From Shipping to Nature – A Career Change

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Q&A with James Southwell (formerly of Nordana)

How did you originally get into Shipping?

You could say it all began with a cheeky comment from my father some many moons ago, “James, I could put you on a one-way trip to Africa!”

This was in response to our debate over the need for me to find a job during the upcoming Summer break of my first year at University in Texas. He of course was going to win that argument, but neither of us knew at that moment what that job might be or where it might eventually lead me.

I expressed a bit of intrigue as to what possibilities might actually exist in that respect, and he did the rest…. a month or two later I was joining the m/v Torm Freya for a 7-week journey via West Africa. A college student with no practical / shipping experience, working as the ‘Electrician’s Apprentice’ doing various repair jobs, welding, general duties onboard, not to mention one heck of a wild experience in Abidjan (not suitable for publication) – a priceless, eye-opening experience, exactly as my father must have envisioned.


Tell us about your Shipping experience, and the postings that you have had.

Fast forward a number of years since the Freya, having grinded out a University degree but lacking interest in further studies or frankly much of a clue as what was coming next, I once again looked to the old man for what he might have up his sleeve. And once again, that was West Africa….

I joined Nordana Line circa 2004/5 with the purpose of taking up an Owner’s Rep position in West Africa after a training period in Houston. As tends to happen in WAF, ‘shit hit the fan’, so I was asked to get out there asap to assist where possible. Nigeria being the bread and butter of that WAF service, for the better part of the next 4 years both Lagos and Port Harcourt became my home – managing customer relations, putting out fires (while dodging a few bullets, literally), feeding leads and info to our sales team back in the States, and keeping an eye on our agents in that region…. another brilliant experience, my first gig overseas.

That segment drying up a bit, and with thanks to my boss at the time being of the opinion I’d sufficiently paid my dues in Africa, we looked internally for another position/locale.

Late 2008 I switched to Nordana’s Project & Chartering Division and relocated to Asia. There was at that time the intent to open an office in China, with myself to play a role within that endeavor, but this timing coincided with the world (and shipping industry’s) financial crisis, so that investment was put on the backburner and I settled into Bangkok. The next 8 years had me working under the Chartering Department in various commercial capacities, and ultimately Business Development.

I met you originally in Bangkok, and perhaps some of our readers would like to know a bit about how it is to work as an expatriate in the Thailand Shipping community. Can you elaborate?

Thailand was and is fantastic, in many ways. The Thai Shipping community though being relatively small, or at least not necessarily with its focus/strengths in the same areas as were my own employer’s, I could speak at much greater lengths as to how it is to ‘live’ within that community as opposed to ‘work’. (or perhaps I just wasn’t working enough….)

Naturally many of our closest associates, competition, and the relevant decision-makers for SE Asia were based rather in Singapore, so this did become a common comparison as well an oft-asked question as to why Thailand. There is an original story, and related piece of business, which led to Nordana putting down their regional office roots in Bangkok, but that’s for another time and storyteller. As for myself in brief, I enjoyed the people, culture, vibrancy and variety, ability to drive outside the city to some rural/scenic/natural spaces, all while just a hop, skip, and a jump away from other Asian metropolises and/or beach/island paradises.


What did you find most interesting about your Shipping career abroad?

In broad terms, the people and the experiences. Hands down.

Although born in England, I was raised (as well, unfortunately, educated) in the States. These latter facts are not necessarily the most conducive towards a worldly or diversified future. To work/live overseas for such a period, I must presume is for most of your readers no big deal, or even the norm. But for this American, I believe it was an invaluable opportunity and experience – developing skills and knowledge which otherwise wouldn’t have been readily available, and friendships and relationships beyond compare. Of course, back in the office, it was the competition, wheeling/dealing, and successes/fixtures that held your interest and kept you going through the most desperate of markets, but I digress.


You left shipping recently to take up a new career, what led to that decision?

My brother has for a few years tried to convince me to move to Montana and work with him in some form or fashion. I wasn’t quite certain whether that was because he thought I could be a benefit to him and his business, or if he knew it would be a positive change for me personally. In any case, I remained committed to my employer and our mutual efforts/interests, I was (quite frankly) not prepared to give up the international/expat lifestyle and the salary/benefits that come along with that.

But that only lasted so long. A continued longing for a bit more in life, or something different, a want to reconnect with family back in the States, and perhaps the chance to put myself in a better position to create my own family (not getting any younger). Over time I was beginning to lean in this direction.

Next was a family reunion and vacation in Montana, heartfelt discussions with family members, and finally the eventual creation of a business concept and employment proposal…. the rest is history.


Going from the bustling 24/7 shipping life in Bangkok (or any other big city, for that matter) to the wide-open spaces and mountains of Montana sounds like it could be a dream come true for many people. Tell us about the change and what you do now.

It is absolutely gorgeous here. And while I miss very much so many aspects of the shipping world, and it was extremely difficult to give up on my employer and colleagues, there is no ounce of regret in having made this decision/change.

My new employer, ABC acres, is our family-owned Permaculture farmstead in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana. Permaculture, very briefly, is a design science that looks to incorporate elements found in natural ecosystems and place them into an agricultural system for healthier and more productive results. Since I’ve arrived some 7 months ago, and entering 2017, we have unveiled a new Agritourism service geared toward Farm Stay Vacations, complete with educational and participatory components for guests to learn of our ongoing Regenerative Agriculture systems and how they directly benefit the local and global community. We now offer two newly-built homes for vacation rentals and an up close and personal introduction to seasonal farm life. And besides all that which is on-farm, Montana is second to none with respect to picturesque landscapes and outdoor activities…. hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, skiing, you name it, is just outside our backdoor.

James Southwell
ABC acres