Shipping at a watershed

An industry-wide lack of technical knowledge is limiting the uptake of new technology in shipping, says Dr. Martin Stopford, author of the world-renowned textbook Maritime Economics. Now is the time to change this, he believes.

You’ve got to manage a lot of small components to get efficiency today.

“I don’t know who in the maritime business has the capability, the budget and the resources to put that sort of thing together. What shipping needs is a Steve Jobs.”

The late Apple CEO was a good example of how understanding the market, adapting technology and “sticking with an idea” can transform a company, says Stopford. Only with a new generation of tech-savvy decision makers will technology’s potential begin to be explored. 

“Shipping is an old-fashioned business,” he continues. “We, who have grown up with it, may like it that way. Fortunately, there’s a new generation out there that don’t have the baggage we have. 

“We need people at board level who understand technology and have the vision and authority to make it work at the very top of the company. It will take at least 10 years to breed a new generation of middle and senior management in shipping who really understand how to put all the pieces together.”
“You’ve got to manage a lot of small components to get efficiency today. That’s something I think the average shipping company is really struggling with because many of them are quite small companies.”

“I hate to say it, but I think this lack of technical depth is true of the shipbuilding business as well. They have been building roughly the same ship since 1985,” he says. The evidence of this technological stagnation is “there in the numbers. The fuel efficiency of the ships, the basic design features have not changed much.”
This lack of innovation and evolution in vessel design is, however, not true of the navigation, propulsion, cargo-handling and communications industries. Constantly developing often complex technical solutions to address upcoming operational or environmental challenges, these new systems expose the dearth of technical knowledge currently available across shipping companies. 

An act of faith

“The reality is that owners of shipping companies are often not very technical. They don’t know what’s possible, and if you’re delivering an electronic engine to them and the chief engineer can’t work it, how do you escape from that conundrum?” 

Stopford describes a situation where senior engineers are happy “as long as there’s a sound coming out of the engine” because they are scared to touch the engine management systems for “fear of breaking them.”

By reinstating technical competence and mixing it with forward-thinking management, a new generation of technologically literate shipping companies, “able to break the mould” could propel shipping into the 21st century. Stopford is convinced that those who can’t or won’t “reengineer” themselves are doomed. “They’ll lock themselves into history and go the way of Research in Motion and Nokia.”

“After 50 years of global free trade, the shipping industry is looking towards an era where it needs to pick up its bed and walk. It needs to do something different. Just carrying on building slightly bigger ships with each generation, and otherwise roughly doing what you did before, is running out of steam.”

Stopford says shipping’s stakeholders “don’t have to be Steve Jobs” to understand that finding a new way of working, which enables them to use the “tidal wave of information technology” currently available, is essential. 

“Anyone who has run a business knows it’s not about figuring out what’s happening. It’s about getting a vision and putting one foot in front of the other. It’s an act of faith. You don’t really know until you get there whether you can do it.”  

Martin Stopford

– Studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford
–  Doctorate in Economics from Birkbeck College, University of London 
– Honorary doctorate from Solent University, Southampton
– Began his career in shipping in 1977 as Group Economist for British Shipbuilders, the public body which owned and ran Great Britain’s shipbuilding sector
– Started lecturing at Cambridge Academy of Transport in the 70s
– Recruited by American bank Chase Manhattan in the late 80s as Global Shipping Economist
– Became MD of Clarksons Research in 1990 
– Joined the board of Clarksons PLC in 2004
– Author of the textbook Maritime Economics, now in its third edition
– Awarded the Chojeong Book Prize for Maritime Economics in 2005
– Winner of the Lloyds List Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010
– Seatrade Personality of the Year 2013

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