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Profile: Noel Hylton

Creator of ‘hub port’ Kingston hands over helm

Noel-Hylton-pic-1-BGOn his final day the praise was genuine and effusive, the tributes long and heartfelt. For many it was a day of moist eyes, a lump in the throat and the sadness that comes with the end of an era – the departure of a man who embodied all that was good in public service and in the maritime industry.

It was a day marked by ‘The Gleaner’, no less, with a leader column, a carefully crafted paean to one of Jamaica’s greatest sons; recognition, if one were needed, of singular achievement, of odds having been defied, of naysayers silenced.

This, then, was 13 November 2013; the day when the Hon. Noel A. Hylton, at the age of 82, finally chose to retire after more than 40 years as chairman of the Port Authority of Jamaica. Mr Hylton, of course, was also one of the founding fathers of the Caribbean Shipping Association.

A few weeks into his ‘retirement’, he spoke exclusively to CM from his delightful hilltop home in Kingston about his life and his future plans. Yes, he has some.

First, did he have any regrets about finally calling it a day? No, he said. More-over, he had no regrets either about the many difficult decisions with which he had wrestled or about the battles fought and won over the past four decades.

It’s also fair to say that Mr Hylton’s idea of retirement may not square with others who perhaps look forward to long, leisurely days on the golf course and a quiet corner of the club bar they can call their own. Mr Hylton says he used to play cricket, but “now it’s just dominoes in my spare time”.
In fact, this is a man who still intends to work up to 30 hours a week and is ready to offer his experience and expertise in finance, project development, shipping and ports.


So why wait so long to retire? Mr Hylton explained: “The truth is that I started the hub port [Kingston] from scratch and I developed such an interest and love for what I was doing that when it was successful, especially since some people thought it would not be, and I immersed myself into it. But the time is now right for me to retire.”

Nevertheless, there still seems to be a feeling that perhaps he has gone too soon. “I really wanted to see the new dynamics that will take place after the enlarged Panama Canal opens,” he said. Of course, this was originally due to happen in 2014.

“Kingston is well placed; however, we must put in place all the needs of the lines. So, modernise the port and dredge to the required depth and provide all the tug services for the larger ships, and then we will be ready for 2016.” But he had an admission to make: “We were late with the dredging; it should have been done a year ago. Progress here would create more confidence in Kingston by the lines who would then believe that Kingston will be ready.”

He went on: “What a lot of people don’t understand is that shipping lines plan two to three years ahead, therefore they start making decisions early. So ports have to be completely ready and satisfy the lines that they are capable of handling the bigger ships. There is no doubt in my mind that in the next four to five years there will be ships of 8,000 to 14,000 teu (serving the region) and those vessels that are now mother vessels will be feeder vessels.”


The far-sighted Mr Hylton has made some prophesies in the past: “Two years ago I made a speech [at the CSA AGM in Barbados] and I said all ports in the region will benefit from an enlarged Panama Canal. Those predictions were based on two things: US East Coast ports would not be ready, while ports on the US West Coast were too expensive and transport by rail and truck is costly. This would be an opportunity for the Caribbean ports; an all-water service transporting cargo from the West Coast through the canal to the East Coast would generate an increased volume of cargo handled in this region.

“Since then the East Coast ports are being dredged, West Coast ports have been modernised, are more efficient and have solved their labour problems. Plus the most frightening thing is that ships are coming from the Far East to the US via Suez. The success of the ports in this region is reliant on the transit of the Panama Canal. So for us the Panama Canal has to be competitive.” His very real concern is that this may not be the case.

So what are your proudest achievements? Mr Hylton confirmed that he had two achievements of which he was most proud. “The first was recognition that the Port of Kingston was stable in terms of its labour relations and second that we have built a port from zero to one that was profitable and efficient. Not as efficient as I would have liked, but nevertheless one that was at one time ranked 45th in the world.”
He leaves behind one of the Caribbean’s top ports and one that is likely to be in first place for cargo handling once the expanded canal has opened.

“I would say that my legacy to the new administration is a port that works closely with its employees to ensure stability and reliability and to give them the equipment and tools to do the job.”


