A Brand to Trust
With a team of highly seasoned professionals and a diversified portfolio of services, bMC Group has become a trusted partner in the salvage business and beyond.
(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2020 edition.)
Dennis Brand likes to take risks. That’s why he’s in the salvage business, and that’s why he started his own company just six short years ago.
“I enjoy getting myself involved in difficult situations and finding solutions,” he says. “I’m constantly looking for new challenges and opportunities to prove myself. In 2014 many people thought it a weird idea to start a new business in the middle of the worst shipping crisis in decades. But as my wife always says, ‘I’m only happy when I’m in the worst possible trouble.’”
Of course it helped to have a partner like Heiko Förster, who joined the company shortly thereafter and helped establish the limited liability corporation (“GmbH” in Germany) known as bMC Group. “bMC” stands for brand Marine Consultants. The “b” and “brand” are both lowercase because Dennis Brand from the beginning wanted the focus to be on the team and the quality of services offered and not on him personally.
Lure of the Sea
Dennis Brand grew up in Bielefeld, Germany, an unlikely place to sense the lure of the sea because it’s very far from the ocean. But as a teenager he read a book about the German merchant navy that captured his imagination. So he signed up for a six-week apprenticeship on a Hapag Lloyd container ship sailing to the U.S.
He had no idea what he wanted to do in life, and the merchant seamen on the voyage were no help, discouraging him from pursuing a career at sea because jobs were disappearing. But he enjoyed the voyage and the various assignments and decided to sign up for a three-year apprenticeship as a ship mechanic. He then enrolled at Polytechnic University in Bremen to study Nautical Science, which he needed to earn an unlimited master’s license (Master Mariner).
After university he took every assignment he could to log the required sea-time for his unlimited master’s license as fast as possible. There were times when he would be at sea for seven straight months. He spent his holidays working as a relief officer on German ferries and doing sea trials for newbuild vessels. He was determined, and after earning his license embarked on a career that led first to the claims management business as a nautical expert and eventually to Titan Salvage, where he worked on salvage projects around the world.
“After my time at sea I went freelance and basically spent four years saying yes to everything,” he explains. “It drove my long-suffering wife crazy as I was away a lot. But looking back now, that period gave me an incredibly wide knowledge base that I just couldn’t have achieved as a regular employee.”
It was that knowledge base – and the global network of contacts built up along the way – that helped ensure the early success of the business.
Building the Brand
As a global marine consultancy with headquarters in Hamburg and representative offices in London, Bremen, Mumbai, Singapore and Shanghai, bMC Group’s services are utilized mainly by the marine insurance industry. But clients also include shipowners, law firms, offshore contractors and shipyards.
The range of services is broad and growing and encompasses salvage & wreck-removal, casualty management, special casualty representative (SCR), casualty investigation, hull & machinery surveys and expert witness work. In its relatively brief existence, bMC has completed 302 projects and been involved in some 50 salvage operations.
“From day one the focus has been on building the bMC brand,” Dennis Brand says, “and like any consultancy, success comes with the crew. That’s why we’ve never looked for locations but rather for people and ended up with companies in Singapore – where Captain Ajay Prasad became Partner and Managing Director – and London, with Alex Leonard as Managing Director. We’ve built a multilingual team of engineers, naval architects, master mariners, oil spill experts and salvage contract specialists in locations around the globe.”
The list of companies under the bMC umbrella is impressive, providing a variety of alternate revenue streams to offset the unpredictable nature of the salvage business:
- Captain Klaus Förster – highly respected marine surveyors and consultants based in Hamburg and offering services globally since the 1970s.
- Pandi Services – classic P&I correspondent and claims handler whose history dates back to the 19th century, serving clients globally.
- brand Engineering Solutions – joint venture with the Polish engineering company NED, offering vessel design services, CFD analysis, simulations and more.
- CONSULTFIXED – concise and easy-to-use contract form for international marine consultancy services, designed to reduce the possibility of misunderstandings between the parties.
