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Profile: Jens Meier, Chairman of the Hamburg Port Authority

hamburg port authority
Portrait courtesy HPA

Published Jan 10, 2021 12:44 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2020 edition.)

In tthis profile for The Maritime Executive Magazine, the head of Europe’s third-largest port discusses the impact of the coronavirus and how technology is revolutionizing port operations.

You’re a computer scientist with more than 25 years’ experience in logistics, IT and finance. Tell us about that.

Yes, I have a degree in computer science with a major in economics. My professional career began in 1993 at Software Design & Management AG (part of the Ernst & Young Group). In 1997, I became a member of the management team responsible for the Hamburg and Hanover branches. My customers at the time included HHLA, the VW Group, Vereins-Westbank and the Otto Group.

In 2000, I became head of Systematics AG (later EDS) and was responsible for corporate consulting and software development. Two years later I became Managing Director of the logistics company tts Holding and was initially responsible for IT, finance and international logistics. In 2004 I was appointed Chairman. With the sale in 2006 of tts Holding to the Fiege Group, another major logistics provider, I joined the management board of Fiege Holding Logistik.

When did you become Chairman of the Hamburg Port Authority?

In April 2008 I became Commercial Manager and four months later was named Chairman of the Management Board of the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA).

Who owns the port, and how is it governed?

The Port of Hamburg is managed according to the so-called “landlord model,” in which the HPA owns the land in the port and is responsible for construction, development and maintenance of the infrastructure (general and user-specific). The private port companies, on the other hand, are responsible for the development and maintenance of the superstructure (buildings and facilities).

“Hafen Hamburg” has a long and illustrious history, dating back to the 12th century and the formation of the Hanseatic League. Give us a glimpse into that history and how it led to today’s modern port.

A little port with a wooden landing stage about 120 meters long first appears in drawings dating from the 9th century. With a population of about 200, Hamburg used this to handle long-distance trade. The port’s official birthday came to be celebrated as May 7, 1189, more than 800 years ago. It was then that Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa granted the Hamburgians the privilege of sailing free of customs duties along the Lower Elbe as far as the North Sea.

Today, in the Port of Hamburg, state-of-the-art digital intelligence guarantees a smooth, efficient operation. The control systems used by HPA are world-leading while the interaction between sensor technology and analysis, forecasting and information systems delivers huge efficiency improvements. This is not only good for business, it also protects the environment. The digital trend also ensures that we will continue to maintain our leading position in Germany and Europe.

Thanks to this approach, the HPA achieves sustainable economic growth and maximum benefit for its customers and the people of Hamburg while minimizing its environmental impact.

What is the total impact of the port on the German economy in terms of jobs, taxes, economic activity and the like?

Hamburg is Germany’s largest port and logistics hub. Spanning an area of 6,288 hectares or nearly 25 square miles, the dedicated port area is home to a wide range of value-creating activities including large cargo-handling companies, innovative industrial firms, and start-ups for whom the waterways link is a strategic advantage. In total, more than 16 different commercial and industrial sectors are located on the publicly owned land in the port – from container and bulk cargo-handling to the mineral oil industry and from logistics and metal production to cruise operators.

We create value at multiple levels. Key among these is the economic benefit. The port’s overall gross value creation stands at around €12.7 billion (metropolitan region) per annum. Each year, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg collects taxes in excess of €800 million from business activities at the port. In addition, more than 156,000 jobs in Hamburg and the metropolitan region and more than 267,000 jobs nationwide depend on the Port of Hamburg.

Germany is one of the world’s greatest exporters, and Hamburg is known as its “Gateway to the World.” Where does the port rank in terms of TEUs and who are its major trading partners?

In terms of TEUs, the Port of Hamburg was ranked #17 worldwide and #3 in Europe in 2019. The top 10 trading partners in seaborne container-handling at the port are China, the U.S., Singapore, Russia, Sweden, Great Britain, South Korea, Malaysia, Denmark and Poland.

