Quality of Service

It’s not the biggest company in the ship management business and doesn’t want to be. Its focus is quality of service.

Freighter with wind turbine components
Courtesy Columbia Shipmanagement

Published May 12, 2024 9:13 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2024 edition.)




“We have about 450 ships under various forms of management now,” says President & CEO Mark O’Neil in a recent interview. “It’s a number that’s growing, but we're not in a rush to be the biggest. I don't really care where we rank in size because that doesn't relate to profitability or efficient operation. What I care about is the quality of our service first and foremost.”

That, in a nutshell, is Columbia’s mantra: quality of service. It started with the company’s Founder and current Executive Chairman, Captain Heinrich Schoeller, whom O’Neil credits with mentoring him from day one and supporting him over the last seven-plus years in transforming Columbia into much more than just a ship management operation.

Quality of service is just part of the story. O’Neil and his team care about the quality of clients as well. “We are very client-focused,” he notes, “and the quality of the relationships we have with our clients is very important to us. If we sense there’s a fit with our philosophies, we'll go forward.”

The goal? A one-stop, holistic, 360-degree platform that enables clients to put together a model that works for them of really quality service providers. “We’re not a commoditized service provider,” says O’Neil. “We will never be providing a Columbia product that is the same from one client to the next. It will always be tailored and ideally with dedicated teams so that the client feels it’s really in-house management.”

It's been a huge success, and it’s been driven by three pillars – people, partnerships and ESG.


It starts with people. That’s the first pillar. The company puts a premium on personal and professional skills as well as technological prowess in its employees, ensuring their continued development through targeted training and education courses.

“We put our people at the front, middle and end of everything we do,” O’Neil says. “They’re the core of what Columbia is all about.” He cites teambuilding and teamwork as critical components of the company’s success and tells the story of how he was doing weekly video messages to all the ships from the start of the Russia-Ukraine war to ensure peace among its many Russian and Ukrainian seafarers:

“We got all of our shore staff, our Russian, our Ukraine staff, and said, ‘Look, first and foremost, you are Columbians. Reach out now to your Russian colleagues, reach out the hand of friendship to your Ukrainian colleagues because in a few years that is going to pay you back. So reach that hand out. I don't want any trouble on board our vessels. You are Columbians first and foremost, and the rest is just politics.”

It worked, although the company was fully aware of the huge impact the war was having on its Ukrainian and Russian colleagues and immediately set up a mental health hotline and invested in secure facilities for families uprooted by the war. It also funded 320 trained psychologists on the ground to deal with trauma victims, particularly children. It already had a mental health support system in place for all of its crew and shore staff dating from the first days of Covid.


The second pillar is partnerships with stakeholders. That includes clients, of course, and extends to crewing agencies around the world, a number of which have become “preferred partners.”

On the technology front, the company believes strongly in empowering businesses by cultivating strategic partnerships, leveraging cross synergies and providing exceptional services through innovation and community engagement. It has partnerships with companies like Adobe and Kaiko Systems to harness the power of digitalization and AI in its own operations.

The partnership strategy also includes, most importantly, its own team members. O’Neil strongly believes in nurturing a culture that values diversity and collaboration, fosters personal and professional development and empowers individuals to reach their full potential. 

“We are committed to the ongoing development of our employees,” he explains, “which is why investing in the growth of our people not only enhances their capabilities but also strengthens our organization as a whole. Through comprehensive training programs, mentorship opportunities and continuous learning initiatives, we empower our employees to continuously expand their knowledge and skills, encouraging them to stay at the forefront of technological advancements and equipping them with the tools they need to thrive in a rapidly evolving business landscape.”  


The third pillar is a commitment to ESG. Columbia was the first ship management company to introduce a Code of Conduct for all team members, and its “I Care” program – based on the principles of commitment, appreciation and responsibility – are at the heart of its corporate culture.

It may also be the only ship management company to publish an annual ESG Report, which highlights all aspects of its environmental, social and governance initiatives. A dynamic and progressive ESG strategy is essential to success in today’s world, O’Neil believes, and he expects both team members and clients to abide by its principles.

O’Neil himself has become something of a global ambassador for ESG, and he’s convinced of its many benefits, both within and outside the company, one of which came as a bit of a surprise. He describes a recent recruiting trip to Oxford University to hopefully attract bright young people to shipping, an industry they had long shunned.

“I was offering these super brains great packages and great lifestyles out here in Cyprus and houses and cars and whatever,” he relates. “The thing that attracted four or five people to come to our organization from Oxford University wasn't the package, wasn't the Cyprus lifestyle, it was our ESG strategy and what we're doing around the world, the good things we're doing around the world. And I was amazed that's all they wanted. That's what they want whereas you and I probably came in with what makes us the most money and has the most perks.”

Sounds like a winning formula to grow both a company and its people. Bravo! – MarEx

Tony Munoz is Founder, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive. 

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