From Shipping Agent to Shipowner

The following interview was published in Seatalk (5th Edition, 2022).

Vincent and Pierre Durot are two brothers at the helm of Antwerp-based shipping company Boeckmans. They are the fourth generation in this family business that was founded in 1935, and has grown into one of the largest independent shipping agencies in the Benelux, with offices in Antwerp and Rotterdam. While this is still the core business of the company, its activities have expanded over the years: they have purchased their own ships and now offer an A to Z service. SeaTalk met with Pierre (40), the youngest of the two managers. He talks about his passion for the maritime business and the challenges he faces as an entrepreneur.

 

Not Predestined

At the Karel de Grote Hogeschool in Antwerp, Pierre studied for a bachelor’s degree in Logistics. But he didn’t plan to pursue a career in the maritime business. Although he was born into a seafaring family, he was not brought up with the passion. After his studies, he got a job at Continental Marine Services, where he was responsible for ship management, and the bug caught on to him. Managing ships, keeping them technically seaworthy, manning them, keeping track of the administration for the relevant authorities, it suited him. « Later, I followed a course in Chartering in London, specialising in the chartering of ocean-going vessels. The subject had been discussed briefly during my logistics studies, but there is no extensive training for it in Belgium. »

Meanwhile, the family business continued its activities. By the mid-1980s, they had set up their own break-bulk liner service, « Scaldian Asian Line, » where ships were chartered by voyage (voyage charter). Some time later, their field of activity expanded to the Mediterranean with a focus on the Maghreb countries. From 2000 onwards, there was a turnaround in their approach. They stopped hiring ships on a trip basis, but chose for long-time renting (time charter), for which they needed to find return cargo to the North. In 2005, the company decided not to limit itself to hiring any longer, purchasing a merchant ship, the MV Marcel.

Learning the Hard Way

Pierre joined the company in 2008. He decided to develop Boeckmans’ chartering activities, because that’s where his expertise lies.

« The most important task in chartering is matching the right ship to a specific cargo, » Durot explains. « Each ship has its own specifications, often specific navigation routes, start-up costs, etc. It’s a kind of puzzle that our collaborators have to put together every day again. When I started in our family business, they told me we were in a booming market, and nothing could go wrong. But when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in the summer of 2008, the shipping market also collapsed. There was an oversupply of shipping capacity, massively financed on the good vibe of previous years. The period that followed was a harsh learning experience for me, as every euro had to be turned over twice to keep the business running. In our market segment (among others dry bulk), we have felt this for at least ten years. Fortunately, as a family business our base was solid, and we weren’t burdened by sky-high debts like many other companies. »

In the unstable market conditions of recent years, the management duo, Pierre and Vincent, made the right decisions for the company. Nowadays Boeckmans operates with six ships of its own (MV Marcus, MV Margot, MV Marant, MV Maremka, MV Marie and MV Marley), and two or more chartered ships, depending on the cargo offer. Their fleet operates in the region between Norway and the Mediterranean, as well in the liner market as in the contract and spot (tramp) markets. With their chartering division, they make about two hundred voyages per year, both with their own ships and with chartered ones. Boeckmans mainly transports bulk goods (cereals, minerals, fertiliser, etc.), but also ships break bulk (steel, wood pulp, etc.) and project cargo (boats, wind turbine rotor blades, etc.).

Challenges for the Future

“In my experience, it’s impossible to predict what the future holds. External factors can suddenly surface, to which you need to react quickly. Just think of the COVID pandemic, in which crews had a hard time, having to stay on board in quarantine for a long time. It was definitely a difficult period for them. The present conflict situation between Russia and Ukraine is also causing stress situations on board. Crew members who are called ashore to go and fight for their country, or our management staff from these regions who had to flee to Belgium with all their belongings. These are harrowing situations that affect you as a company, but also as a person and colleague.”

“One challenge we are now already working on, is making our fleet climate-neutral. You own a ship for several decades, so the trick is to optimize the equipment and working methods constantly. In the short term, this means we are focusing on better paints (antifouling), adapting technical systems on board, improving chartering methods. In the long term, we are looking at new propulsion systems, such as hydrogen or ammonia. These elements have a long- or short-term impact on sustainability.”

“Our A+ Boeckmans Team provides a nice organic growth. I am proud of that, although I am sure that in the future it will be a difficult exercise to find good employees, but that is not only the case in the maritime sector these days. Every year, barely a handful of students graduate from, for example, the Hogere Zeevaartschool (Superior Maritime Academy) in Antwerp. So, the competition in our sector is not so much in finding customers, but in attracting these graduates. We have no choice but to accept some profiles from other countries; otherwise our ships will never be manned. And, of course, this means that you have to deal with other working customs and conditions, which we as a company have to respond to correctly.”

Pierre ends the interview on a positive note, pointing out the opportunities in the maritime world: “Apart from sailing, there is also a fantastic career on shore, as long as you have maritime know-how. It’s a fascinating world, one that has bitten me and will never let go, one that I love to get up for and go to sleep with every night. No burden, but a genuine passion. And my daily cycling and jogging routes help me to clear my head once in a while.”

 

Author: CO
Photos: Boeckmans Shipping