At age 17, Esben Poulsson crossed the Pacific Ocean, working on a Columbus Line vessel in the summer of 1966. Now, he has more than 45 years of experience in the shipping business and holds 6 non-executive directorships and leading roles in two maritime associations. The industry is facing big changes but Mr. Poulsson does not think they will come about quite as rapidly as everyone will have you believe.
Today, Esben Poulsson is Chairman of the Singapore-based ship owning entity Enesel Pte. Ltd., where he oversees the administration of fourteen modern container ships and takes care of business development and investments for the company.
Enesel Pte. Ltd. is owned by the Greek N S Lemos group, and due to the nature of the job, the family is supportive of him doing association and other external work. In his association roles, he is currently President of the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) and Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, based in London.
“It is a lot of work, which at times includes both head ache and heart ache – and it is not paid!”
The other positions do pay fees, but it is not what encourages him to do all this extra work: “What motivates me is my interest in, and my passion for the industry and the feeling that I can contribute to it, because if you’re just here to collect the fees, I don’t think you’re going to add much value.”
Daydreaming about the sea
The interest in the sea started in Esben’s case at very early age. Born in Copenhagen to a Norwegian father and a Danish mother, he used to go to Charlottenlund Molen, just north of Copenhagen, and look out on the sea, longing to get out there and sail. After the unexpected death of his father when Esben was seven years old, the family did not have a lot of money, so going sailing was not on the agenda. However, in 1961, his mother remarried and the family moved to Vancouver, where new opportunities met them.
“My stepfather was a keen and competent sailor and so I immediately started sailing when we arrived in Canada. I think with his encouragement and my own interest in the sea, shipping was just as given – honestly, I never thought of anything else!”
Esben’s stepfather helped him land a job working on a Columbus Line (now Hamburg Sud) vessel in the summer of 1966, on a voyage from Vancouver down the west coast and across the Pacific to Tahiti and on to Australia. It was a two-and-a-half-month-long trip on a 9,000-deadweight ship, with a crew of 35 men. Today a ship that size would probably a crew of 12, Poulsson explains.
“It was a fantastic experience because in those days it was just very different. There was no internet – there was no nothing! The captain would cable the ship’s position daily and that’s about the extent of communication you had with the outside world.”
One memory in particular stands out from the voyage. The 1966 World Cup final was played out between Germany and England. With an all-German crew aboard, this was a very important game, and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the entire crew gathered on deck around this tiny crackly radio.
“It meant nothing to me because I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in football, but these guys were all listening intently and said: ‘If Germany wins we’re gonna get drunk and if England wins – we’re still gonna get drunk!’” England won that World Cup – the only time they have ever done so.
After that experience, there was no turning back. All holidays and school breaks were spent doing something related to shipping, be it as a telex operator or an agency boarding clerk. In the summer of 1967 he got an internship working for a ship broker in London. The broking company was E.A. Gibson, where the world’s then leading tanker broker, Eric Shawyer, worked. When word came of the outbreak of the six-day war between Israel and Egypt, resulting in the immediate closure of the Suez Canal, Esben was sitting right across from Shawyer.
“I was too young to really grasp the meaning of it, but the closure of the Suez Canal resulted in the almost immediate ‘birth’ of the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier), because it made it in effect economical to go around the Cape the Good Hope, using much larger vessels. So, in terms of a historical impact on the shipping industry, the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967 was a major event and had a great impact on the industry, until its eventual re-opening in 1974.”
Vancouver traded for Hong Kong
After graduation, the plan was all set. Esben was to join the local shipping firm Gibson, Vancouver but it did not turn out that way.
“Literally a few months before graduation, this pipe-smoking retired Norwegian captain said to me: ‘Look Esben, you’re a young guy and I think you have energy and ambition. Now, Vancouver is a wonderful place for living but it’s a backwater in international shipping terms – it’s basically just a port. There are no ships, no owners, no cargo controlled here. You must get out in the world!’ I hesitated a bit, but he then said: ‘I have a friend in Hong Kong.’”
At that time, living on the west coast of Canada, the idea of going to Hong Kong to work was to Esben a bit like going to another planet: “When he mentioned Hong Kong, I said: ‘That’s it, that’s what I want!’”
Esben arrived in Hong Kong in 1971, starting as a trainee at the company Wallem & Company Ltd. The plan was to stay with the firm for two years, but Esben had other ideas. “We reached an arrangement, and I ended up staying in Hong Kong for 25 years,” Esben said, reasoning: “Because I loved it. It was a truly exciting time and it was just brilliant – being in Hong Kong and witnessing the opening up of China in the ensuing years was an incredible opportunity.”
He stayed with Wallem & Company Ltd. for seven years. Later, he became the managing director of the Hong Kong broking house Rodskog Shipbrokers Ltd. where he stayed for 13 years. Rodskog Shipbrokers Ltd. was sold to the Danish shipping company TORM A/S in 1990 and when this company was sold again, in 1996, to the Norwegian broking house Fearnley’s, Esben remained with TORM and moved to London, to establish TORM U.K. Ltd.
In 2004, he moved to Singapore to start up the Asian HQ for TORM here. About a third of TORM’s fleet was transferred from Denmark to Singapore, and Poulsson became Chairman and CEO. When a change of shareholding occurred in TORM, Esben decided to leave and start his own consultancy, and joined the Board of other companies. In 2011, he joined the N S Lemos Group, helping them establish a commodity trading business, AVRA International Pte. Ltd., and subsequently, set up Enesel Pte. Ltd. in 2012 where he has worked as Chairman ever since.
