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Esben Poulsson: Why shipping must remain united

After two terms spanning six years Esben Poulsson steps down from his role as chairman of the industry’s top lobbying group, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), this week. As one of his parting messages, Poulsson urges shipping to remain united, collaborative and progressive.

“If governments sense disunity in our ranks, it will have a very detrimental effect on the many constructive and positive initiatives we have underway of an array of issues, particularly environmental performance,” Poulsson tells Maritime CEO in one of his last interviews as ICS chair.

The highs of his two-term tenure at ICS include organising a shipping conference at COP26 last November, getting the industry onboard for a net zero by 2050 target, strengthening the Maritime Labour Convention, battling for seafarer rights during covid and engaging far more with the mainstream press to get shipping’s side of the story to the general public.

If governments sense disunity in our ranks, it will have a very detrimental effect

The lows? The failure this month to persuade International Maritime Organization member states to adopt ICS’s $5bn decarbonsation R&D fund proposal is still pretty sore for Poulsson and his team.

Now in his 70s, Poulsson remains a key figure within the Singapore shipping firmament, as a board member of the Maritime & Port Authority, ex-head of the Singapore Shipping Association, and chair of Greek owner Enesel’s operations in Asia. His ability to work between public and private bodies has always been a key strength.

“The level of cooperation and collaboration between industry and the Ministry of Transport has been an absolute key element in the success that Singapore’s maritime has seen and is a model I think other maritime jurisdictions are understandably and rightly trying to emulate,” shipping’s great diplomat says, going on to discuss the importance of compromise and listening and trying to understand often strongly held differing views.

Looking at the markets, Poulson thinks one constant that has not changed throughout his career is a failure by so many to gauge demand properly.

The Dane, whose career in shipping started out as a seafarer back in the 1960s, takes covid and container shipping’s current record bull run as a classic case in point.

When covid was beginning to make its presence in early 2020 Poulsson recounts how containerlines reduced capacity by 25% to 30% and many ships were laid up.

What we get wrong time and again is the demand side. This is in part what makes shipping so interesting

“By Q3 of 2020 however, households in the developed world especially, began a consumption binge that resulted in surging demand with rates rising rapidly, a trend sustained to the present day,” Poulsson says.

The shipping veteran has spent a fair amount of time researching this behaviour, in an attempt to understand whether any researcher or market analyst foresaw this development, and the answer was that not a single one had anticipated it.

“This clearly underlines yet again that we may have a very clear picture of supply – the existing fleet, newbuilds on order, ships sold for recycling, etc, but what we get wrong time and again is the demand side. This is in part what makes shipping so interesting,” Poulsson says.

Looking ahead to shipping’s great green transition, Poulsson believes a multi-fuel future is inevitable. “There will eventually be several fuels appropriate to ship size and type, trading patterns and their respective cargoes,” the Singapore resident predicts.

As he prepares to step down from his ICS post, peripatetic Poulsson concedes he’ll miss rubbing shoulders with so many interesting people from within and outside the industry.

“Equally,” he says, “change via new blood, fresh ideas and a different approach is healthy and right for any organisation, including associations.”

Emanuele Grimaldi, managing director of the Grimaldi Group, takes over as chair at ICS this week, with Guy Platten remaining in place as the chamber’s secretary-general.

Keen to hear more from one of shipping’s great diplomats – check out Esben’s memoirs, available to buy from the Mission To Seafarers here.


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