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02 Vincent Clerc and Robert Uggla, AP Moller-Maersk and AP Moller Holding

New chief executive takes the top role as box shipping heads into the doldrums

Clerc will continue with Maersk’s strategy, but he will face steering it through a deep downturn in the sector

IT WAS the best of times and the worst of times when Vincent Clerc took over the reins at Maersk at the beginning of 2023.

The best because the company had just pulled in a record-breaking $29bn post-tax profit; the worst because it was all going to go downhill from there.

Søren Skou’s surprise retirement at the end of 2022 saw long-term lieutenant Clerc finally take the top role in the world’s second-largest container line.

He inherited a company defined by the strategy Skou had established in 2016 to transform Maersk from a shipping and energy conglomerate to a global logistics group.

It is a move with which Clerc has been closely aligned.

After joining the company in 1997, he rose through the ranks at Maersk. By 2015, he was chief commercial officer, before becoming chief executive of the ocean and logistics division in 2019.

And, while there are no signs of any deviation for Maersk’s plans to diversify into a container logistics integrator, with businesses along the entire supply chain, Clerc has already made his mark on the company.

His first major step was to announce that the 2M alliance — the vessel-sharing agreement between Maersk and MSC — would be dissolved when the agreement expires in 2025.

Designed to enhance the operational networks of both carriers in terms of scope, scale, efficiency and reliability, the alliance was also a cost-saving measure for the carriers, allowing them to ensure ships were sailing with better load factors than they would have done if they offered individual strings.

However, 10 years is a long time in shipping, and Maersk has a very different strategy today than it had in 2014, when discussions about such an alliance were first held.

With Maersk now banking on the end-to-end delivery of cargo, it was important that it had control of the ocean leg of that service.

“Synergies from pooling have decreased significantly. At the same time, dyssynergies from having divergent strategic goals have increased,” Clerc said.

“Following our strategy, we are convinced that this is the time to move beyond the traditional ocean service model. It is time to make ocean an integrated part of the end-to-end value proposition we bring to our customers.”

Yet this has raised questions over whether Maersk still has the clout to go it alone.

Once the largest carrier in terms of capacity deployed, its 4.1m teu fleet is now one-fifth smaller than that of acquisitive rival MSC.

Moreover, its orderbook suggests it could soon be overtaken by CMA CGM, pushing Maersk to the number three spot.

Clerc’s vision, however, is predicated on having the right amount of capacity to serve the company’s customers, rather than having the largest possible fleet.

Yet that switch in focus has been called into question during 2023.

Maersk’s failure to protect its container line market share saw it give up at least $4bn in profits that it would have been able to generate if it had maintained its global capacity share, according to some estimates.

It has also lost the entire market share it gained when it acquired Hamburg Süd in 2017.

Hamburg Süd itself was the victim of another of Clerc’s initial moves, when Maersk announced that the brand — along with a number of other acquisitions — would be subsumed under the Maersk identity.

One of the original rationales for the move into logistics was to reduce the volatility of earnings from the fickle container shipping market, but Maersk has found that this is not necessarily the case.

The downturn from the spectacular demand boom of the pandemic was predictable, and Maersk still expects to make an operating profit of $3.5bn-$5bn in 2023, but it is certainly feeling the market weather.

It has announced 10,000 jobs will have been shed by early 2024, and is hunkering down for what looks to be an extended downturn in the sector.

“The new normal we are heading into is one of a more subdued macro-economic outlook and soft volume demand for the coming years, prices back in line with historical levels and inflationary pressures on our cost base, especially from energy costs and increased geopolitical uncertainty,” Clerc said.

And that has hit its logistics revenues as well, which were down by one-fifth on an organic basis, which Clerc said showed that logistics is “particularly sensitive to container volumes”.

Nevertheless, he will press on with the strategy.

“We are determined to continue to diversify the revenue streams of Maersk and expand both the terminal business and the logistics business,” Clerc said.

“That continues to be our strategy. That will cushion whatever downturn there will be in [the] ocean [division] and underlines the importance of continuing to invest in that direction.”

The other direction in which Maersk is heavily investing is the green transition, where it has been something of a pioneer.

Maersk took delivery earlier in 2023 of the 2,136 teu Laura Maersk (IMO: 9944546), a groundbreaking ship not due to its size but due to its methanol propulsion system.

The company has bet big on the future fuel and has 24 vessels with capacities of between 9,000 teu and 17,000 teu on order.

Maersk has also confirmed the retrofit of an existing 15,000 teu vessel in 2024 and earmarked up to 10 sisterships for conversion should the first succeed.

“For now, it is clear that green methanol has got a lot of followers and, if we had waited for the perfect solution, we would not have had enough time to reach our commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040,” Clerc said.

Maersk’s bold move has prompted many others to take the step towards methanol as well, even as questions arise over its cost and availability.

Maersk’s solution to supply has come from its Maersk family-owned parent, AP Moller Holding, and chairman Robert Uggla, the grandson of Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller.

Uggla has been closely associated with Maersk’s transformation since its 2016 decision to reformulate the company as a global integrator of container logistics and forego its other interests.

As chief executive of AP Moller Holding — the investment arm of the AP Moller Foundation, which controls 51.7% of the voting shares in AP Moller Maersk — Uggla was involved in the massive restructuring of the group.

Under his guidance, AP Moller Holding has set up a new methanol production company, C2X, to increase the supply of green methanol and the company has invested in a number of other companies looking to supply green energy.

This is Clerc’s first entry into the Top 100. Uggla and other Maersk group executives also featured in the Top 100 in 201020112012201320142015201620172018201920202021 and 2022.

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