The Singapore mindset
One of the unique things about Singapore is the close working relationship between industry and government. In his SSA role, Esben Poulsson works closely with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) where he is also a Board member. There is a joke in Singapore that whenever you are asked to take a position on a committee or group work and you hesitate, people will convince you by saying it is ‘national service’, Esben explains.
Even though it can be a bit of a stretch, there is something to it: “In Singapore, you can actually make a difference. You can make things happen if you are prepared to make the effort. I have sat on various committees in other countries and often, it’s just talk and no result – which is a waste of time.”
Singapore has been rated the top maritime center in the world, but this did not happen overnight. It was a strategic goal, and when a strategy is developed and the government commits to it, failure is not an option, Poulsson explains.
“On a national scale, there is this kind of engrained mentality that we need to always improve. Never sit down and say, ‘Oh well here we are.’ It’s the same with German engineers and cars. They keep getting better because they are always looking for the next improvement. This is a mindset. And bear in mind, Singapore has nothing except its people and its brains, no resources of any kind, it only has its hard-working people – and of course a great location.”
Being on all these various committees and boards, Poulsson acknowledges the danger of it all becoming a little clannish, and so it is important that it is not always the same people holding the same positions. He strongly believes that a big part of his role is to encourage and groom the younger generation to get involved in order to be ready to take maritime Singapore to the next level.
Disruption or technological improvement?
When it comes to the future, Esben is certain that the container business, especially, through blockchain, digitalization, and other new technologies is going to change significantly. A container is very standardized and the procedure – going from manufacturer, to container, onto the ship, to the new port, and to the end user is very suitable for technological improvement. According to Poulsson, shipping lines are working on this, looking to gain a competitive advantage and a severe reduction in costs.
Concerning the overall maritime and shipping business Esben believes in a rapid evolutionary process rather than revolutionary one. As an example, Alibaba has tied up with Maersk Line so when you make a purchase and you want it shipped, you can book the Maersk container online.
“If you mentioned that idea a year or two ago, people would say that was incredible but today it just seems logical. So, to me it is not so much an ‘uberization’ of the industry, but an example of a logical development.”
Esben Poulsson takes part in many conferences and is repeatedly told that the industry is asleep at the wheel and will be completely disrupted. He acknowledges that this is a possibility but he also sees a great deal of change coming from within the business.
“A company like Maersk has a room full of beavers, looking at every existing and future possible take on technology. They are investing tons of money in this area, and so are a number of other companies.”
Additionally, CMA CGM just confirmed that it will power the next generation of ships with liquefied natural gas (LNG) which is a first for ships of this size. Considering there are limited LNG supply facilities around the world, it is a bold move, Poulsson thinks. LNG is something only relatively few ports are investing in, including Singapore, but a number of ports are looking to take this route.
“However, we live in a free world, and there are a lot of clever people trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, so I cannot say that some 24-year old whizz kid won’t come in and develop technologies we cannot presently visualize. Possibly, we have too much knowledge, and therefore cannot see the wood for the trees.”
Man versus machine
In the future, we will see smaller crews onboard the ships, Esben thinks. With technological improvement, more automation will appear and so the nature of the jobs onboard will also change. A lot of people talk about unmanned ships, but Esben is far from convinced that will become reality within his lifetime.
“I personally don’t think so. They will come on shorter point-to-point routes, like for example across a fjord in Norway, but shipping a large cargo of coal or iron from Australia to China for example – I mean unless I am completely missing something – I just don’t see the change being quite as radical as many would have you believe in that type of trade. Maybe it’s just a lack of imagination on my part.”
“If you look at the aircraft sector computers have been landing aircraft for more than 20 years but there are still four people in the cockpit to this day.” However, it is not the technology that is the problem – Esben believes the technology is already here, but as so often is the case, technology and innovation are ahead of the regulatory environment needed to ensure the right result.
“Also, the sea is an unpredictable place. With hurricanes, storms, and typhoons, so many things can happen, and I think you will always need to have people onboard when trading globally.”
When it comes down to the question about man versus technology, it is hard to picture the future in maritime and shipping without one or the other: “It’s very difficult to say,” Poulsson states, “I mean cyberattacks target people, and therefore to defend against cyberattacks that would also require people, right? So, for a system to be built around that – it is hard to say.”
A business to be proud of
The shipping industry is somewhat invisible because, as Esben puts it, “we are terrible at explaining and showcasing our industry”. Something Esben believes that people do not know is what improvements the industry has achieved over the years, especially in the safe operation of oil tankers, in respects of spills per annum. In the 1970s there were close to 30 spills per annum of more than 25 tons per spill. Today it is an average of 1.8 spills. Esben would like people to at least be aware that the worldwide industry has come such a long way.
“Apart from the moral aspect of it, being clean, being a responsible player, and doing a professional job is just good business, no matter what business you are in. In the long run, ship owners who do everything properly will generally be more successful and sustainable.”
To this day, Esben still sees shipping as lending itself to the entrepreneurial spirit, which is what makes it great. It is a free business, market-driven, and with very little interference in the free flow of goods.
“Whether or not you believe in free trade and globalization – as I do strongly – shipping’s contribution to both has been absolutely tremendous. And I would say that we in shipping should be very proud of that contribution.”
All portrait photos: Xian-Li Chan