When economist Martin Stopford made his big break into the shipping industry in 1971, AP Moller-Maersk only had one part-owned containership, the UK was the second-biggest shipbuilding nation after Japan and the mid-morning tea trolley still toured the office.

Fifty years on, container shipping is enjoying a wild ride, shipbuilding has shifted East and the man who spearheaded the development of maritime research happily makes his own cuppa at his London home.

In his mid-70s, Stopford is still deeply engaged in the business in which he has spent his working life.

His maritime lectures remain a focus, a fourth draft edition of his seminal book Maritime Economics is almost complete and his name is still a headline act at conferences.

Stopford has made two key life changes this year.

He finally severed his last remaining ties with former employer Clarksons, with whom he had an informal contract since he retired in 2012. Fans and groupies should take note to use his Maritime Lectures email address martin.stopford@mlecs.com

Changing times

But perhaps even more significantly, he sold his cherished Crumpwood Farm, which he bought 12 years ago just before he officially retired.

Farming was a big part of his childhood and he was keen to reconnect.

"I wanted to rediscover life as it really was and I do think I did that," he said. However, he could see it was going to be difficult to maintain long-term.

A tip off from an agent that the time was ripe to sell saw would-be buyers fighting over the Staffordshire-based estate, with JCB chairman and peer Anthony Bamford — who also owns a big organic farm nearby — emerging as the winner.

He is philosophical about it. "A farm is a responsibility," he said. "You don’t really own it."

Now, back at his home in London on a full-time basis, Stopford has been musing on his half-century in the industry.

Martin Stopford (far right) says his goodbyes to friends and 'stalwarts' at Crumpwood Farm, which he owned for the last 12 years. Photo: Martin Stopford

“I just think shipping has been such a wonderful business,” he said. “The shipping market is commoditised but it is so complex — it’s like a very, very good wine. It takes a long time to develop a taste for it. It’s a fascinating business and that’s why people do it.”

Stopford said he arrived in the industry at the end of a period of enormous technical change. All the major ship types had been developed in the 1960s and big name charterers, such as Shell, were heavily involved in the business.

From the 1970s onwards, big innovations stopped and it became more a question of scaling up vessels as the focus moved to a competitive spot market.

In the past 40 years, he said shipping has shifted to a very commoditised business model, where companies aim to keep their costs as low as possible to survive the cycles and make cash where they can.

"I think it's very striking that today we're in on the verge of something more like the 50s or 60s. It's hard to imagine that in the next 30 years ships won't be completely different."

Don't sweat decarbonisation

If he had to order a ship today, Stopford said he would go for a gas and hybrid propulsion system.

He believes the industry will end up with electric ships running on fuel cells and hydrogen, so advises owners to "get comfy" with on-board electrical systems and cryogenics.

Stopford would also aim to build up company capabilities and hire in some young talent in those two areas because experience of running a fleet of diesel ships will not prove very helpful in a decade where technology is constantly changing.

Over the past 18 months, Stopford said the industry has “got religion about decarbonisation”.

He cautions players to not let the d-word dominate.

He added that the aim is to build a robust business that can get companies through the next 30 years. It definitely involves digitalisation, quality assurance, communications, structures and partnerships — all the things that normal businesses do, but he insisted shipping has not had to for the past 50 years.

His top tips for someone coming into the industry today? "It's a bit of a no-brainer," he said. "Techno economics and digital engineering."

"I think the next generation of shipping executives are probably going to be the people who can do the engineering part for the propulsion but also the digital aspect because that is the hardest of all."

A gallop through Martin Stopford’s career is a trip through the roller-coaster development of the shipping industry.

One of his earliest memories from his first research job was walking past the boardroom of the British Shipbuilders and Repairers Association that was housed in the same building. He said the room was packed with legendary shipbuilding names, all having lunch and smoking cigars.

Ten years later, they were all gone following the collapse of the UK shipbuilding market after its nationalisation in 1977.

Stopford said he joined a big industry that went on to completely disappear in the next 20 years.

"That is the story of the shipping industry," he said. "It is a sort of Darwinian business."

Stopford produced his original letter of employment from that first job with Maritime Transport Research, the market research arm of the UK Shipbuilding industry, inviting him to report for work on 27 September 1971 — preferably at 10am when coffee will be served.