“Wir Machen Hafen” is the port’s slogan. What does it mean?

“Wir machen Hafen,” translated as “Port is what we do,” means the HPA offers a full range of future-oriented port management services to customers. To ensure safe and efficient processes and meet the demands of a growing port, the HPA relies on intelligent and innovative solutions. We’re responsible for resource-efficient, sustainable planning and the implementation of infrastructure projects within the port. We’re also the contact point for all issues concerning waterside and landside infrastructure, safety of navigation for vessels, port railway facilities, port property management and business conditions in the port.

The HPA ensures the provision of land as required, carries out all statutory duties placed on it and provides port industry services. It markets port-specific technical knowledge and represents the interests of the Port of Hamburg at the national and international levels.

The port’s strategic location makes it a leading intermodal center, and it’s Europe’s largest rail port. Tell us about its many intermodal capabilities.

Thanks to intelligent solutions for the flow of traffic and goods, the HPA is constantly improving the port's efficiency. We combine economic and ecological aspects in three sub-sectors: traffic management, infrastructure and the flow of goods. An intermodal PortTraffic Center for sea, rail and road transport is the basis for networking the flow of traffic. Intelligent networking is a prerequisite for smooth, efficient transport within the port and ultimately for the flow of goods. Optimum data capture and rapid information-sharing allow logistics managers, carriers and agents to select the most efficient means of transport for their goods.

According to an Interim Report released in August, the port suffered a 12 percent overall decline in trade in the first half of 2020 due to the coronavirus. Tell us about that and your outlook for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.

The negative repercussions of the coronavirus are, of course, also affecting throughput in Germany’s largest port. However, with the Chinese and European economies gradually picking up, we’re confident that we’ve reached the low point of the decline in seaborne cargo caused by the pandemic and will see a first noticeable recovery and improvement by the end of the year.

How have you managed to keep the port operating during these difficult times?

The coronavirus pandemic was and is challenging, but it also provides an opportunity to question old ways of thinking and old structures and to break new ground. I’m proud that the HPA – thanks to the possibilities technology offers but also thanks to the commitment of our people – has been able to ensure that the port remains fully operational.

In the difficult economic conditions caused by the pandemic, the port has been a bastion of stability, performing an essential function by maintaining a reliable supply of products and raw materials for the economy and the population. I’m also very grateful for the wonderful cooperation of our employees, customers, partners and the other authorities involved.

What about the cruise business? Is Hamburg a major cruise port? How has that been affected?

Hamburg has positioned itself globally over the last few years as a top 20 homeport for cruising with roughly 800,000 passengers and more than 200 ship calls per year. Moreover, Hamburg is a pioneer and has been setting standards in the field of environmental protection for sustainable cruising. Our goal is to become the number one sustainable cruise port in the future.

As with all other ports, the cruise business came to a complete standstill for a number of weeks. However, we’ve initiated a process and played a leading role in coordinating and establishing a roundtable where stakeholders, medical experts and the cruise lines were able to discuss the first guidelines to resume cruise operations. The collaboration has been very fruitful and successful. Hamburg was the first port in Germany and one of the first worldwide to resume cruise operations at the end of July. 

What lessons have we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic? Have there been any positive developments, new ways of doing things?

I’ve personally learned how important it is to have a good international network and the cooperation of all those involved. I’ve also learned that you can do a lot of good things quickly and easily if all the interested parties work together.

Okay, what about you? How would you describe your management style?

I see myself as someone who creates a robust international network, who thinks outside the box and has an open ear to the ideas of his employees and enables them to be implemented. I am in constant contact with my employees, and my door is always open when I'm in the office.

How do you relax? What do you like to do in your spare time?

Sports are an important part of my life, both actively – running and table tennis – and passively. I’m a big fan of the Hamburger Sport-Verein soccer team and was at one time its President. 

Jack O’Connell is Senior Editor of The Maritime Executive.

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