The decisive Karin Orsel
Karin Orsel: Starting a ship management company was “a gamble maybe not everyone would have gone for”
“It’s like an addiction,” says Karin Orsel, CEO of MF Shipping Group. “You get a taste for this industry and you don’t want to leave.”
The beginning wasn’t that auspicious, writes Stevie Knight. It started with a painful moment that Orsel now calls the “big bang”. She’d been working in the accounts department of a ship management company. “When the owner turned it over to his sons... everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.”
It wasn’t a good moment to find herself out of work. Having just taken on a mortgage she was faced with two options. The first was accepting the knock, taking a small part-time job and losing her home. The other was, she admits, “a gamble maybe not everyone would have gone for”. At the tender age of 23 she got a loan from the bank and, with a couple of others, started up a ship management company of her own.
“I told myself that I could give it up if it didn’t work out. But within a few years I realised there was no way I could go back to being an employee.”
MF Shipping was launched in 1994 with just one client and a fleet of six – but this rose in scale, size and reach. While the original vessels were less than 3,000dwt she now has over 50 bulk and liquid carriers of up to 16,500dwt under her wing. There’s a staff of 50 in the office and Orsel has become a ship owner too.
Needless to say, there have been setbacks. In one case she witnessed extremely unethical behaviour from a client. “If you see something like that you just know that, at some point, it will be your turn,” she says. The pain of saying goodbye to a whole fleet forced adjustments within her own company. But, she says: “In the longer run you just have to take those kinds of decisions – although they’re not easy.”
Despite that, business didn’t take too long to recover, something she puts down to not cutting the staff down to the bone. “Maybe there are some companies that have to do this as a matter of survival – but in the long run you can’t just shake the tree and expect qualified people to fall out. It’s a long-term investment that you make in your colleagues, both onshore as well as in the vessels.”
So, although she admits the company had “what you might call an overcapacity” for a while, “because of this we were able to jump into new markets, spread our wings into different cargo types and that attracted new clients as well.”
Despite all this she says growth is a balance. The company now has a 22-year history and since the downturn she’s seen a number of vessels in financial distress looking for a good home. “ButyYou have to make the right choices,” she says. “You can’t say yes to everything.”
For example in the case of oil tankers with questionable maintenance, there’s the potential for issues to spread out “and impact current clients and even the company’s performance toward the oil majors… Sometimes you just have to say ‘sorry, no’”.
Although she says shipping is going through a rough time and adds “we haven’t seen the end of it yet”, her company is in a good position: “We are lucky in that we have some very strong clients - not like those who pop up because they see a beneficial tax structure; that only leads to a vessel without a real demand.”
On the same subject of artificial market drivers she’s clear that you “can’t make people pay” for ecofriendly transport. “Those companies who can trade with greener and more energy efficient vessels will get the cargo because big brands will want to advertise their supply chain.” So while she likes the idea of a ‘green mark’ on transport goods, she’s aware that “it may be a long time before it takes hold - before people start making proactive choices”.
Orsel makes a valid point when she says: “It’s too easy if you own a company just to whine about what’s not right... but you need to step up and engage with policymakers – whether local, regional, national or international level.” She follows that through by being very proactive herself – vice chair of the Dutch Shipowner Association (KVNR) and board member of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).
While she admits such commitments can eat away at your time, she points out: “It also raises the profile of your company. I don’t like the term role-model but there are simply not enough women who are willing to step up... we need to make the time to do these kinds of things, and not walk away.”
On the other hand, her involvement with Women's International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) is rather different – despite being international chair, she hadn’t heard of it til 2003. However, it was here that she met “a lot of women with the same passion for the industry as I had”. She says it has provided her with connections throughout the industry chain and a reservoir of “capacity and knowledge” to call on. It’s also given her some remarkably useful moments of insight: for example how a beckoning with fingers upward could be read by Philippine crew as insulting.
Further, she adds: “While I don’t think it should be a written rule... I do tell the agencies to be on the lookout for women. If they’ve got so far they will already be certain it’s where they want to be. Of course it’s always about quality, but we need to stop saying a woman can’t be onboard a vessel because she is not capable of coping.”