Univan: We will manage 130 ships by 2015

Ship management looks set to face a very good year. Hong Kong-based Univan expects growth rates of 15-20 percent, says CEO Bjørn Højgaard in an interview with ShippingWatch.

Looking at the prospects of 2014 from a ship management perspective, the coming seems bright. At Hong Kong-based ship management company Univan, CEO Bjørn Hedegaard looks back briefly at a historical low in early 2013, before looking ahead to a year in which he expects solid growth.

"I believe we reached what could be described as a low-point in the first half of 2013. Since then we've seen solid signs of improvement, and after having spent time on, among other things, restructuring parts of the company, I expect we'll grow around 15-20 percent this year and have a total of 130 ships in our portfolio by the end of 2014," Univan CEO Bjørn Højgaard says with optimism.

He adds that the growth should be seen in light of the fact that Univan is still one of the smaller players among the big ones on the global market for ship management, and with the prospects of the coming year he expects that Univan will return to the total number of ships the company managed back in 2005. This was before the financial crisis and before the former owner and founder, Belgian captain Charles Arthur Joseph Vanderperre, reduced the focus on the ship management part of Univan's business, in favor of operating its own vessels. Following the passing of the company's founder in 2009, focus is now back on ship management.

Seafarers the perpetual bottleneck

Here at first the company's CEO, who has headed Univan since January 2012, is not concerned that the massive growth will impact the quality of the work the company performs for its customers.

"We have a lot of Seafarers in our books who have a history with Univan, and who are eager to "return home." We can easily place them on the ships, so that the bottleneck - which in ship management always relates to finding quality seafarers when we need them - can be circumvented here at first. But if we look beyond 2014 I think the curve is going to flatten out, probably clocking out at around 10 percent, as it could become more difficult to meet the demand for qualified people," says Bjørn Højgaard.

Univan's growth will take place within three segments, tank, bulk, and container, where the company already has a solid presence. Right now Bjørn Højgaard sees the biggest growth in the tanker segment, while the rate of work in bulk is at a steady level with new work coming in continuously. In container, he points out that the company most recently secured management of three 7,500 teu container ships. A majority of the work and growth in the year to come will be based on existing customers, but there is room available for new faces.

"Last year we took on 15 percent new customers, and I expect we'll be able to take on another group of customers this year. They typically come in through the lower end of the scale, with 3-4 ships, and I think that's a healthy and sound way to start a new business," says Bjørn Højgaard.

A good year for everyone

The ship management competitor Thome announced last week that it also expects significant growth in the coming year, and Bjørn Højgaard believes that the big picture looks good for the ship management industry in general.

"I think all the big players have similar, positive expectations for 2014, following a 2012 and 2013 where growth took a bit longer to get started than otherwise anticipated," he says, adding that the potential for growth is not merely a result of the fact that the economy is no longer standing still.

"The trend in recent years of outsourcing to third-party companies is going to continue, I think. The new, big players in the market will have a much easier time selling the ships at biggest value if they don't have to busy themselves with finding work for a land-based organization of maybe 40 people. And similarly, it will be more manageable to purchase a cheap ship in light of the knowledge that it's possible to find qualified crew members through the ship management company one is using. Ship management as an industry serves as good buffer in deals of this kind," says Bjørn Højgaard.

He adds that the future of the ship management companies lies in both scale and regulations.

"As the number of traditional carriers is declining, the demand for quality ship management will grow. And as the number of regulations and rules increases, the need for expertise that can deliver a larger scale of necessary know-how will also become increasingly attractive. In the big picture I'm positive about the development in ship management," says Bjørn Højgaard from the company's headquarters in Hong Kong, which currently employs 120 people.

Univan employs a little less than 4,000 people in total, of which seafarers account for around 3,500.

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