Mr Hylton now looks forward to his consultancy work: “I believe that we can encourage foreign investment and provide the people to work in the companies that we attract here. But we have things to do. We need to streamline bureaucracy, reduce time for approvals; we need to find a way to reduce the cost of electricity and we need to develop an environment for foreign and local investment – all business needs the right atmosphere to operate efficiently. We need to develop a new business culture, but there is no doubt that we are capable of developing this culture.

“One of the advantages that will drive investors here is that we are English-speaking, and that’s our advantage. Singapore is a good example. We need to provide good training for the jobs that are made available. Until we do this, we may have to allow foreigners work permits to come here. The government is aware of this.”

Overall, Mr Hylton remains upbeat about Jamaica’s prospects: “I believe Jamaica can make it and it’s due to our geographical location.”

Right now, the big issue in Jamaica is the privatisation of the Port of Kingston. Mr Hylton had this to say: “The government is privatising the port because it needs capital and the government cannot provide this. Privatisation is a reasonable decision to take, but should it should not be privatised at any cost. Any arrangement must benefit both parties. I’m not against the privatisation.

“The workforce had some apprehension as to how they would fit into any new arrangement. But I’m not sure they have strong views on the subject. Our workforce is mostly trained technical people. They are competent people; this is clear from the Canadian companies which have recruited here and have hired.”
So Mr Hylton leaves behind a thriving port and a well-trained workforce. He emphatically denies it, but surely there must be a temptation to gaze out of the window from his hilltop lair and look down on his creation and wonder just how the old place will fare without his firm hand on the tiller. Only time will tell.


Key role in aviation

Not content with running one of the Caribbean’s busiest ports, it should not be forgotten that Mr Hylton also headed up national carrier, Air Jamaica (now owned by Caribbean Airlines). What’s more, he was no figurehead happy just to turn up and chair board meetings. He actually got things done.

Mr Hylton said: “I have been chairman of our air policy committee and negotiated bilaterals with other governments. My achievement is that over the last four years we negotiated more bilaterals than in any period in Jamaica’s history and introduced an open-skies policy. Jamaica as a nation will benefit from this. For example, it facilitates easier access to charters flying into Jamaica.”


A force for good in cruise sector

As well as developing Kingston as a container hub, Noel Hylton also transformed Jamaica’s cruise sector. He points out that since the Port Authority took over the cruise shipping sector, Jamaica has been named as the world’s best cruise destination for eight consecutive years.

As far as Mr Hylton was concerned, the only development now on the horizon was to improve facilities at Ocho Rios. “The port doesn’t have the capacity, so needs enlarging and revitalising with new piers and deeper water,” he said. (See separate Port Royal story.)

He is particularly proud of Jamaica’s newest cruise destination. “Falmouth was a tremendous project. We have received a number of accolades worldwide for the development. This year we have accommodated Disney, but there is still work to be done in the restoration [of Falmouth] to make it more attractive to tourists.”

Mr Hylton recalled how the idea to build Falmouth had come about. “The thinking came from us when we heard that Royal Caribbean was building the ‘Oasis’ and ‘Allure of the Seas’. We looked around at the facilities we had and recognised that we could not handle ships of this size.

“So we started looking around Jamaica and for a suitable place to build such a facility. One Sunday morning we drove along the north coast and we arrived in Falmouth. We looked around, but it was dilapidated and in a horrible state. We introduced Royal Caribbean to the place and I have to say they were a bit apprehensive.

“We said we would fix it and that the port would have an historical ambience and they liked it. Even though some were less than enthusiastic about the project, we pursued it. Today Falmouth is handling 800,000 passengers a year.

“All the passengers that left Ocho Rios are now coming back through Falmouth and that port is something Jamaica should be proud of. There isn’t a port quite like it anywhere else in the world.”


Honoured by ‘The Gleaner’

It’s not every port chairman who on retirement gets a leader column devoted to his achievements in the national paper, but ‘The Gleaner’ paid warm tribute on 13 November to Mr Hylton while also issuing a special 12-page supplement to mark the occasion.