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Columbia’s O’Neil extols the benefits of ‘solidarity and flexibility’

Columbia Shipmanagement (CSM) has put in place a number of innovative measures to support its seafarers during the Covid-19 crisis, as well as launching a teaming initiative with four other ship operators to share information and resources, ceo Mark O’Neil tells Seatrade Maritime News.

Under its so-called Solidarity Among Shipmanagers initiative CSM is working with a group of fellow managers and ship owners, including BSM (Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement), Peter Döhle, Synergy Group, ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Co) and d’Amico, during the crisis. Operations directors of the five companies meet once a week via video call to discuss ways “to help each other,” O’Neil relates.

“We wanted to keep [the group] small,” he adds, where close co-operation “shows there is real solidarity.”

To help all its staff during lockdown CSM is also extending a mental health hotline that it set up for seafarers 18 months ago to shore-based staff as well. Manned 24/7 by two trained psychologists, the hotline costs around $50,000 a year to run, which is “peanuts” compared to the positive benefits it can bring to seafarers aboard the company’s fleet of some 270 ships, especially in these challenging times, says O’Neil.

“Now we’re planning to encourage more crew to use the hotline,” he adds, “portraying its use more as a strength than a weakness, especially during these challenging times.”

The company has also given all its crew free and unlimited use of wi-fi for three months - subject to the vessel’s technology permitting – with CSM’s connectivity partners Tototheo and Inmarsat having been “fantastic” with their assistance.

“The sharp end here is the crews,” says O’Neil, “and what we can do to help them and their fears about their families.”

Indeed, “identifying with staff and crew” can be considered a necessity for any quality ship management or operating company, he continues. “Shipping is very flexible and resilient, and people tend to find solutions very quickly”. But it’s also a “massive people business,’ he adds, which becomes only too apparent at a time like this when you need to tell crew “you have to do another month.”

For its fleet’s operational requirements, CSM began compiling an database of geographical supplier information as soon as travel restrictions started to be put in place. That database provides information on, for example, what supplies and inspection and repair facilities are available in different locations, O’Neil relates, and is controlled from CSM’s Performance Optimisation Control Room in Cyprus.

“What will determine whether we come out stronger from this is our ability to gather and process information,” he observes. “A lot of our staff are now being redeployed to gather information and find out the status in different jurisdictions.

In fact, anecdotally O’Neil shares that he has been pleasantly surprised  by “the feasibility of working from home” during lockdown, which has worked “amazingly well… without a single hiccup” for CSM’s shore-based personnel. In many cases senior management have got to know their staff better than before through regular one-to-one telephone calls at home, he confides, with “none of that time wasted in senseless office meetings.”

“It’s all about flexibility and solidarity,” the CSM ceo concludes: “Being there, for clients, staff and crew, in good times and in bad.”     

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