Esben Poulsson blends East and West in Singapore
Esben Poulsson remembers the exact date his maritime career began – 31 August, 1971 – and he has a stamp in his passport to prove it.
Although he had some casual shipping related work before that, including three months at sea, aged 17, it is the moment when he arrived in Hong Kong that day that he counts as the start of his life’s voyage. Now, as he approaches the 50th anniversary of that momentous arrival, he is still as passionate about shipping as he was then.
“That’s because of my love of the sea”, he told ICS Leadership Insights. “I am never happier than when I’m at sea.” And passion is essential in shipping, he believes. “You can’t teach it but if you don’t have it, find something else to do”. He has no plans to find something else to do and the long list of senior roles he holds is testament to that.
They have accumulated by choice and chance. Since 2010, his main role has been Chairman of Enesel, which manages a fleet of large Singapore-flagged container vessels for the Greek Lemos shipping family.
Twice this portfolio of positions has led to potential conflicts of interest. In one case, he realised during a board meeting that the company was planning to explore an acquisition that another of his clients was also considering.
“I immediately put my hand up and said, ‘I cannot be involved in this discussion’. Any suggestion that you could be conflicted is not worth it”, he said.
Go global, go local
As a Scandinavian living in Asia, he is aware of the different management styles in both regions. European management, “is very consensual [but] it is much more top-down in Asia”, he said.
To reconcile these very different approaches, Poulsson has adopted a slogan that he attributes to HSBC: ‘go global, go local’. “I try to live by that. It’s not for me to impose [changes] when I’m in a different country.”
“[COVID] has given rise to a greater level of cooperation than I have ever seen”
He described his own approach to management as “more carrot than stick” and recalled a situation where he had applied that to an Asian client’s hiring policy during a period of growth.
At the time, it offered indentures to aspiring new staff, providing training in return for a commitment to stay with the company for a period of time afterwards. “But I wasn’t interested in tying someone down for five years, even though we had financially supported them.” Instead, at the end of their training, they were offered a job if they were good enough “and they were free to go if they didn’t like it.” He wanted, he said, “a positive and pleasant atmosphere of mutual respect”.
He has seen a degree of mutual respect emerge across the industry as a result of the COVID pandemic as the industry faces up to challenges such as crew changes and vaccine distribution. For example, the ICS – a shipowners organisation – has been cooperating with the ITF – a trade union body – in an “extremely constructive two-way dialogue [about] what we can do together. [COVID] has given rise to a greater level of cooperation than I have ever seen”, he said.
More broadly, groups such as BIMCO, Intertanko, Intercargo and the World Shipping Council are holding regular meetings on delayed crew changes and what he sees as the biggest concern currently facing the industry: “seafarers being treated as they are supposed to be treated … and governments stepping up and doing what they’re meant to be doing”.
ICS priority issues
Poulsson paid tribute to the ICS secretariat, which he said is achieving a great deal on that and other priority issues – such as new fuels and emissions, piracy, cyber security and more; “each deserves our best attention”, he said. He compared ICS with an equivalent organisation for the airline industry, IATA, which he said has more than 1,000 staff in 10 offices worldwide to represent 290 airlines. By contrast, ICS has 26 staff in one office, as well as one staff member in Hong Kong and another in Australia, and represents 80% of the world fleet.
Yet “shipping is a very individualistic type of business”, he said, and some shipowners do not appreciate the benefits that industry groups bring them through the work they do. Without them, “I suggest [the situations they address] would be much, much worse.”
IMO faces a similar issue, he suggested. Many business people “don’t really understand how it actually works”. He knows how they feel: “Before I got involved in association work, I could never really understand it”, he admitted.
A turning point for him in appreciating IMO’s practical impact came from the long debate about when the 0.5% sulphur cap would be introduced – 2020 or 2025 – which ended in October 2016 when MEPC 70 agreed it should be 1 January 2020. “The industry would probably have preferred 2025 … [but] we got a decision and a date; at least it was a done deal.”
Now, the emissions focus has moved on, to CO2 emissions, and perhaps the most important contribution ICS has made to IMO during his time in office has been its proposal for a levy on bunkers to raise funds for R&D into the next step in the ship fuelling developments: zero-carbon technologies.
The next 50 years
Those will usher in a very different way of designing ships and operating routines from those of the past 50 years and Poulsson predicted that the next five decades will be transformative. New fuels and their infrastructure, new technology and regulatory developments “will create massive changes”, he said.
Change will not be limited to ships themselves. Take 3D printing, for example: although the container sector is currently booming, “on a longer-term basis, you have to question what its effect will be”, he suggested.
Those forecasts reflect the broad view of the industry that his experiences have provided and he brings that approach to his ICS role. “As chairman, it is not my role to delve into the nitty-gritty”, he said. He does, however, provide a sounding board for shipowners and member associations – he has visited most of them during his terms of office – and offers a powerful voice beyond the industry, speaking regularly to the media and working with the ICS secretariat to prepare articles and commentaries.
When he is quoted in the media, he is often described as an ‘elder statesman’, he said but when he began, “I was always the youngest in the room. What happened?” His passion remains the same, however, and it is a two-way experience: “young people forget that people like me can learn just as much from them as they think they can learn from me.”