Greater ChinaMaritime CEO

Helmut Sohmen: How shipping has changed

Hong Kong: Eight days ago, one of the best-known names in shipping called it a day. Fast approaching his 75th birthday, Dr Helmut Sohmen announced his retirement as chairman of BW Group and BW Offshore, having served the group for 44 years with 28 years as chairman.
On the day of his departure, Sohmen commented: “It has been a privilege to oversee BW’s growth from a tanker and dry bulk business to a significant maritime oil and gas player involved in LNG, LPG, crude, products, chemicals and FPSOs. Andreas has been with BW for the past 15 years and I am confident that under his leadership, the company will continue to grow.”
Sohmen’s son, Andreas, has taken over as chairman.
Sohmen ran the shipowning giant after his father-in-law, Sir Y K Pao, had relinquished his role as founder of World-Wide Shipping. Pao had made World-Wide into one of the top names in shipping, but by the 1980s it was facing hard times. Under Sohmen, World-Wide bounced back, buying out Norway’s Bergesen, rebranding as BW, and having a fleet larger than even in the heyday of the World-Wide founder.
Now, with more time on his hands, Sohmen is able to reflect on how shipping has shifted in his tenure in a rare and exclusive interview with Maritime CEO.
The main changes, he says, in shipping during the past four decades have been the shift from a very private  – “at times considered even secretive” – business to one that has become very public. This, Sohmen puts down to being a natural consequence of the development of financial markets and the heavier engagement in shipping by short-term players.
A second development, he notes, has been the increasing government involvement in all aspects of the operations of shipowners, prompted by greater scrutiny of business in general, the emergence of new safety, environmental, and liability issues, as well as the closer attention paid to questions of taxation, anti-trust, manpower protection, or the adequacy of insurance cover.
“More sectors of shipping have become commoditized,” he says.
Arguably one of the biggest changes in his tenure at the top has not been with shipowners, but the people who supply the ships.
“What has changed significantly is world shipbuilding capacity and the resultant threat of permanent overtonnage,” Sohmen warns.
Looking ahead, Sohmen can see plenty of potential changes such as resource production techniques and locations, cost of fuel, environmental considerations, direction of trade flows, larger canals. However, all of these issues have not yet settled down and might throw up surprises, he warns.
“Owners should not make too many assumptions or believe in linear projections based on historic precedent,” is the Austrian national’s sage advice.
As he points out, few people would have guessed only a few years ago the success of fracking, the political decisions to terminate nuclear power generation in major industrialised countries, or the incredible Chinese economic success story.
Wise words from one of the most cerebral shipowners around.  [28/11/14]

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