The secret to running a happy ship... or 400
Peter Cremers is chief executive of Hong Kong's Anglo-Eastern Group, one of the world's largest companies offering ship management and shipping services. After graduating with a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering in 1973, he worked for a Belgian shipyard and later joined Anglo-Eastern as general manager in 1985.
In 1998, he led a management buyout and the company is now largely owned by him and two partners, chief operating officer Marcel Liedts and chief financial officer Richard Wong.
Anglo-Eastern manages the day-to-day operation of about 400 ships, including tankers, container ships, dry cargo bulk carriers carrying iron ore and coal, and offshore oil and gas vessels, owned by international shipping companies. The company's ship management services encompass providing crews, food and chandlery supplies and ensuring that ship safety standards are maintained.
The company employs about 15,000 seafarers and shore-based staff, has 21 global offices, including operations in Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Britain, Germany, the United States and Canada. It has an officer cadet training academy at Karjat, outside Mumbai, India, and seamen training centres in Chennai and Calcutta. Other training centres are based in Guangzhou, Manila and Odessa in Ukraine.
How do you manage an organisation as diverse as Anglo-Eastern?
It's basically from this desk, but with a small team of professionals around me in Hong Kong. It's teamwork.
The company is run by three senior people - boss number one, boss number two and boss number three- that have been together for 30 years or more. And around that is a team of professionals who know what we expect. That's the umbrella that covers the whole organisation.
Given you're dealing with people based on shore and at sea, are there any special criteria or issues that arise because you have two sets of staff in two environments?
Yes. I've always said that seafarers are a special breed of people. You have to know how they think. That's why we decided early that we like a one- nationality crew on board a ship. I'm a firm believer in the fact that you need to know how Filipinos think and how you have to approach a ship with Filipinos. That may be totally different from how you approach a ship that is manned with Indians or Chinese or Ukrainians. [These are] the four big nationalities we work with.
Office staff are a little bit easier. We select by virtue of who we are: we select people who are as crazy as we are to be in this business and like to work day and night.
Your retention rate for seafarers is more than 90 per cent. How do you maintain that?
I think that for seafarers, aligning themselves with a successful company is important. It's also a company where the promotion possibilities are almost unlimited. From cadet to promotion on the ships, the best ones come ashore and in theory could become a managing director 15 years later. Most of our senior people have almost exclusively been recruited from the sea staff.
I think we go a long way to also show a human face. There are little examples of which the payback is enormous in terms of loyalty. A guy sits in a hospital in Brazil, or somewhere in Africa. How much do you leave it up to local people to handle or how quickly do you say, 'Come on, let's get him out and bring him to a hospital in Hong Kong or Mumbai and make sure he is properly taken care of. No cost, no time and no effort is spared ashore to help people with their problems.
People working for Anglo-Eastern also know that safety is the No1 priority. Anything that has to be done in order to safely navigate the ships is done. People at sea feel backed up by the company. There is always somebody here to help them, wherever they are, in whatever circumstances.
What challenges are you facing?
Making sure 15,000 people understand the slightest marpol [marine pollution] violation may jeopardise 20 years of goodwill that we have. So we must ensure that people coming from outside must understand that when we say we are absolutely marpol-compliant we mean that.
Making sure that we are absolutely open with clients is another challenge. That also requires the ships to be open with us. It's natural for people who make a mistake to try to cover up a little bit, which is exactly what we don't want.
Then there is making sure we find the right people. Seafaring means having committed people on board the ships. It's more obviously a vocation than merely something you just do. It's no 9 to 5 job. No way. That's why we started our own nautical institute. We can train people from the absolute basic source into the right spirit of the company. The growth is only limited by the number of professionals we can train and employ to ensure they're doing a proper job.
What else is a challenge? Piracy? Maritime security?
We should not be worried every five minutes about people shooting at ships. That is not part of the job. We are now putting armed guards on board, but [it shouldn't have to be that way]. You don't have to walk through Hong Kong with the fear that people are shooting at you from every corner. Basically in the Indian Ocean today, you have the risk at every corner. And it's driving away people from the job at sea.
Where do you see Anglo-Eastern being in five to 10 years? Outsourcing the management of a ship to a third party like ourselves is a trend that will develop further because the job will become more complicated. Legal and regulatory requirements become so difficult that you really need to be an expert and you have to have a volume [of ships] to do that. The market is almost unlimited. There will be more ships owned by financial institutions. More ships will be managed by professionals like us. So, basically, we will become a bigger ship-management company. We will be managing more offshore related structures - pipe layers, cable layers, storage platforms or production platforms- and that's an obvious diversification.
The amount of his time Peter Cremers spends on the day-to-day business of making sure everybody does the right thing