Executive Achievement: Alfonso Castillero, COO, Liberian Registry
(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2022 edition.)
Having previously run the world’s largest ship registry – Panama – Alfonso Castillero came to the Liberian Registry eight years ago with a single goal in mind: Make it the biggest and best.
TME: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and educated?
I am from Panama. I began life wanting to be a lawyer, but lawyers in Panama don’t work very hard and they’re partying all the time. I needed discipline and wanted to do things, and I always had an interest in maritime too. So I enrolled at the Naval School of Panama and became a ship engineer and sailed for several years before realizing that I could only go so far working for a Taiwanese shipping company, which I was at the time. So I came shoreside and joined the Panama Maritime Authority as an inspector and casualty investigator. This was back in 2001.
I gradually moved up the line and three years later was appointed Deputy Director General and IMO Delegate and Auditor, which meant a lot of travel to London and other places where I really got an education in maritime regulations and the state of the industry. And it became clear to me what we needed to do to improve things back home. Then, after a change in government, I was appointed Director General in 2008 and served in that post for the next six years.
And in those six years you transformed the registry and elevated it to the Paris and Tokyo White Lists and implemented a number of cutting-edge technological achievements as well. And you were barely in your thirties!
Yes, we had to change some of the rules governing ships in the registry in to get those things done. For example, we helped pass Panama Maritime Law 57, which allowed officials to unilaterally cancel the registrations of noncompliant vessels that could not be made compliant or routinely failed to comply. We couldn’t do that before, and it was a necessary step to achieve White List status.
Why did you leave? You were running the world’s biggest registry. What could be better than that?
Well, you need to understand that in Panama everything is run by the government, including the ship registry. So there’s a limit to what can be done. You can’t hire the best people, for example, because you can’t afford them. When Liberia came along, I was presented with a totally different opportunity. The Liberian Registry is completely independent of the Liberian government. It’s based in the U.S., outside Washington, D.C. It can hire the best qualified people in the world and implement policies that are in the best interests of the shipping industry and seafarers themselves: Safety measures, environmental requirements, living conditions onboard.
It's a public/private partnership with the best advantages of each. So this was a chance for me to really make a difference, to be an example of what could be done. It was an opportunity to build the world’s best ship registry and so I jumped at it.
Explain for our readers what a ship registry does. Is it the same as a flag state?
Yes, ship registries and flag states are the same thing. Every ship that trades internationally must be flagged – it must have a vessel number and be registered with a particular flag state. The role of the flag state is to ensure that all vessels flying its flag are in compliance with the various IMO rules and regulations and conventions – in other words, that they are seaworthy and safe to operate and not big polluters and so forth.
Port state control enforces the rules. When ships call at a port, they’re screened beforehand on the basis of age, condition, cargo, number of detentions and flag. Every ship has a track record. In the old days, ports were not so serious about inspections and fines and you could pretty much sail under the radar, so to speak. Then the ports got serious and realized they didn’t want a ship polluting its harbor or carrying unsafe or illegal cargo, or mistreating its seafarers. So they began enforcing the rules.
And that changed everything. With the rise of strict port state control, ship registries began competing on the basis of both services offered and reputation and not on the basis of how “flexible” or lax they were in interpreting and enforcing the rules.
“All Flags Are Not Alike” is Liberia’s motto. What does it mean?
It means that flags have reputations and different flags enforce the rules differently. Some are very strict and by the book. Others are more lax and flexible. People know this. So if your vessel flies a questionable flag, even if she is brand new and fresh out of the yard, she is more likely to be singled out for inspection than a vessel flying a more reputable flag. Inspections, even if they find nothing and the ship is not detained or fined, are time-consuming and disruptive to schedules and therefore costly. And you don’t want that.
Registries compete on the basis of both services offered and reputation. At the Liberian Registry we pride ourselves on the wide range of services offered, particularly on the technical side. I’m an engineer, after all, and spent part of my early years inspecting ships. So while most registries don’t get involved with technical issues, we do and expanded our capabilities and began taking an active role in areas like audits, inspections, ship design and construction. That made us different, and our customers liked it.
As far as reputation is concerned, Liberia is “white-listed” on all the important MOUs – Paris, Tokyo, you name it. When I became COO in 2019, one of my first goals was to get Liberia reinstated in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Qualship 21 program – the U.S.’s equivalent of the Paris and Tokyo MOUs – and we succeeded in achieving this goal. We had of course been working on that since well before I became COO, but it was a very important step in ensuring that our flag was universally admired and respected.
Can you give our readers a brief history of the Liberian Registry? Why is it based in the U.S.?
The Liberian Registry was established in 1948 with the support of former U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, who was also an instrumental figure in forming the U.N., and Liberia later became a founding member of the IMO in 1959.
Since its inception, the registry has been U.S.-based, and the U.S. structure and principles governing the administration of the registry are part of Liberian law. So the registry must be principally operated from the U.S. and managed by international maritime professionals for the benefit of the people of Liberia.
Where does it rank in terms of tonnage and number of vessels?
The registry is comprised of 5,000+ vessels aggregating over 200 million gross tons and representing about 14 percent of the world’s ocean-going fleet. We are currently the second-biggest registry – behind Panama, my old employer. Amazingly, given our size, we’re the fastest growing open registry in the world. We are #1 in tankers and #1 in containers and big in bulkers and ro/ro vessels. LNG is also a fast-growing sector, and we currently have the largest number of dual-fuel vessels of any registry.
How many offices and employees are there?
We have about 150 employees in Virginia and another 200 or so in 28 full-service global offices in the world’s major maritime centers. We also are so far the only major open registry to have trained a worldwide network of more than 450 professional nautical inspectors and qualified auditors. We do that to ensure the quality of our services. We provide 24-hour service anywhere in the world and offer, among other services, a unique “Harmonized Audit Program” that includes the annual Flag State Inspection, ISM, ISPS and MLC 2006 requirements.
What’s your vision for the Liberian Registry?
To make it the largest in both tonnage and the quality and range of services offered. When I became COO we were about 80 million gross tons behind Panama. Today, we’re about 20 million tons behind, so we’re closing the gap. But we won’t sacrifice quality for quantity. It’s nice to be the biggest in terms of tonnage, but it’s more important – much more important – to be the best in terms of service to our customers. That’s my vision and my goal.
On a more personal level, how would you describe your management style?
I’m definitely not a micromanager. I hire the best people and let them do their thing. The only time I really get involved and micromanage a little is when someone goes off track and I have to take corrective action.
What do you like most about your job?
Ah, I love that question. What I like most is the challenge. Every day is different. Every day is a new challenge, a new fire to put out. You wake up in the morning and think everything is going just fine and then bam! You’re hit with something entirely unexpected. So I love that. I thrive on that.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
My family. They are the most important thing to me. My wife and two sons. As far as sports are concerned, I like boxing and jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts. I used to be very good at all that until I started traveling and working too hard and gaining weight, so now I have to be more cautious. But it taught me strategy and anticipating an opponent’s moves and how to counteract them. Lately I’ve adopted motocross. One of my sons likes boxing and the other motocross. Go figure!
Jack O’Connell is the magazine’s Senior Editor.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.