Jumbo: Heavy-Lift King

With a new CEO and a landmark alliance with long-time rival SAL, Jumbo is well-positioned for a future full of opportunity.

Courtesy Jumbo Maritime

Published Nov 5, 2021 12:55 PM by Tony Munoz

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

Want to install an offshore facility in deep water? How about shipping three fully assembled, 137m high cranes from China to Italy, or installing a new port in a remote region of Africa? Need a subsea anchoring system for a floating LNG unit offshore Cameroon? And what about shipping 180 windmills in forty shipments from the Netherlands to offshore Taiwan for installing a new wind farm?  No problem. Jumbo can do it all – and more, lots more.

“I wouldn’t say we can do the impossible,” says newly appointed CEO Wout Janssens, “but we have been known to come in and finish jobs that others couldn’t.” As a marine engineer himself, Janssens knows first-hand the challenges – and the physics – involved in lifting heavy and oversized cargoes off a shallow-draft ship and setting them down correctly. He’s been doing it for nearly 30 years.

“It’s all about ingenuity,” he explains. “It’s precision work and requires timing, coordination, engineering, skilled people and project management knowhow, teamwork – all the ingredients necessary for a bespoke solution to a project that is always unique and always challenging. No two projects are ever the same.”

It’s part of why he came to Jumbo in the first place. That was in 2015, when he was between jobs and looking for a new challenge, having spent the first 20 years of his working life at Dutch marine contractor Heerema where he learned a thing or two about crane vessels and the offshore energy business. “I was ready for a change,” he says, “something different where I could put my knowledge and experience to work and also manage people – get the best out of people.”

He found what he was looking for in Jumbo, whose history of innovation and going against the current appealed to him, as did – importantly – the people, and especially Managing Director Michael Kahn, son of the company’s founder. He joined as Manager of Operations & Engineering, was quickly promoted to Director, and became the first non-family-member CEO this past June.

A History of Innovation

Founded in 1968 by maritime entrepreneur and visionary Hans Kahn, Jumbo practically invented the heavy-lift industry. While most shipowners were jumping on the container bandwagon, Kahn went a different way and focused on oversized cargoes that didn’t fit into shipping containers or onto pallets.     

“Following the advent of the container revolution,” Kahn says in his 1997 autobiography, Luck and Chutzpah: Against All Odds, “shipping was more and more turning into a mass-production, conveyor-belt operation. I wanted something special, an area I would have to myself.”

After all, containers couldn’t carry everything. What do you do with a locomotive, for example? How do you get it from Europe to the Middle East? Awkward items like cranes were typically disassembled and packed into crates and then reassembled at the destination site – a costly and time-consuming operation with a huge potential for error.

Kahn found a better way, as he explains in his book: “We could transport in one piece huge and heavy items that a normal cargo ship couldn’t handle: huge generators, gas turbines, modules, pressure vessels, reactors, transformers, ship loaders, derricks, floating grab cranes, ammonia converters and the like. And we not only move what others can’t, but we also get it to where they can’t get it to. It’s precision work. Make a mistake, and you’ll have a disaster on your hands.”

The result was his first heavy-lift vessel, the MV Stellaprima, and its four 12-ton derricks, and thus began a history of innovation in heavy-lift cargo ships that began with the A-Class and continues to this day with the K-Class. Jumbo’s newest vessels have lifting capacities up to 3,000 tons – a far cry from the original 12-ton Stellaprima!

Over the years there was one innovation after another: the onboard stabilizer that prevents a ship from capsizing; “tween decks” that can be moved around to accommodate oversized cargoes; open hatches and one large cargo hold with no fixed vertical separators; the “simply smarter” design featured in the newest ships like the Jumbo Kinetic; and shallow-draft vessels that have two propellers instead of one, which allows Jumbo’s vessels to operate in even the smallest and most inaccessible ports.

Pioneering an industry. Leading the way.

What’s in a Name?

Was there ever a more appropriate name than “Jumbo”? Jumbo the elephant, a symbol of what the company calls its “Reliable Strength” in handling the biggest jobs and the toughest challenges. The name came from – of all places – a contest among employees, a tradition started by Hans Kahn that continues to this day in the naming of each new vessel.

There’s more. Kahn’s autobiography speaks of the close relationship between the Kahn and Borchard families, each of whom have a 50 percent ownership interest in Jumbo. A relationship which has lasted fifty years.

The two families are still co-owners, and when Jumbo commissions a new vessel design, two ships are built – one with the prefix “Fair” in its name (Fairmaster, Fairplayer, Fairlane), representing the Borchard ownership, and the other with the word “Jumbo” in its name (Jumbo Javelin, Jumbo Kinetic, Jumbo Vision), for the Kahn ownership.

If you look closely at the Jumbo logo, you will see the same combination. The name “Jumbo” is flanked by an elephant on the left (representing the Kahn family), and a star on the right (representing the Borchard family). Names have meaning and their meanings run deep.


For a company that has long prided itself on finding innovative solutions to technical challenges, it’s perhaps ironic that its most recent innovation – and perhaps its most brilliant since Hans Kahn’s original decision to pioneer the heavy-lift business – has nothing whatsoever to do with physics or the lifting of heavy objects.

Jumbo-SAL-Alliance, announced in April, opens the door to a world of new opportunities. Instead of competing for a limited pool of business, Jumbo and the German-based breakbulk and project cargo specialist, SAL Heavy Lift, have formed a joint venture that acts as a single commercial entry point for their combined fleet of 30 vessels and network of sales offices in more than 20 countries.

“This joint venture is a big step for both of us,” noted Michael Kahn at the signing of the agreement. “In the past few years it became increasingly clear that the benefits of collaboration heavily outweigh the traditional way of doing business. Our client base and interests have changed, and to remain an effective global player in our field of activity you always need to adapt and innovate – not only on a technical level, but also commercially. We believe that the flexibility and competencies that our clients are looking for are best served by SAL’s and Jumbo’s combined assets and knowledge.”

Like father, like son. Innovating for a better tomorrow.

To be sure, Jumbo and SAL will remain independent brands and operators. All new project requests are pooled together and based on the requirements of our clients and their project needs we offer heavy lift project solutions that meets their criteria. Also during projects, when timelines can change due to unforeseen circumstances, it is because of our joint fleet that we can offer our clients flexible solutions to meet these changing timelines.    

The two companies are, moreover, highly complementary in their fleets and human resources and share many of the same values in terms of quality, safety and a solutions focus. Both are family-owned and among the world’s most prominent and technically advanced heavy-lift carriers, sharing 90 years of combined experience. By combining resources and creating one large joint sales organization, they can now provide a range of services that exceed any other heavy-lift operator in the market today.

Those services include a heavy focus on the energy industry, ranging from offshore platforms for oil and gas to offshore windfarms for renewable energy. The energy industry is itself changing fast and going through a transition of its own, and service providers like Jumbo and SAL need to keep up.

“Stronger Together”

In a fast-changing world and a fast-changing industry, Jumbo-SAL-Alliance is a groundbreaker. “It’s the enabler,” says Janssens, “for us to move forward and take our place in the global consolidation of the heavy-lift industry. We are stronger together, and that makes all the difference.” 

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.