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Oldendorff has no ceiling, dress code or executive offices

All executives have day-to-day jobs – and no one has his or her own office. At one of the world’s largest dry bulk operators, Oldendorff Carriers, things are markedly different than the shipping industry is used to.

Photo: Ed Wray/AP/POLFOTO/arkiv

SINGAPORE

In the back in one corner of the large, open office stands the manager’s desk. It looks like all the others – because even though he holds the title of Managing Director at Oldendorff’s office in Singapore, Jens Jacobsen’s day looks more or less like that of any other employee:

"From the outside it looks like I’m sitting here managing 125 people, but that’s actually not a very big part of the job. I spend very little time on administrative tasks," begins Jens Jacobsen, explaining that the office has six administrative employees and four HR people.

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"Normally in my position one would spend most the time with them, but I spend next to no time on administration. That’s not at all the focus of my job."

Jens Jacobsen came to Oldendorff 10 years ago and has now served as head of the Singapore office for five years. At 39 years old, many might describe him as a young executive, but if one flips through Oldendorff’s records he appears almost old.

History of young executives

Egon Oldendorff founded the carrier in 1921 at the age of 21, and when his son, Henning Oldendorff, took over as CEO at 23 years old, his vision was to create a “bottom-up” managerial style in which a large number of decisions are made by the employees who work closest with customers and suppliers.

"We're trying to be more modern than many other players in the industry. Among other things, this means that it’s always "the best man for the job" – and as such it’s not unusual at our branches to see a manager in his 30s, while some of the employees are in their 50s," he says.

He explains that there is no stringent system of “now you’ve turned 45, it’s time for a promotion” or “now you’ve been here for 20 years, here’s a pen with your name on it.”

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"We’re not interested in this kind of traditional way of doing business," says Jens Jacobsen, adding that there is no strict requirement to wear shirt and tie:

"The only dress code we have states no shorts, no t-shirts without collars and no flip-flops," he says, dressed in a classic light blue dress shirt, though he quickly adds that the attire is occasioned by ShippingWatch’s visit:

"People don't become better at their job because they’re wearing a suit. It may sound like a cliché, but we do strive to be more about content than form."

Open communication across countries

The office itself is decorated to provide a sensation of being in “the engine room of a ship.” The floor consists of long boards with black furrows, and the ceiling has been saved away, so that instead one gets a clear view of the power and air-condition installations.

Jens Jacobsen goes on to describe how the carrier employs technology to facilitate collaboration with the other branches at Oldendorff’s 18 offices around the world.

Large TV-screens in the conference rooms make it “feel like the person one’s talking to is sitting in the same room,” as he says. And this is also a way to save travel time and money on the travel budget, so that there is rarely more than one trip back to headquarters in Lübeck per year, even though Jens Jacobsen serves on the board of directors.

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The desks are arranged in long rows, divided by work areas and without the small dividers that are usually set up between individual employees at offices in Asia.

"We’re communicating with each other all the time. There are video phones on all desks, so I can, for instance, from my desk hear everything that’s being said at the offices in Tokyo and Hong Kong – and they can hear what I’m saying. The lines are open all day."

Everyone doing daily business

For the Singapore manager, the focus of his daily work is, as mentioned, not on administration, but rather to do “daily business.” Everyone on the senior executive team, including Henning Oldendorff himself, is “out doing commercial work every day,” as Jens Jacobsen says:

"No one’s reduced to sitting in a corner office looking at work schedules and expenses. I spend every day doing business. It’s a huge advantage! We’re working with a ”leading by example” principle," he explains energetically, concluding:

"If you take your best employee and promote him to a position in which he will no longer be doing business, you will often lose your best asset."

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