Still shipping

Masters of the sea afloat after 175 years in the trade

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In the list of Lebanese businesses, the name sticks out — Henry Heald and Co sounds incongruous. In many ways it is, yet it is believed to be the country’s oldest company.

Henry Heald and Company steamboat and shipping experts was registered in 1837, more than 100 years before the country gained independence. All of Mr Heald’s contemporaries have since closed down, meaning the shipping agents are believed to be the oldest continually registered company in Lebanon. 

Little is known about Heald, an Englishman from Yorkshire, apart from the fact that he had been living in the “Levant”, for several decades before setting up the company at a time when European trade was expanding rapidly. Philip Mansel, author of the book ‘Levant’ which tracks the history of Beirut and other port cities, explains how the Ottoman-led government of Muhammed Ali had opened up to foreigners.  “There was a complete change in attitude. The whole region was opening up because Muhammed Ali’s efficient modern administration arrived in 1831,” he says. “Customs receipts trebled in the 1830s and Heald’s were a part of that.”

In the late 1800s Heald’s nephew, Charles Smith, who had taken over the business, died, leaving it to his partner Earnest Joly, in whose family the business remains to this day and his great-granddaughter Harriet currently occupies the managing director chair. She explains it was the high-society connections of Earnest’s more affluent wife Catherine that enabled the takeover bid. 

“When Earnest and Catherine wanted to buy the rest of the company from Charles Smith, Smith’s sister was a bit of a snob,” Harriet explains. “This branch of our family had been living in Smyrna [now Izmir, Turkey] and Ms. Smith didn’t approve of the people from Smyrna and refused to sell her part of the company. Then Catherine produced a copy of Debrett’s [a magazine for Britain’s elites] showing her as the granddaughter of a Baron and immediately everything was alright and she was quite happy to sell.” Yet Earnest’s woes did not end there. With the company growing, both in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, he was taken prisoner by the Turks for a large part of the First World War. 

While many Europeans took the hostility to Westerners as their cue to abandon the Middle East, the Jolys returned to post-war Beirut to rebuild. And the family’s resilience was tested again 60 years later when they struggled to keep the business open throughout the Lebanese Civil War, despite the Beirut port closing for months and the company’s offices being blown up in 1975. Harriet’s dogged father kept operating, often risking personal harm to convince ships to dock.

“All the captains knew him but were frightened because there was a war going on, so they didn’t like coming in to port,” Harriet says. “Usually the condition for coming in was that they would give him a cabin and he would sleep on-board to prove it was safe.”

“Once he had a ship arrive and he took the captain and two visitors out for dinner over toward Jounieh. He sat them with their backs to the window and while they were eating a fire-fight broke out in the distance behind them,” she says. Once the fighting had abated he settled the bill and returned his guests, satiated and unawares to the affray, back to port.

Nowadays the company has around 15 staff in Lebanon, plus assets in other parts of the Middle East, and operates as a shipping agency, port services firm and recently even as an investigator of illicit insurance claims. Walking through the offices in Gemmayze there are few clues to the company’s unique heritage. Bar the odd ship’s wheel on the wall, you could be in any modern office in the country, with staff tapping away on computers, an impression Harriet admits is deliberate.

“When we are presenting to clients we always mention the history because we think that is kind of nice, but we like to also come across as very much up-to-date and in touch with the latest developments,” she says. “I think a lot of people have a downer on family businesses and think it’s not really the way it should be done.”

Much of the industry had a difficult 2011 as Hassan Qoreitem, head of Beirut port, admits. “It was a tough year not just because of Syria, but because of the situation in the region and in Lebanon as well. The local cargo decreased but we succeeded in increasing shipment cargo through the Port of Beirut.” 

Revenues for the port itself declined 4.79 percent in 2011, according to Blominvest Bank, but there was positive news as the port breached the landmark of handling one million containers for the first time.  Qoreitem describes Heald’s as “one of our most esteemed clients”, but the company has not been immune to the regional downturn. A crucial contract for the company is with NYK Roro to import cars to the Middle East but demand disappeared as uprisings swept the region, with just three shipments in the first six months of 2011. Yet it has slowly picked up in recent months, averaging one a month between August and January. 

Harriet sees room for expansion in the coming years, with freight forwarding and fraudulent claims on medical insurance among new potential areas of growth. She has two step daughters, a niece and a nephew, so the obvious question, therefore, is whether the business will stay in family hands for one more generation?

“It may or it may not,” she says. “No one is going to force someone to do something they don’t want to do, but it is obviously there for family to take over if anyone shows an interest.”

Joe Dyke

Joe has extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive's online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.