Executive Interview: Henrik Jensen, Founder of Danica Crewing

Henrik Jensen

Published Oct 7, 2022 9:56 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2022 edition.)

A seafarer and master mariner himself, Jensen saw the need for a high-quality maritime recruitment company that was independent and focused solely on the selection and management of crews, so he founded Danica in 2013.

Let’s start with you. Tell us about yourself – your background and education.

I am from Denmark and grew up in a seafaring family. Both my grandfathers were sailors, and my uncle was a captain and later became a pilot in Denmark. When I was a teenager I spent my summer vacations with my uncle, and he took me on the vessels he piloted. They were smaller, multipurpose vessels operating on the fjords in Denmark and also deep-sea pilotage in Danish waters. I was very impressed with the navigation at night-time using radars and lighthouses (this was before ECDIS was even thought of), and that sparked my interest in navigation and becoming a deck officer.

Did you go to sea?

I went to sea at 17 as a messman. Later I went to seaman’s school and became a cadet before taking my exam as a master mariner at a Danish maritime academy. I served as an officer on container vessels, bulk carriers and ferries and eventually had command on seismic vessels. In addition to my nautical education, I later took a degree in organization and human resources management at a Danish business college.

When did you come ashore?

I came ashore in the management company of the seismic vessels and was a combined safety superintendent and crewing officer. Later I was operations manager stationed in Greece, overseeing the operations of a Danish-Greek ferry company, following which I became fleet director in a Danish ferry company and managing director. I then spent nine years with Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement in Germany, ending as the Group HR-Marine Manning Director.

Wow, quite a career! When did you found Danica Crewing Specialists?

In 2009 I was the cofounder of Nordic Hamburg Shipmanagement, and in 2013 I founded Danica Crewing Specialists.

What led you to found Danica? What was your vision for the company at the time?

I saw there was a need for a high-quality recruitment and manning service company that always acted in the interests of the owners/employers and was independent of other affiliations – i.e., not part of a technical manager. A company that only focused on the selection of crews and the human element. That vision turned out to be right, and Danica has developed well in the years since. A more personal reason for starting Danica was that being the founder of the company gave me the chance to apply my own ideas.

Give us a brief overview of the company’s growth and some of the milestones over the years.

The early base of Danica was Ukraine and Ukrainian seafarers. I first went to Ukraine for business in 2000, and since then I’ve been there frequently and developed a very good network in the country. That’s why I started Danica in Ukraine. We had a few clients to start with but soon attracted the crewing arm of a large Italian owner who transferred all its Ukrainian crew to Danica, which was a great kick-start for us. We still have them as clients!

Another milestone was when we added our training center focusing on leadership – a vital skill for officers. Opening additional offices were also milestone steps along the way. We’ve just opened a recruitment office in Batumi, Georgia and an operations coordination center in Cyprus, and it’s rewarding to see how readily our tried-and-tested systems are scalable.

How many offices and employees are there today?

Our headquarters are in Hamburg, but our main office is actually in Odesa, Ukraine. Due to the terrible situation with the war in Ukraine, we’ve now transferred much of our operations to Limassol, Cyprus to a new Danica office there. Some of our Ukrainian staff have moved to Cyprus while others have come to Hamburg. We still have the office in Odesa but for safety reasons, particularly due to the frequent air strikes, our team members work from home in the same way they did during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our IT infrastructure is able to facilitate that, and our clients do not experience any disruption to our service delivery.

To answer your question, we currently have eight offices in six countries and a team of 55 staff.

We had plans to expand further in other countries, but these were halted by the pandemic. However, we are now moving on by expanding to Batumi in Georgia and partnering with a crewing company in the Philippines. I hope later this year we’ll also be able to offer Indian crew screened and selected to the high standards of Danica.

Tell us about the company’s screening and training procedures. We understand they’re among the most rigorous in the industry.

Danica’s signature is to strictly screen each seafarer new to us very carefully. We understand that having the right caliber of people onboard – in particular, senior officers – is the most important factor for successful vessel operations.

