Executive Interview: Wout Janssens, CEO, Jumbo Shipping & Offshore

wout janssens

Published Dec 19, 2021 3:11 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2021 edition.)

The first non-family member to be CEO, Wout Janssens has both the tools and the vision to lead Jumbo in a fast-changing world.

Let’s start with your background and education. Tell us about them and about what attracted you to the maritime industry.

As a small boy, my father bought a sail boat. From that day, sailing became part of my life – and it still is! We were always on the water, going out early Saturday morning and coming back Sunday evening. That’s where my love of the sea comes from.

As for my education, I went to Delft Technical University to study Aeronautics but was already so interested in yachts and other ships that I switched to Maritime Technology after two years. I did an internship at a shipyard but found that, although I liked technology, building ships was not really my passion – partly because the industry seemed to change at a very slow pace. So for my final thesis in Hydromechanics, I spent a year at Rockwater (back then part of Brown & Root) in Aberdeen, doing research on offshore crane operations, which I found very interesting and challenging.

Then what?

I joined Heerema, a major offshore marine contractor here in the Netherlands, as a marine engineer – a great job because it meant I was involved in many projects, if only in one small aspect of it. From an early stage the company gave me a fairly large responsibility and I went offshore many times, which was a great experience.

As a marine engineer I was there to give advice on lifting operations. I quickly learned that, when giving advice to a superintendent or captain, you have to realize you’re only a small part of the overall project. Your contribution can be significant, but it’s still just one element of a lengthy, complex operation. You should never become too convinced of your own opinion. Advice is just that – advice – given professionally and with the right intentions, but advice is not an instruction in disguise.

That’s how I operate as a manager, too. I can help and influence, but I want employees and colleagues to make their own decisions. Facilitating the specialists – that’s my role. And I’m a big believer in consensus-building. We do things as a team. If all others are of a different opinion than me on an issue, then I better listen or come up with better arguments first and not push my own views through unilaterally. 

Okay. So what led you to Jumbo?

I did a lot of interesting things at Heerema – helped build up parts of the organization, developed teams and more. But after 20 years it was time to go out into the world and do something else. I was looking for something more. So I resigned.

For about six months I thought about what I wanted to do, how I wanted to live my life and what I wanted in my career. I came to three basic conclusions: The maritime industry remained highly attractive to me; I liked working with technical professionals, and getting the best out of people was important to me wherever I would end up.

So I started looking, in a very broad sense, for a management job in the maritime industry. I even considered becoming a teacher at a maritime institute. I went on a “recon mission,” so to speak, for a company that would suit my requirements – where I would feel comfortable and needed. And so I came in contact with Jumbo, and we had some very interesting discussions about the company’s future and its goals and ambitions, especially in offshore installation. It turned out we were a good match.

As a result, I joined Jumbo in 2015 and got to work, especially on organizational structure and the relationship between sales, engineering and operations, bringing more efficiency to them. After serving first as Manager and then Director of Operations & Engineering, I was promoted to CEO this past June.

Give our readers a brief overview of the company and its evolution over the last 50-odd years. When was it founded and why?

Jumbo was founded in 1968 by Hans Kahn, an entrepreneur and visionary. In the late 1950s, when containers and pallets were revolutionizing the business of ocean transportation, he developed a concept to transport everything that didn’t fit into a container or on a pallet.

The Stellaprima and its four 12-ton derricks was the result, and thus began a long history of innovating and revolutionizing the heavy lift business. Every few years a new class of better, stronger and more efficient vessels – with numerous technological advances – was added to the fleet..

Hans Kahn was a tough, determined man with a great idea that worked, going against the stream of current events and finding a better course. Jumbo remains true to that founding principle today, looking beyond current needs to tomorrow’s possibilities.

We love the name “Jumbo” and the elephant logo! Who came up with that and what do they signify?

It was the result of a contest! Hans Kahn asked his people for suggestions and one of them came up with Jumbo the elephant, a symbol of strength, robustness, reliability and long-term memory (a nod to our enduring customer relationships). He did the same thing in naming the ships, a tradition continued by his son Michael Kahn, who until recently served as Managing Director and who remains closely involved with the company as both an owner and member of the Supervisory Board.

Who are the owners? Are you the first non-family member to be CEO?

The Kahn and Borchard families are the founding owners and main shareholders. And yes, I am the first non-family member to be CEO.

How many offices and employees are there?

We employ approximately 500 people, including seafarers. We have about 150 staff members at our headquarters in Schiedam in addition to major hubs in Houston and Singapore. We also operate a global network of offices staffed by long-term agents.

Courtesy Jumbo Shipping

The big news recently was the announcement in April of the Jumbo-SAL-Alliance. Tell us more about that and its importance.

It was a breakthrough moment for both companies and the key to our future growth. As mentioned previously, Jumbo has always tried to look ahead, to see around the corner to what’s coming next. And the joint venture with SAL Heavy Lift is the latest example of that kind of forward thinking. We remain independent companies, but we’ve combined our commercial operations and fleets and expertise to open up a whole new world of opportunities. With a combined fleet of 30 vessels boasting lifting capacities up to 3,000 tons and 90 years of combined experience, we’re the biggest heavy lifter in the world.

As Michael Kahn stated at the time of the announcement, echoing his father: “To remain an effective global player in our field of activity, you always need to adapt and innovate.” Jumbo-SAL-Alliance is the enabler, so to speak, to move forward in this industry and take our place in the ongoing global consolidation of the heavy lift market.

Wow, exciting! Tell us more about the Jumbo fleet, its evolution over the years and what the future holds.

It’s all about continuous innovation. We develop the concepts ourselves with in-house ship designers. We always ask ourselves: What do we want? What does the market need in the future? We’ve long wanted to have access to a bigger fleet, and that has now become Jumbo-SAL-Alliance with 30 ships. Future investments in newbuilds for heavy lift and breakbulk vessels are developed and investigated.

As to what the future holds and the next step in heavy lift shipping and offshore installation, we see continued opportunities in renewable energy, infrastructure (particularly ports), subsea and offshore facilities and mining operations where huge pieces of equipment need to be transported to remote locations. These developments need a different approach, including vessel design, crane capacity, fuel type and more.

But considering market developments, we are not yet done searching for the perfect next step, which doesn’t necessarily need to be a vessel. It can also be a type of service solution or contracting structure, giving us access to the right equipment at the right time. There are lots of possibilities!

Jumbo’s slogan is “Reliable Strength.” What does it mean?

It means we’re a reliable company in all respects – engineering-wise, as an employer, commercially and in our long-term customer relationships. It means that Jumbo is all about heavy lift, that it has the strength to execute the biggest and most challenging projects, and that we are a strong company with the culture and means to survive over the long term – and we’ve certainly demonstrated that by surviving many tough times over the last 53 years!

Outstanding! One last question: What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Surviving and adapting in a fast-changing world. That is also where Jumbo-SAL-Alliance fits in perfectly. Global developments – technological, political, economic, social, environmental – are moving very fast, and it’s a challenge to not only keep up with this transition but also to stay ahead commercially for the long term.

As CEO, my role is to keep the company on course. I do not expect to have all the answers – I depend on my team for that, and fortunately we have a very good team. As I said earlier, I see myself as an enabler, a consensus-builder. My role is to facilitate progress and development for the company. I’m also an engineer, so I understand the details of highly technical projects, and that’s a big help. Hopefully  it’s a winning combination! 

Tony Munoz is the magazine's publisher and editor-in-chief.

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