Upon becoming CEO of Uni-Tankers in 2019, Per Ekmann was tasked with turning around the company. The family owned Danish shipping company was dealing with deep debts and its ships were aging.
"We were really getting a bit old and dusty here," he recalls with a smile.
"The need for a full turnaround was obvious for all, including me and the owners. That was the plan from the start: that we should do a full turnaround."
And Ekmann has indeed righted the ship during his first four years at the helm of Uni-Tankers, which ships chemicals and petroleum products around the globe. Under his guidance, Uni-Tankers has returned to profitability and expects to clear its remaining debt by the end of 2023.
The company has charted plans for growth and Ekmann has prioritized ESG commitments such as decarbonizing Uni-Tankers’ fleet and improving career opportunities for women on both land and sea.
Its expert knowledge in shipping liquid cargoes, meanwhile, is increasingly in high demand as customers such as Canon Denmark demand care in the transport of their raw materials and strive to decarbonize their supply chains.
Executing a plan
Ekmann, by his own admission, likes to execute a plan – such as the one for turning around Uni-Tankers.
"But I like to execute in a way that people are following me and not against me," he says. "You need to be good at convincing people, and you need to be good at getting people to follow you."
A veteran of the maritime sector, Ekmann was appointed interim CEO in late 2018, and after five months, interviews were held to fill the position permanently. He went through two rounds to beat the competition.
You need to be good at convincing people, and you need to be good at getting people to follow you.
The decision was logical: Ekmann had headed shipping and logistics services firm Uni-Chartering with his brother since 2008, until the company merged with Uni-Tankers in 2018.
"I really enjoy working for shipping families," he says of his experience in the maritime sector and working with the Østergaard family, which owns Uni-Tankers.
"What I really like and appreciate is being close to the owners and being able to get quick and personal decisions," he explains. "I can actually just walk upstairs and knock on the door and get assistance if I need that."
Chief experiment officer
Though officially CEO of Uni-Tankers, Ekmann readily assumes other titles. He often calls himself ‘Chief Experiment Officer’, which embodies the ethos of experimentation he promotes in the company.
"I’m very conscious about not being the chief decision maker all the time," he adds.
I’m very conscious about not being the chief decision maker all the time.
"I like to involve our employees in new things, where to experiment, where to invest. And if you have the ability to involve your employees in this, then the feedback you get is enormous."
Uni-Tankers may be famed for shipping chemicals, but it’s the people who matter most, Ekmann explains.
"The best part is the chemistry between people," he says. "It relates back to how our customers look at us."
To make sure this message was getting out to the right people, Uni-Tankers undertook a comprehensive rebranding, with the company’s branding consultants helping create the program Destination Possible.
"With Destination Possible, we are trying to create a forum where customers, but especially new employees and other people interested in Uni-Tankers, can get a feel for the company," he reveals.
Destination Possible 2.0 will be launched later in the year, and will involve using computer game mechanics to help people get a feel for the company and the work.
These initiatives are all part of taking Uni-Tankers in the right direction, but while Ekmann may have inherited a difficult situation at Uni-Tankers, he never sacrificed the company’s ESG objectives.
It has cut its greenhouse gas emissions 33 percent over the past 15 years and has invested in green fuels for the future. Ekmann is adamant that all national and international compliance and regulations will be followed.
But he believes in the entire ESG acronym – not just the first letter.
"‘E’ is by far the most important thing if you look at the world and whether we want to survive," he says. "The ‘S’ is what I find very interesting and we have ambitions with diversity and inclusion."
It’s about the right person for the right job, but we need to make sure that we are diverse.
Those ambitions involve recruiting more women to work both onshore and onboard ships. At present, women account for 30 percent of onshore positions.
"But it’s a hard world for them to be onboard a ship because we are away for three-to-six months," Ekmann acknowledges. "We need to change our mentality and what we offer the young generation, if we want to keep them on onboard the ship.
"It’s about the right person for the right job, but we need to make sure that we are diverse."
Despite the turnaround, Ekmann has had to navigate difficult conditions, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Russia–Ukraine war.
"This creates some problems because we have sailors from that part of the world, so we need to make sure we support them. That could be helping them to move to another country, find accommodation," he notes. "So that’s the social aspect.
"Then there are other strict rules around who we can do business with, who can be our charters. We do not want to support a regime that is not really honoring democratic playing rules."
The push for decarbonization also continues. Once again, Ekmann’s ability to execute will be key.
"We have a plan. We know where we stand, we know where we are on the curve. So we need to make sure that the initiative lined up in this plan is also executed," he says.
"We also have a set of meetings with our clients to say, ‘Listen guys, this is the challenge, this is the cost. You need to support it if you want to also continue being a client of Uni-Tankers’," he explains. "And they actually hear us."