Our screening goes above and beyond. In addition to carefully checking each seafarer’s background, authenticating documents, verifying sea service, skills and knowledge, we dig into the candidate’s personality. In fact, it’s all about behaviour. You can have a very experienced and knowledgeable captain, but all their good wisdom is lost if he/she cannot communicate and interact with other people in a proper way. We also use psychometric tests in our screening process, which serve as a verification of our own observations (the most important element). Our staff has been trained in interview techniques, which include a bespoke set of standard questions during which we carefully observe the candidate’s behavior. Our focus is on delivering the best crew to our clients through having a large network of seafarers to source from and, via strict screening, to filter out the ones who “do not fit our shoes.”

During the screening process we sometimes have candidates who tick nearly all the boxes but fall short on a few minor issues. Here we offer very specific “close-the-gap” training, which can be training on a knowledge topic or, if we see from the personality profile that with a few changes in behavior the officer’s leadership will be much better, we offer suitable training to achieve this.

For the vessels we have under full crew management, we offer leadership training courses for the officers and safety behavior courses for the ratings. We also establish a competence management and development system where we identify each employee’s strengths and weaknesses and create plans for improvement, not necessarily big and costly training but more small mentoring sessions onboard. Mentoring is a great tool as it is very specific, on-the-spot and free. However, it is often overlooked or not utilized properly.

Our competence management system identifies staff with the potential for promotion and puts them in a training/mentoring program. We highlight what a person should, as a minimum, know about the duties in the next higher rank and a checklist where he/she should demonstrate competence before being promoted. In this way we ensure that the officer is prepared to start performing their duties in the next higher rank.

Is Danica the world’s biggest crew supply company?

No, and we will not be. There aren’t enough crews who can pass our strict pre-employment screening process. Our ambition is to be the crewing partner for demanding shipping companies – those with high standards and high expectations – and to deliver crews who can fulfill our clients’ business goals.

What differentiates Danica from other ship management companies?

We are not a ship manager. Our focus is to be the HR-maritime partner for our clients. Our clients are typically shipowning companies with their own in-house technical management but with a fleet size that does not provide the necessary economies of scale to have their own recruitment offices, screening, crew logistics and training. We are their extended arm, or HR department.

You have spoken often of the global shortage of crews and resulting rising wages as a result of the war in Ukraine. How are you advising ship owners and operators to deal with these twin challenges?

I advise shipping companies that this is a matter that needs attention, management and contingency plans. Any industry where 15 percent of the workforce, represented by Russian and Ukrainian seafarers, more or less falls out will have a problem. Even owners not using Eastern European crew will feel a knock-on effect as owners traditionally using Ukrainian and Russian crew turn to other nationalities.

It’s sad to say when we are dedicated to servicing maritime employers and trying to keep their costs down, but if you want competent crew then your wages must be on par with the market. And my advice is that it’s better to adjust your general wage scale to be realistic rather than keeping it low and then having to negotiate with every seafarer – a situation that can easily get out of control.

It’s also important to have a smooth approval process. Seafarers have many offers these days and often want a prompt confirmation. Companies should shorten the feedback time – otherwise the candidate will accept another offer where she/he can walk more directly onboard.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

It is of course to continue to find the best crews for our clients without compromises. We manage to do that but not always at the pace we would like. We still have Danica people in distress in Ukraine. We continue to support them as much as possible as well as the families who are outside of Ukraine and have lost all their properties and possessions.

What is your vision for Danica today? Will it continue to expand and grow? Where would you like to see it in, say, five years?

Before the COVID pandemic we were in the process of expanding our network of offices to other countries. We have about 1,000 Ukrainians, mainly senior officers, deployed. Although the country boasts a lot of seafarers there is of course a limit to how many fulfill our requirements and how many we can employ. Therefore, we were in the process of expanding our infrastructure to cover other key seafaring hubs. This has now resumed, and our new office in Batumi, Georgia is a good example.

We will, of course, come out on the other side of all this one day, and I am sure that Danica will be even stronger with an expanded network of seafarers and clients. 

Tony Munoz is The Maritime Executive's publisher and editor-in-chief. 

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