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A corporate captain's course

Published on Friday, 20 Jan 2012
James Gagne
CEO for Greater China, Agility Global Integrated
Photo: Edmond So

James Gagne, CEO for Greater China at global integrated logistics firm Agility, has spent most of his career in Asia, mainly in China, working first as managing director for Central China at  Schenker and, before that, as managing director for China at BAX Global.   

A fluent Putonghua speaker and a strong believer in conciseness, Gagne is one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious Magnolia Silver Award, presented to him in 2007 by the municipal government of Shanghai in recognition of his contribution to the city’s social and economic development.

As a graduate from the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at King’s Point, New York, with a bachelor of science degree in marine transportation and engineering, Gagne spent time at sea on various merchant vessels. 

Away from work, his main interests include spending time with his wife, Nicole, and daughter, Anna, as well as walking, swimming, reading and singing. He also enjoys public-speaking opportunities. 

What issues command your time at the moment?

Going into the early part of the year, the biggest thing I see for certain is uncertainty and volatility. An important part of my responsibilities as an executive involves articulating to colleagues and clients what is happening in the world and what this means to our business and the challenges this represents. This means not just identifying challenges, but more importantly, what we can do about them. How can we learn from these challenges? Where are the opportunities and where should our focus be? 

What have you learned from being a CEO?

When you get to the “C” level, it becomes more about other people and not yourself. If you talk about people development but don’t act or do anything about it, you can loose a lot of credibility. To me, integrity, credibility and being responsive and respectful are extremely important. 

It can also be a little bit lonely being a CEO, so having family, friends and mentors outside the business is invaluable.

How do you organise your time and responsibilities?

I am a great believer in the old saying “the early bird catches the fattest worms,” so I start early. Like most CEOs, a lot of my time is taken up with meetings, both internally and externally – with clients, government departments and authorities.

We are part of a large global operation, so I spend a lot of time travelling, both regionally and internationally. With operations in 24 countries across Asia, including 50 offices in China in 30 locations employing more than 16,000 staff, I spend a lot of time on the mainland. I also need to balance my time to craft future strategies for the company.

As a leader, how are you helping to position Agility for the future?

The transportation and logistics business is all about networking. I believe our future relies on engagement and networking across all our company borders and business areas.

We don’t manufacture products, so people are the backbone of our industry. We rely on our people to build supply chain bridges and provide clients with trade flow solutions.

I have been involved in our “Get, Grow and Keep” initiatives. This revolves around making sure our people are in the “right” positions, providing them with the “right” training and promoting from within.

To strengthen engagement, we have also added a new company-wide corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative centred on education, particularly for females. Many of the education projects are driven by bottom-up suggestions, rather than from senior management. I believe people who are involved in their communities also have a bigger sense of fulfilment in their jobs and a stronger sense of engagement with the company. 

How would you describe your approach to being a CEO?

I can’t imagine achieving success without passion and engagement. I am also a big believer in action when needed. The Latin credo at USMMA where I studied is “deeds not words”, but taking a step back is hard sometimes because I like to be engaged.  I also realise the importance of allowing people to unleash their strengths so the business becomes about them.

One of the satisfactions of this job is motivating, empowering and encouraging people to achieve more than they think they can achieve.

I also believe strongly in the importance of communication. I often follow the example of one of my former commanding officers of keeping communication clear and simple, but to be relentless to get people to rally behind it.

Wherever we see technology going in the next 20 years, I still believe there is an important value to having meaningful, face-to-face engagement. People will never be able to express in an e-mail or a tweet what they can achieve through face-to-face engagement. 

What motivates you and influences your leadership style?

I find motivation from different sources. For example, by the time I was 20, I was at sea and had visited 20 countries, which I consider was a valuable part of an accelerated education. Being in the middle of the Atlantic working with engineers twice my age was very motivating.

In the US, I have a great mentor – also a graduate from King’s Point – who is now in his early 90s. He has successfully established several of his own businesses and remains a committed philanthropist.

I am also inspired and motivated by being a member of the Hong Kong chapter of the Young Presidents Organisation – a worldwide group of presidents and CEOs who come together to exchange informal, impartial and objective experience sharing. My wife and daughter also motivate me.

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