Columbia Marlow chief executive officer Mark O’Neil on the stark choice facing tanker operators
From the start of the merger we realised we had to embrace digitalisation. Digitalisation is what I have described as an existential issue for shipping and shipping’s place in the global trade environment.
When you look at the Alibabas and the Amazons, the vertical structures that are going to take place, it is clear that we have to make sure we, our clients and our future clients fit into that future global trade environment.
This is an important step. So, we have teamed up with Lufthansa as partners to bring aviation, digitalisation and technology into the shipping space. We have in the first 100 days delivered our digital vision, our digital agenda.
What does that mean? We are on the road, but there is never an end to that road. You have to appreciate that there is often a fair degree of cynicism and resistance to the whole process. But we are punching through that and we are on the right track. Hopefully within a very short period of time we will be well ahead of our competitors on that digitalisation track.
Digitalisation is about technology: processes and innovation. It is not about the latest software application, though 99.8% of people in the industry wonder ‘Do I have the latest software?’ If you go through the next five years with that frame of mind, you will be out of business because you have to achieve process excellence. You have to go through transformational change, and then you have to digitalise. Software is just one small part of the technology element of the digitilisation process. Those who fail to understand this face an existential threat.
There is a lot of talk about autonomous shipping. There will be degrees of autonomous vessels in the next five to 10 years. I think there will be fully autonomous vessels in our lifetime, though they will make up a very, very small percentage of the world fleet.
There will always be a place for the shipmanager because just as drones have not replaced the need for sizeable crews ashore or on land, autonomous vessels will still require a good number of crew to operate them ashore – and of course crew to maintain them when they come into port.
So I do not think it is the end of shipmanagers or shipping as we know it. I think full autonomy will take a very long time.
There are a lot of exciting developments. The motto of Columbia Marlow is ‘partnership redefined.’ It is not just about Columbia Marlow getting to that place, it is about a journey we take our clients and our future clients on. There will be a lot of developments, and these will be publicised when the time comes.
* These comments are based on a fuller interview with Mark O’Neil after he accepted the 2017 Tanker Shipping & Trade Operational Excellence Award sponsored by Winterthur Gas & Diesel