Joerg Roehl: The big (and heavy) picture
Despite the problems of the heavy lift segment – which has experienced two years of restructuring, vessel layups and consolidation – Joerg Roehl of TGP Group insists “we are beginning to see some positive signs”. But, why should we believe him?
Maybe because Roehl is used to riding the ups and down of a turbulent project cargo market and has seen his share of drama – both technical and business-related – and come out the other side.
Take his original role for Oaktree Group. His job as MD of Beluga Shipping was to restructure, rescuing the group’s €200m ($280m) stake. He was too late. “I arrived on March 1st. By March 11th, the company had filed for bankruptcy.”
Although it was a curiously impersonal blow, it still hit hard: “The tension upsets you a lot more than if it were your own fate alone,” he said. “There were 600 people affected by the Beluga wind up: so you are looking at 600 careers, 600 families...” It wasn’t just the financial complications; it’s also no easy matter “to find the most workable, professional way forward that will impact the least number of people”.
Finally, Oaktree agreed to back a new heavy lift firm, and like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Hansa Heavy Lift was born with Roehl at its head. He explained the new company took on around 16 ships and 70 ex-Beluga employees: “We were lucky to be able to offer them a safe harbour,” added Roehl.
The support obviously had a double edge. After all, it was fundamentally associated with the failed firm, so the new company “had to get out into the world and work very hard” to prove its credibility. It wasn’t just the banks and financial institutions: “You’ve got to get the trust of the clients - including the freight forwarders, some of which were caught by Beluga’s insolvency.” However, HHL’s willingness to reach out meant within a few months it had signed framing agreements with large blue-chip industry clients “and from that moment we knew we were on the right track”.
Further, the new company carried on putting out the message that challenges were part of its core business. In 2013 HHL pushed the boundaries by two heavy reactor lifts within three weeks: one of 1,283 tonnes, the other 1,306 tonnes. The same year it started to handle oversize infrastructure cargo for Russia’s Yamal LNG project through the arctic’s difficult Northern Sea Route as the Suez Canal just didn’t have the airdraft for the massive pieces of kit, and the Cape of Good Hope was “economically unfeasible”.
Russia featured heavily, but other regions provided different challenges: Australia saw a “very delicate, controlled” seabed installation of a 26m tall wave energy unit and retrieval rig weighing a total of 698 tonnes. These had to be lowered through the splash zone at a precise angle to stop the device doing what it should do – oscillate with the waves – on the way down.
Six years, however, were "enough" says Roehl. It's been followed by a “return to roots” as CEO of TGP Group's European division, a role which has provided a path back to the freight forwarding sector and home to Europe as he is now based in Zurich, Switzerland.
However, that doesn’t infer his present role is a domestic operation: expansion of the group’s European arm reaches from manufacturers out to regions “such as the Caspian Sea, Iraq and now possibly Iran...” It’s a tricky job: bringing infrastructure into a developing area means “you are still facing the challenges of the sea... but equally you can be creating new roads to roll the heavy lift cargo from the coast to the site”.
Finally, there is another reason to have some faith in Roehl’s fundamentally optimistic stance: he’s in a good position to spot the economic ‘big picture’. While he admits it is early days given the scale of the crisis – after all, SAL Heavy Lift and Dockwise have been hit and Rickmers Linie has just been sold to Germany's Zeaborn amidst soaring losses – the industry may be turning a corner and he says he’s seeing signs that “some large projects are coming back into play”.
However, he underlines it’s not a matter of pinning hopes on a return to health of the oil and gas market “though of course that would give us all a very solid basis”. That, he says, is proving “slow”.
Nor are the green shoots about “momentary” bursts of positive sentiment on the world’s stock exchanges “although those show you there is something going on”. Rather, he points to the inextricable nature of the various markets and a long-term view: “What we are just beginning to see - what we need to see - is a steady recovery in commodities and especially raw materials. We know this will have a direct effect on their associated industries... and that, in turn, will spur on the project market.”
Having said this, the world’s markets are still volatile. While it’s difficult to see how many fingers Roehl has crossed when he claims “after a few very tough years, the outlook is not too bad”, if you’re looking for someone to stand beside, he’s a good choice. If only because no matter what comes, there’s no doubt he’ll make the best of it.
By Stevie Knight
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