- Kienast Mental Health – the newest member of the group, started last year as mental health issues among seafarers began coming to the fore and compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. Headed by Professor Dr. Thorsten Kienast, the company offers intelligent behavioral science tools for the shipping industry including tailored psychological training to ensure mental health and stability.
People are key. “We’re always on the hunt for new talent,” says Brand. “For us, talent is defined not only by qualifications but also by motivation, curiosity and a willingness to go the extra mile. We prefer a smart, motivated person over one with multiple degrees and certificates as it is much easier to train a person than it is to motivate one. Especially in our business with long and unpredictable travel requirements, strong and focused characters are the key to success.”
In May the company opened its first office in the U.S., a market it had been eyeing for some time, to serve clients in the Americas and Caribbean. Located in Fort Lauderdale, Brand says the idea is to first build an understanding of bMC within the local shipping community and then identify areas in which it can succeed.
As a boutique consultancy with a variety of offerings, salvage and salvage-related issues nonetheless constitute the group’s bread-and-butter business. And Brand is quick to point out the challenges, starting with the shrinking number of jobs and the increased size and complexity of those salvage and wreck-removal projects that do come up.
“It seems the overall market is decreasing and there are fewer projects,” he says. “But at the same time projects are getting bigger and more complex.” Yet competition remains fierce, even as obstacles grow. Aside from political interference – usually driven by the press and social media and well-meaning NGOs, but not by logic – there’s the bigger problem of financing and costs. Brand says it’s not unusual to burn through $400,000 a day for the first ten days of a project, and how many salvors can afford to lay out that kind of money?
Coupled with increasingly strict rules and requirements from lenders, it’s becoming more and more difficult for smaller salvage companies to stay in the game. And with fewer companies active in the market, those remaining have to bear an even bigger financial burden, making it challenging to maintain a positive cash flow – especially as the big payday under a typical “no cure, no pay” contract can take years.
To address the problem, bMC Group recently introduced its SalvageApp, a Web-based application designed to enhance transactional transparency and make it easier for stakeholders to see the dimensions and cost of a project.
“The bMC SalvageApp helps all parties involved have a real-time overview of the actual costs,” says Brand. “It also gives a cost projection into the future of a project. This in turn helps shipowners, their insurers and salvage companies to better understand their financial exposure and to plan for it. SalvageApp will help to tie the financial interests from all sides together.”
Divided into three modules – Risk, Cost Control and Cost Forecast – SalvageApp is a complete and transparent project management tool designed to improve communication among all parties, display key information and aid the decision-making process across salvage, wreck-removal and marine casualty projects. It allows stakeholders – through access and interaction – to identify issues early and transparently and to cooperatively implement solutions.
It’s a big step forward in the highly competitive salvage business.
Transparency is the basis of trust, and Brand believes trust is a critical factor in bMC Group’s success: “By scoping and scaling the challenge, our clients can be confident where they stand and what risks they face. Together we can build a strategic solution and deliver the tactical steps to best deal with the circumstances of the case.”
He’s known for being blunt and straightforward and not afraid to deliver the hard truth, which can sometimes rub clients the wrong way. “I strongly believe a crucial part of our success is our willingness to give answers and not shy away from giving and standing by strong advice,” he says. “I’m not saying we’re always right, but we have a pretty high hit rate and have turned many cases in our client’s favor. We might not be the easiest-going consultants, not even for our clients, but our advice is built on knowledge, truth and pure passion.”
As for the future, he’s supremely confident in the ability of his team to weather any storm and notes that the combination of services offered – from claims management to survey and consultancy – has been critical in overcoming market disruptions like COVID-19. To manage the growing business and give Heiko and himself some much-needed breathing room, they recently formed a Senior Leadership Team led by Alex Leonard in London as global head of operations and Kieran Hopkins in Hamburg as head of day-to-day operations.
“I can be demanding and pushy and sometimes my impatience and aggressive approach lead to unfair situations,” Brand says. “But I will always be the last line of defense for our team. At the end of the day, I just want the team to succeed.”
Tony Munoz is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.