land and sea, a feeling of history being made, that built an inauspicious trading company into an international corporation. These would-be random thoughts are re-iterated by the experiences of both Mr. Perera and Mr. Rodrigo. Mr. Rodrigo, who retired from the company in 1999, when the Galle office was permanently closed, is a 3rd generation Rodrigo to have worked at Aitken Spence Shipping and his 38 years of service to the company, combined with those of his father and grandfather before him, add up to a total 75 years of service from one family! The former, a Chemistry major, who joined the company on graduation and enjoyed himself so much, that he stayed on and the latter, having joined on leaving school quite, simply states, “If I had the chance again, I would take the same job.”

Ace Magazine – Volume II – Issue 7

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