He had been interviewed for the post two years earlier but did not get it as he was planning a road trip with friends.

Hippies and a hotbed of shipowners

Martin Stopford (centre) with friends John Charlton and Richard Walkling with their yellow van newly returned from touring Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan in April 1970. The van had a top speed of 40 mph. Photo: Martin Stopford

Freshly returned from the hippie trail, he was surprised to be offered the original job after the previous incumbent left.

He started work age 24 in an industry that was to claim him for the rest of his working life, and well into his retirement.

Stopford said London was a hotbed of shipowner offices when he began work.

But, by the 1980s, the price for a handysize bulker was just enough to cover the materials. He said everybody had a terrible time in the 1980s.

Stopford moved on from shipbuilding in 1988, joining the finance world with Chase Manhattan Bank. But he still has a soft spot for the industry and recalls taking his son, Ben, to see the slipway launch of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in 1981.

"It's a very tangible industry," he said.

Clarksons claimed him in 1990, and his innovations in Shipping Intelligence Weekly reports and the brokerage's Shipping Intelligence Network are still widely consulted today.

'You feel inadequate with shipowners'

Asked for a memorable moment in his shipping life, Stopford recalls sitting in the Island Club at Greece's Posidonia event at 4am in June 2008, talking to a shipowner who could not decide whether to sell, charter out or trade his capesize spot.

On 4 June 2008, a capesize was fixed for $300,000 per day, he said, but by November that year a similar ship attracted just $3,000 per day.

"As an analyst, you feel inadequate with shipowners," Stopford said, as it is impossible to know if the market has reached the top of the cycle.

Over the years, he said he has just laid things out and left it for people to make up their own minds, adding that you never quite know the risk those sitting on the balance sheet are taking.

This is why, he said, he has always been keen on data as it speaks for itself.

He said the good shipowners take the data, add to that by being “touchy feely with the market” and run the two together.

"You can't rely on anybody else; you have to understand it for yourself," he said.

Fifty years on from his first encounter with the shipping industry, Martin Stopford says he is ready to move on to a different phase in his life.

He wants to see more of his four grandchildren, three of whom — and all under four years old — he spent a week with in Greece this summer.

Stopford, who has enjoyed a lifetime of fixing up old motorcycles, is still a keen cyclist. But following a recent trip into town, he rated one new London cycleway Armageddon, opting to wend his way home on autopilot round the back roads he is more familiar with.

He has not yet been lured by the silent power push of an electric bike but admitted that he does keep looking at them.

'I like getting things done'

In February 1988, Martin Stopford's last job for British Shipbuilders was trying to sell Sunderland Shipbuilder’s Pallion yard to Sumitomo Shipbuilders in Japan. Photo: Martin Stopford

But the familiar and approachable face of shipping research, who counts industry names such as Quantum Shipping Services' Jean Richards — formerly of Fairwind Shipping — and chair of Maritime London and Clarksons gas division managing director Jeffrey Mountevans among his equally active contemporaries, remains hard at work.

He has added a technology chapter to the next edition of his book Maritime Economics, and another on company organisation and finance.

Stopford said he really needs a runner to help him pull it altogether now.

He plans to publish more material through his website maritimelectures.com, a series of technical articles and get a few more guest lectures in.

"I just like getting on with things," he told TradeWinds. "With luck when you hit extreme old age, you've got more chance of analysing the shipping market than you have of mucking out the cows."

In a Marine Money book, Stopford said: "I learned a lot of things by using my hands, working with others and the value of persistence. This is what I have tried to do my whole life — get a project to work on, and try and finish it, wherever it took me."

So how do you mark 50 years in the business?

"I’m thinking celebrating on the 27th by getting a cup of coffee from the tea lady, reading TradeWinds for an hour, then giving a seven-hour lecture on the seven shipping cycles," he said. "Or, [I] might just go to the pub!"

Martin Stopford: Career

1969: Graduated from Oxford University with a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics

1971: Analyst for Maritime Transport Research

1977: Group economist and later director of business development for British Shipbuilders

1979: Awarded his Doctor of Philosophy in International Economics

1988: First edition of his book Maritime Economics is published

1988: Global shipping economist at Chase Manhattan Bank

1990: Managing director of Clarksons Research

2004/2005: Executive director of Clarksons

2012: Retires and is made non-executive president of Clarksons Research