Q&A: Graham Westgarth, CEO of V.Group

Portrait courtesy V.Group

Published Aug 2, 2019 11:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Maritime Executive recently spoke with Graham Westgarth, the new CEO of V.Group, about his vision for the company and for the future of ship management. V.Group is the world's leading ship management company, and its 44,000 seafarers and 60 offices serve a fleet of 2,200 vessels around the globe.

MarEx: Can you tell us about your vision for V.Group?

I’m delighted to be joining V.Group at a really exciting time. After a period of significant investment in crewing and technology and a strengthening of resource in our fleet cells, we are now in a position to leverage the digital platform we have created so as to provide a consistent high level of service across all of our operating offices. Thanks to the resources that we’ve put into enhancing our crewing operations and our digital platform ShipSure, our fleet cells – our frontline services – are better equipped than ever to be more responsive, more autonomous, and give our customers more insight into what their fleets are doing. 

The vision for the whole group is to provide flawless service delivery through our customer-facing fleet cells, using a state-of-the-art digital platform which provides our customers with the benefits of economies of scale, and is supported by our suite of marine services. Our goal is to become the global leader in ship management, and I’m confident that we can achieve that.

MarEx: What are the biggest concerns your clients have in today's market, and how can V.Group help? 

The biggest concern for our clients today is 2020. There’s still so much uncertainty about the availability of fuels, safety related concerns, and how it will affect day-to-day operations. What makes it particularly difficult is that there is no single template for how to plan ahead – it depends on vessel type, operating region, and on the specifics of each particular ship.

There are still important questions to be asked – for instance, what is the availability and price of the various fuels, what reliable technical solutions are available, what operating issues will vessel face when changing or blending fuels, what version of the ISO 8217 standard is going to be used for dictating the quality of fuels? This is where having a third-party ship manager is especially valuable, and particularly one like V.Group that has a) highly specialized expertise in technical management when it comes to fuels, and b) both the global reach and local knowledge to properly implement the changes that will be necessary. We’re ahead of the curve in terms of offering ship implementation plans, which look at every aspect of the changeover and help to mitigate the uncertainty our owners are facing.

MarEx: V.Group has made several significant acquisitions in recent years. Is inorganic growth going to be a significant component of your strategy for the company going forward?

Where appropriate, yes. V.Group believes that there is genuine advantage to scale in the maritime services business, as it allows us to invest in improved systems, great people and centers of excellence. V.Group will therefore invest in other businesses where they can enhance the service we are able to offer our customers.

As an M&A partner, something we do very well is not only to facilitate acquisitions, but execute on the integration of new businesses into the wider group. When we acquire a business, we are ideally positioned to incorporate it into the V.Group family, and introduce new technology, resources and expertise. If you look at what we did recently in Hamburg, for instance, acquiring Norddeutsche Reederei, we’ve been able to bring on board people and resources that have allowed us to create a center of excellence for ship management in the container shipping market. We’ve set the stage for further growth in Germany by augmenting the resources and expertise of the V.Group team in Hamburg, while establishing a partnership between V.Group and Hamburg’s exclusive chartering brokers, Blue Net Chartering. Similarly, when we acquired GMT earlier this year, it meant that we’ve been able to create a comprehensive global network for getting staff and crew from A to B.

MarEx: Last year, V.Group launched an overhaul of crewing processes in conjunction with Accenture. Can you tell us a bit about how that project is unfolding today, and what it will mean for V.Group's seafarers? 

Project Embark has enhanced our approach to crewing, and has been a key part of our strategy to recruit and retain the best maritime talent. With a focus on people, and fostering effective communication both internally and externally, Embark has introduced new technology to streamline and optimize key processes for our seafarers, customers, and colleagues. 

For example, last year we launched the V.Crew Connect app. This app enhances the seafarers’ experience by digitizing how they handle assignments. Transferring from one job to another can be a time-consuming and frustrating process, often involving expensive journeys and long wait times. This eats into valuable time ashore and affects the ability of managers to plan effectively. Through the app, seafarers can spend much more time with their family and loved ones and enjoy a better quality of life. At the same time, the app allows us to utilize regularly updated seafarer data to improve crewing performance and assist in planning. 

We’ve also invested in the creation of centers of excellence around the world to develop best practice, offering consistency in service around the world – the latest of which, in Mumbai, was officially opened in March 2019. The environment has been designed with our values at the forefront, particularly caring for both shore-based and seafaring colleagues, collaboration across the business, and ensuring consistently high-safety and quality standards through the sharing of best practice and state-of-the-art training facilities for seafarers.

This new Mumbai center brings together the full breadth and depth of our expertise in one location, including technical services, crew management, supply chain and insurance solutions. 

MarEx: V.Group also set out to overhaul the traditional "Fleet Cell" operations concept - how will the new model benefit the firm's colleagues and customers?

Through the Fleet Cell of the Future project, we learned a lot about how to optimize the way that the team that makes up a fleet cell communicates with each other and the fleet they are managing, which we are using to improve practices throughout the group.

Going forward, as we leverage the investment we’ve made in crewing and digitalization, the Fleet Cells are where we’re going to see it add value. They are the main point of delivery for our ship management services, so these investments are making sure that they are equipped with the information and resources they need to deliver flawless service. We’re equipping them to be able to react faster, and act more autonomously in responding to customer requests and continually pushing the levels of service we are able to provide.

MarEx: As the world's leading ship management company, how does V.Group ensure consistency and quality across the breadth of its global operations? 
This is one of the main challenges of running such a diverse and global business – and it’s why consistency is one of our core values. There are various ways to do this. From the bottom up, it’s about culture. Part of this comes from who we recruit and retain in the business. Embark is part of that at the seafarer level, and throughout the business, we only recruit those who share those values, as well as representing the best maritime talent that’s out there.

Sharing the values also means turning them into behaviors. For example, we’ve taken steps to ensure that all our staff feel empowered to speak up and stop the job if necessary when witnessing potential risks. This includes conducting seminars where officers can discuss issues with colleagues around the world, creating smart incentives to identify issues, and engaging in partnerships with groups like HiLo and Lloyd’s Register to ensure that our practices are in line with global best practice.       - MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.