It was, according to Singapore’s Finance Minister, the conference with the most pre-event reading he’d ever attended. Like him, this was my first time at the Global Maritime Forum’s annual conference, aka the “Davos” of shipping.
Some 200+ executives descended on the city state. Most of the world’s major shipping companies, including Maersk and MSC, were here. So too were big bunker providers; port operators; broadband and satellite operators such as Inmarsat; insurance firms, including major players, like Swiss Re, along with most large P&I clubs; and several heads of maritime authorities.
The GMF team did an amazing job in preparing and orchestrating an “un-conference”. Rather than the usual speaker-panel-fireside-chat-combo, it was about the attendees engaging, thinking and creating together – prepping for the next 12 months’ of work on shared ideas and challenges.
A few weeks ago, a top executive at a public company told me he tends to look more at what a person isn’t saying than what he is. So what needs to happen to take the community the GMF has built over the past couple of years to the next level in order to really make an impact?
The following is by no means definitive truth, but just questions and thoughts I felt might be helpful to further the discussion:
Most parts of the shipping industry are struggling with ever-increasing pressure on margins. More than 20 marine insurance firms shut up shop this year; tanker rates are surging, but that could be a temporary thing; and other freight rates haven’t exactly returned to 2008 levels. As Michael Parker, Global Industry Head for the Shipping, Logistics and Offshore Industries at Citi, told the Forum: “If we don’t make sure that this business remains profitable – no-one will be in business.” Which led me to wonder: what’s the path that can get us there?
Use of technology and products
There aren’t many highly technical and useful products for this industry compared with what’s available to Fortune 500 companies. Yes, AIS is here, but it is, by and large, used as a low-end data source for tracking. Not many technology companies have grown to a significant size. Still, although people have been talking about Digitization, the vast majority of workflows in the wider industry are not too different from what they’ve been for decades.
Build vs. buy
Throughout the conference I got the sense that many of the participants felt that once they understood what products they should use, it would make sense to develop them alone. Technology companies in the maritime industry haven’t managed to put themselves in a significant position of trust with clients. In our business, we hear every day that banks, ship managers, shipping companies and the rest want their IT to aggregate data and present it. What should we, as tech companies, do differently to earn more trust? How should the industry improve the way it partners with tech companies in an iterative way, to flesh out what they really need?
What is the industry?
On the sidelines of the conference, when speaking with GMF Chairman, Peter Stokes, we discussed the great turnout from across the maritime industry. “It depends how you define ‘the industry’,” he said. But how should we define it? Janet Porter from Lloyd’s List told me she felt the media had a crucial part in looking at the industry from the outside. Who needs to be in the room? What’s the role of technology companies in this discussion? What’s the role of private equity investors and VCs who can help fund innovation?
There was little open talk on the impact of tougher and more widespread sanctions on the business of shipping and financing. However in closed conversations some people opened up to the idea that this could be the biggest risk to their business. Are we taking on that challenge as well as we should be as a global industry?
Making shipping sexy again
At our conference, Sea: The Future, one of the things that had the biggest impact was the fact that many people outside of the shipping industry came to speak. People like the former head of Britain’s GCHQ, talking about Cyber, or ex BP CEO, Lord Browne, whose background is in energy. If we are to make the shipping industry more successful, we need to attract talent. We need to think about how we can tell the story in a different way; appeal to top talent with technological, product and business backgrounds. In Tel-Aviv, London, New York and other hubs, top talent is fought over by all tech companies, maritime and non maritime. The GMF and its supporters have created a lot of excitement globally around the Poseidon Principles. How can we ensure this doesn’t become a one-off?
Taking the industry forward is a huge challenge. I was honored to play a small part in it, and will endeavour to make Sea: The Future 2020 (announcement coming soon), a natural extension of the conversations started in Singapore. In this way, we can continue discussing the needs and pains that can help drive the industry forward and keep expanding the circle of those who are passionate about the maritime ecosystem and want to take an active part in helping it thrive.