OWhen Doug Bannister announced to his family that he would be joining the Port of Dover as managing director, weeks before the original Brexit date of March 2019, his father-in-law expressed what many might have thought: “Are you you crazy ?”
The soft-spoken American is clearly not one to shy away from an arduous task, including taking over Britain’s busiest port during what he calls the ‘once in a generation’ change in the the country’s trade relations with its closest neighbours.
As negotiations dragged on, Brexit was delayed for a year, but when it came the change was seismic. “It was such a massive transformation that the nation was going through, and Dover is the epicenter of that activity. And I signed up for that,” Bannister says.
Although on arrival he was pleasantly surprised at the port’s preparations for Brexit, he could never have predicted the other storm clouds looming on the horizon. Covid has repeatedly disrupted traffic on Britain’s busiest trade route, halted most leisure travel for two years and even saw France close its border in December 2020 to all travellers, including truckers, from England.
Declining traffic has put pressure on the finances of the harbour, which is run by the Dover Harbor Board, which obtained a royal charter in 1606. It has no outside shareholders and its ‘trusted harbour’ status prevented it to exploit investors or go to the capital markets to raise funds during the pandemic.
Freight traffic has largely returned to pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic levels at the UK’s biggest ‘ro-ro’ port (so named because vehicles roll in and out of ships), says Bannister, although leisure travel recovered more slowly. According to the latest figures from the consulting firm Oxera, which
Family Married with four children, three of whom live with him in Kent, while his eldest daughter lives in the United States.
Education BA in Economics from St Lawrence University in New York State; MBA at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Pay Base salary of £300,000. In 2020 he received an additional £122,000 in bonuses, pension contributions and benefits.
Last holidays Devon, last summer: “It was beautiful.”
Best advice ever given “Enter positively into any change.” He believes that “an early positive attitude” towards change, “combined with early commitment, generally leads to a better outcome”.
Biggest Career Mistake “I think I was not a good father to my first daughter. I spent so much time working and traveling around the world for work that I missed her childhood. I have a very good relationship with her now.
Word he abuses “I probably use the word ‘nasty’ a lot.”
how he relaxes Spending time with her children and in the garden.
translates to a value of around £144 billion. Around 10,000 lorries pass through it each day, representing 31% of all HGVs that visit UK seaports.
Bannister says he “fell into” his long shipping career after taking a job with small shipping group Trans Freight Lines in the United States, after earning a degree in economics. The 57-year-old will then work in the container shipping division of P&O before it merged with the Dutch company Royal Nedlloyd and was then bought by the Danish giant Maersk.
His final challenge arrived from a clear blue sky: as we pulled up outside the passenger cruise terminal, a huge symbol of it appeared. P&O Ferries’ hulking Spirit of Britain has not traveled since the company laid off 800 workers on March 17. The 213-metre-long ferry, one of the largest in service in Europe, would typically only dock briefly at Dover on its five daily round trips between Kent and northern France.
“We have been looking forward to increased passenger trade as Covid travel restrictions ease, so it is going to be difficult to manage this with P&O ferries off the road. We hope they get them back out to sea in time for Easter, if not in time for the summer,” says Bannister.
As P&O Ferries ships remain moored, competing operators have scrambled to pick up additional passengers, with the port helping with coordination. Despite this, Bannister appears reluctant to pass judgment on the company – whose chief executive has effectively admitted breaching employment law by firing its staff without notice – or on the broader issue of pay rates for international seafarers.
Assessing crew wages isn’t always straightforward because “often international seafarers don’t pay any income tax because they’re not part of any particular nation,” says Bannister. “Some routes are different, like inland routes like the Isle of Wight or maybe in the Scottish Isles. It’s not necessarily a direct comparison of apples for apples, but I think it’s fair that the people get paid for the work they do in the best possible way.
Even before the P&O scandal, port traffic had been repeatedly disrupted in the first weeks of the year, including the introduction of new EU import controls, increased freight traffic, road works and a reduction in ferry services as ships were refitted.
Traffic was smooth the day Observer visited, and there was no sign of the line of lorries frequently seen meandering along the A20 road, which winds its way to the coast. Bannister thinks that’s partly because merchants and carriers are getting used to the new requirements, including tedious passport and document checks.
He admits that a consequence of Brexit is longer processing times at the border. “There will be improvements that will be made. People will become more skilled in reading passports, will become more skilled in filing documents and checking documents. But we are in a different trade regime.
An impending change, which could once again lead to queues at the port, also weighs on Bannister’s mind. In September, the EU intends to introduce airport-style biometric checks at its external borders. It would affect Dover due to ‘juxtaposed controls’, where travelers meet requirements to enter France before leaving the UK, and he called on the UK government to work with the EU on a solution.
“To date, no process has been identified for a train car full of people passing through a busy ferry terminal on a dark stormy night,” he says. “It would force people out of their vehicles in heavy traffic, which would be dangerous. We couldn’t allow that to happen.
Over the centuries, Dover has capitalized on its “geographical advantage” of being located just 22 miles across the English Channel from France. Bannister is convinced that the recent rebound in trade highlights the success of the “short strait”: the shortest distance between the UK and the continent. “The market has chosen,” he says. “We have three different ferry operators operating from the port, two ports in France to travel to and then the Eurotunnel alongside us.
Bannister’s career has taken him around the world from his home state of New Jersey to the island of Jersey – where he ran the airport and ports – to Rotterdam, Australia (his favorite place to live and work) and New Zealand. Now he clearly enjoys working for an organization as rich in history as this, despite the varied challenges since taking up his post at Dover.
“It would be nice if there were a little less disruption,” he says. “This company has been around for 400 years; he has an incredible heritage. He will be here for another 400 years.