Despite his young age, Toft is in many ways the epitome of some of the classic and slightly-old fashioned Maersk virtues such as diligence and humility.
Although many would say he has already occupied the limelight, the COO, at just 43 years of age, is best known within the shipping industry.
Not just at Maersk HQ in Copenhagen – his career has already brought him to places such as Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Germany, and now around the world to ensure that the acquisition of Hamburg Süd does not fall apart as Chile, among others, is still contemplating whether it will approve the deal.
But while his boss, Søren Skou, brings up several hits on Google, "Søren Toft" brings up a biologist, an economist, and a communications bureau. Not a word about the man, who in record time rose up the ranks at the world's largest container carrier, and who several believe has all of the capabilities to be able to go the whole way to the top.
Keeping a low profile
It's typical of him, say those who have known Toft for a long time. He may be ambitious, but he wants to sail under the radar and press on with his work, it seems. A glance at his CV also points to a person who has not wasted time in his career on meaningless jobs or projects.
Currently, he is busy with what will surely be the high-point of his career.
Since the first representatives were sent out between Hamburg Süd and Maersk Line in 2016, Søren Toft has played a significant role on the team which negotiated with the German Oetker family for the sale, that was finally approved by the German carrier in April of this year, and which both carriers expect to be finally approved by the competitions authorities and thus operational in the fourth quarter of this year.
It is also an agreement, which must not go awry for Maersk Line after deciding last year to place all bets on the container industry.
Negotiations with Oetker
Therefore it was important to find a person who was more than just regularly confident, and a person, which the eccentric Oetker family could feel comfortable with. It was not surprising that the responsibility landed on Toft's shoulders, as he was preferred by two of the carrier's prominent profiles among many candidates to be their personal assistant, when Toft was completely young and freshly educated at Maersk.
It was COO Jesper Kjædegaard, who brought Toft home from Indonesia in 2000, where the then 25-year-old Toft had been stationed for three years. The year after, he became personal assistant to then shipowner Tommy Thomsen. At Maersk, to serve as a personal assistant to two major executives before the age of 30 is an early indication of a special talent.
He has the skills that a CEO must possess. He is always one step ahead."
After six years of experience leading Maersk Line's Germany operations from 2008 to 2014, Toft speaks the language fluently and has insight in the country's culture and mentality, which proved an important asset in negotiations. Not least considering it was a deal worth EUR 3.7 billion and the seller was handing over their life's work.
Both colleagues and those who know Toft, believe, however, that the young COO of the world's largest container carrier possesses the necessary skills to make it to the finish line. Both during negotiations in Hamburg and the Oetker family's residence in Bielefeld. And to an equally large extent, to get the last approvals from the competitions authorities to fall into place, so Maersk Line's acquisition of the German carrier is settled on time.
Ambitious and hard-working
He has been described as very hard-working, always well-prepared for meetings, ambitious, dedicated, structured, and talented.
His core skills are within operations – making networks work – and he can be both practical hands-on and see things with perspective. The latter skill will be much needed, when the German and Danish carriers continue as independent brands, unlike normal practice in the industry, such as in mergers including Hapag-Lloyd's takeover of UASC.
However, he also has to handle the dissatisfaction of customers, because it is currently difficult to find a large business that believes that the carrier, once the very best in reliability, can now manage to arrive with containers on time. On the contrary, Maersk Line has plunged down the list below competitors. Customers such as Electrolux and Küehne+Nagel are not against direct criticism, which ultimately lands on the desk of the chief operating officer.
Perhaps his uniform background in operations will mean that he does not rise all the way to the top of the Maersk hierarchy, one source notes, while others have no doubt that he is an obvious candidate to follow in footsteps of current CEO, the other Søren, ten years his senior.
"He has the skills that a CEO must possess. He is always one step ahead."
Both Sørens have maintained a humble attitude. Number-cruncher Skou is no super performer on stage. Toft is referred to as determined by one person, who knows him very well, thus implying that work comes before performing.
Big Liverpool fan
Toft is a big sports fan, both when it comes to soccer and golf. However, he does not really have the time to play himself. He does keep up with Liverpool and when he can, he takes his son to Anfield Road to see matches. But work and the many business trips come first.
Toft arrived at Maersk as a young trainee back in 1994. This was one year after Maersk MC-Kinney Møller retired from the management team, and the group had to find a CEO for the first time that was not a family member. The selection landed on Jess Søderberg. Mc-Kinney Møller's values at the time of due diligence, hard work, and humility still characterized the company when Toft showed up at Maersk HQ for his first day of work, as the shipowner carried on as chairman of the board for the funds and the carriers. For this reason, Toft is indeed formed by a generation of leaders that were behind the fundamental building of Maersk Line.
Toft became part of Skou's inner circle and the executive management group for the line carrier in January 2014. According to those who know about the course of events, it was largely his results as head of network that convinced Skou to choose him, they say. And this was surely a reason why he was later given a key job in the Hamburg Süd sale. Trust in Toft is crucial at a time where Skou is taking on a dual role as CEO of the entire group and CEO of Maersk Line.
Within the next two months, Toft must settle what will undoubtedly be a highlight in his career, which is already more than impressive, even for executives of Maersk Group.
English Edit: Gretchen Deverell Pedersen & Lena Rutkowski