Thomas Wilhelmsen, Group CEO, Wilh. Wilhelmsen Holding ASA

Thomas Wilhelmsen

By Tony Munoz 2016-11-10 13:09:57

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2016 edition.)

The dynamic young leader of a storied company shows his mettle – and knows where he wants to go.

By Tony Munoz

You’re the head of a massive multinational enterprise and the fifth generation of your family to lead it. Do you feel the pressure?

I feel a great responsibility, yes. But in a way I have been groomed for this job from an early age – “brainwashed,” you might say. My father was in charge before me and of course the company goes back to 1861. So responsibility and the pressure that comes with it are nothing new.

Tell us a little about the “legend” of the company.

The company’s origins go back five generations to Morten Wilhelm Wilhelmsen in Tonsberg, a small whaling town about an hour and half’s drive from Oslo. He started his business as a ship chandler and ship broker and then started buying and selling ship parts. Eventually he became more of a traditional shipowner and focused on the liner side of the business.

      Over the last 155 years we’ve been involved in just about everything there is from a traditional shipping perspective – liners, tankers, bulkers, drilling rigs, offshore support vessels and car carriers. Today the only true shipping interests we have are car and ro-ro carriers. The   rest of it is focused on maritime services, which grew naturally out of our shipping activities and started in places like the Middle East. That was a difficult place to do business in the early years, so we opened our own local agency to represent our lines, and that became Barwil Agencies, which is now part of Wilhelmsen Ships Service.

How big is the fleet today?

Today we operate about 135 ships and do so in conjunction with Wallenius Lines, which is owned by the Swedish family of the same name. Together we have several operating companies serving the car and ro-ro sectors. We operate ro-ro vessels, pure car and truck carriers, and Neopanamax pure car and truck carriers. Some we own and some we charter.

And that’s the business you took public in 2010?

Wilhelmsen has been a publicly listed company for a very long time. In fact, we are one of the oldest public companies on the Oslo Stock Exchange. However, in 2010 we listed our shipping activities with the establishment of Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA (WWASA). In June of this year, we listed Treasure ASA. We now have three listed entities in the Wilhelmsen group. Wilhelmsen Maritime Services is not listed but is wholly owned by Wilh. Wilhelmsen Holding ASA (WWH). 

Why so complicated?

It’s a complex structure that’s evolved over the years due to the different industry segments we operate in and the many partnerships and legal entities along the way. It’s definitely not deliberate or for tax purposes as we try to be as transparent and open as possible.

      It’s also because we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. We have a portfolio of different businesses and they move a little bit out of sync. Some grow faster than others in certain periods. But we’re guided by a strategic point of view – to have a balance in our portfolio so we are not too reliant on one particular area.

Does the Wilhelmsen family still have voting control of the company?

Yes, the family owns just shy of fifty percent of the total equity but controls more than fifty percent of the votes.

Are there advantages to being a public company that is still family-controlled?

Yes, and that is a significant part of our strategy as well. There’s a lot of debate these days as to which works best – an “ownerless” public company or one that has private or family control. Research shows that family-controlled businesses survive longer and have an average return that is a little bit higher over time. Why is that? I’m sure there are many reasons, but at least you know that family members who have invested their own money along with, perhaps, a few partners will be very focused on making sure it grows. They will also have a different view of the risk side of the equation and of the decision-making process, to say the least.

We understand that Norwegian public companies must have a specified percentage of women on their boards of directors. Is that true?

Yes, it’s a law passed by the Norwegian government in 2003. It’s part of Norway’s gender balance quotas and requires that forty percent of the boards of all public and public liability companies be women. We have two women on our five-member board for WWH. The same for WWASA and Treasure ASA.

Does Brexit pose concerns for the company?

There is no doubt that Brexit will have an impact, but to what extent is hard to determine. On the macro-level I think that in a world that has been relatively volatile, nervous and uncertain prior to this, having a Brexit doesn’t help, and the ripple effects you will see are not necessarily the consequence of the U.K. leaving the E.U. It’s more about what happens to business climates and the decision-making process. There will likely be slowness in terms of making large strategic decisions in a lot of companies and governments around the world, and that will eventually have an effect on the global economy.

With the possibility of political and financial chaos within the E.U. and the changing dynamics of global trade, will the company become more conservative or will it continue to invest in new opportunities?

We will continue to invest in new opportunities, but our primary focus will be on growing from within. And we have a wide variety of businesses that we can play on. Everyone views us as a pure shipping company, but we have so much more on the logistics and services side. So I believe our growth will be greater on the non-shipping side than on the ships themselves.

      There are a number of reasons for that. One is that we are very focused on growing in areas where we can do what we call “value-add,” where we can build on our competencies. We are a strong believer in our people and their competencies. Another reason is that, on the shipping side – or at least the segment we are in – there is a limit to how much more we can grow. We already have a global market share, together with our partners, of 23 percent of the car carrier business, and we can’t get much bigger without bumping up against legislative restrictions.

Is that what you mean by “Positioned for Growth”?

“Positioned for Growth” means many things but, yes, it mainly means we need to have good, professionally run and profitable businesses that we can either grow organically or – where we have the capability from a competency point of view – from acquisitions. And it also refers to what kind of financial flexibility we have. Do we grow from within, through an acquisition, or via partnerships?

Is the recently announced deal with Survitec a kind of partnership arrangement?

It is. We had a choice: Do we continue to operate and grow and invest in our own safety business, or do we grow it together with someone else? By combining it with Survitec you immediately get a powerhouse entity within the safety industry, which we believe is good for that market in terms of consolidating service offerings. In exchange for our safety businesses, we receive some cash along with 20 percent ownership in a company whose future we believe in.

How would you describe your management style?

That’s a big question, but from a personal perspective I think that you can say that what you see is what you get. I have no hidden agendas and try to be as open and direct as possible. When you look at the variety of businesses we have, you need to delegate. But I like to be involved too. My background of course is I had my education and went to school, but I spent all of my time and holidays out of school working in different parts of this organization or in related organizations.

      So I’m fairly well versed in the various businesses we have and enjoy sitting in on key management meetings in different sectors of the company. I ask a lot of questions and get a great perspective on what is going on and what the critical issues are.

What is the biggest challenge the company faces today?

We have quite a few good challenges. The global economy is limping along, and by not having a lot of growth you end up having a lot of volatility, which has to be dealt with. At the same time there are lots of new opportunities. The challenge is to find them and capitalize on them. You need to be out there and looking around. My role is to motivate others who have the capacity to also be out there and to ensure we are all working together to steer this ship in the right direction. – MarEx  

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