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Inchcape stays focused on core ship agency business

Photo: ISS Olsen.jpg
Frank Olsen, ceo of Inchcape Shipping Services
In his two years since moving up to become ceo of Inchcape Shipping Services, Frank Olsen has worked to sharpen the company’s focus on the traditional business and values of ship agency.

First up, he divested Inchcape’s freight forwarding arm in the Middle East as being overly “capital intensive”, he explains to Seatrade Maritime News, thereby “roughly halving” company debt and leaving it “more comfortably placed, with low leverage” during the current pandemic.

Then came a renewed emphasis on strengthening what he calls the company’s “main differentiator” – its global network of over 240 offices in 68 countries and partner agencies around the world, covering approximately 2,500 ports or “about 85% of all obtainable ports calls in the world.” 

Olsen points out that Inchcape is unique among the three major ship agency groups in having such a single-minded focus - GAC being also heavily involved in logistics, while his former employer Wilhelmsen is a highly diversified group.

“We’re not strictly pure play as we have a few other activities,” he adds, “but these do all revolve around the port and ship.”

The primary reason why the ship agency market is so fragmented with about 80% market share lying in the hands of smaller players is a “lack of trust,” Olsen believes. That’s why the company launched a “Transparency” initiative last year, to help build what he calls “meaningful relationships” with clients.

“Relationships of fundamental trust” are needed if agents and operators are to work together effectively, he continues - for example on issues such as Just-In-Time arrivals in port that can be a valuable assist in the ongoing challenge of decarbonisation.

“We are working really hard to demonstrate that we are a trustworthy, transparent and valuable partner to our customers, and the key point here is integrity,” the Inchcape ceo says. “That’s what matters most to me and something we have embedded in the corporate culture.”

The company is also placing great emphasis on technology, in services such as its newly revamped World of Ports digital database of port and ship information that is available on a subscription basis.

During the Covid-19 pandemic Inchcape has also been freely providing on its website key information of ports around the world where crew changes and flights are possible, continuously updated by three full-time Inchcape staff in three different time zones who collect and collate all the input from the its unique global network. The site has received more than 160,000 unique hits and represents “a remarkable resource” which has attracted much praise, says Olsen.

The company has also been working with ship operators, managers and others in various international groups trying to find a global solution to the crew change issue, he relates, while over five days last week it successfully managed a complex operation in India of 3,650 disembarking seafarers from four vessels belonging to a major cruise group “without a single hiccup.”   

To solve remaining crew change problems requires “full collaboration” between different parties without any consideration of competitive factors and there are “encouraging signs” that this is happening, reckons the Inchcape ceo. After all, he concludes, “the human factor trumps everything.”   

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