Offshore & Towage – Mark de Jonge, Managing Director – Netherlands
The managing director of Tschudi Offshore & Towage discusses the company’s new ownership structure, and the current state of the offshore sector in the Netherlands and the North Sea.
At the beginning of 2013, Tschudi Offshore and Towage went through a major re-branding moving from its old label, ITC to be incorporated into the Tschudi Group proper. Could you explain a little about the prelude to this move, and what the subsequent effects on the business have been?
Tschudi Offshore & Towage (TOT) was formerly known as International Transport Contractors (ITC) and has been in existence for over 40 years. It was 12 years ago that Mr. Felix Tschudi became the sole owner of ITC. ITC has always been more engaged in ocean towage, salvage, heavy lift and to an extent offshore construction but has been less involved in the oil and gas sector. Tschudi was operating in the former two sectors principally through the spot market- which delivers good money in a strong market, but in lean times can be a difficult prospect indeed. Over the last five years, the spot market has been tough, particularly for older tonnage, and our business is looking to replace older vessels. ITC was stretched somewhat, and required a new focus on its future.
I joined Tschudi two and a half years ago. I sought to refocus the business on a three pillar growth strategy. The first pillar is capture of knowledge- Tschudi’s unique selling point is the quality of our crew on board our ships. A particular area of emphasis for us, when it comes to retaining experience, is that of anchor handling skills, ocean towing and terminal support abilities. We are seeking specifically to expand our capabilities to undertake anchor handling operations and are at the moment also divesting our smaller tonnage vessels.
The second pillar of the strategy is a new focus on long term contracts in order to guarantee consistent income and to insulate the business from peaks and troughs in demand on the spot market. Much of our current focus on long term contracts is in Africa; the major reason for this is our current experience in West Africa, t, AlsoAfrica has fewer local players- as in Asia. This latter point is an issue because these players are not willing to offer companies such as Tschudi terms for charter in their home waters. Africa is clearly the market that is most exciting for Tschudi- there is upcoming work as new wells go into production, new laws are enacted and contracts are re-tendered. Setting up a presence in Africa is only possible through joint ventures – we are seeking to create these as a route to get into Angola, Ghana and Mozambique. Finding the right partner is vital to succeed.
Lastly, the company had to be better aligned to the Tschudi group with regard to branding, marketing, processes, systems and organisation. ITC had been a well-known name in Dutch market, but the name Tschudi was unknown here. Equally, the reverse situation was true in Norway and Russia for example. For this reason, the rebrand went ahead and Tschudi Offshore and Towage was formed from ITC. This closer branding of the group together also saw closer integration of operations- the group works more effectively as a whole now, including at times pooling resources and abilities.
This greater clarity of purpose has already seen results with contracts in Angola for two vessels for example. These were two vessels which had previously been on long term bareboat charter, but we were able to then purchase these vessels.
AHTS crews are very specialized- what qualities allows Tschudi Offshore and Towage to secure these skills in a very competitive labor market?
The retaining of crew is very important. Basically, it comes down to how you interact and treat the crew and one must always be open and honest with ships crews. In this industry, staff can move for marginally higher salaries, sure, but at Tschudi our personnel can rely on a strong relationship with the crewing department and human resources. The business here has a strong ‘family’ feeling about it.
A central plank to Tschudi’s human resource strategy is skill development. We recruit many young officers and train them intensely to provide them with the skills to operate competently and reliably as a captain. Our chief officers on ships are also capable of operating anchor handling assets. We train and promote our captains and chief officers, delivering to them sea time and experience. We do not use simulators- our training is real, true on the job training and our staff gain genuinely useful practical lessons from this.
To give you an idea of how esteemed the skills of our captains are, Tschudi provided the lead tug for the recent tow of the capsized Costa Concordia cruise liner after it had been righted. The captain who undertook this operation was our youngest, though we did station a more experienced set of hands in an advisory capacity on the bridge. We are very proud of the positive profile our business gained from this operation.
I also try to visit Tschudi’s ships directly at least twice a year, and seek to make sure our crews remain informed about our good news –and issues we consider to be of concern. We empower our captains to make decisions themselves- the crew and captains know that Tschudi isalwaysbacking them up- we trust their professional intuition, and they know that.
Looking to your strategy seeking long term contracts; how are you planning ahead to achieve contracts tomorrow, with assets appropriate to future challenges?
Traditionally, we gained our long term contracts through brokers or intermediaries. I respect these parties for their abilities- particularly relating to securing spot-market contracts, but for long term contracts, I believe we can achieve a similar level of success in securing contracts by acting ourselves. We simply need to locate and communicate to the right people to make these contracts happen. Going directly to the individuals who write and decide on the tenders both in the oil and gas majors and elsewhere is how we can secure our operating future.
In Africa, the area of key focus for us there is an additional challenge in that when one is awarded a tender, one must be ready to operate six to nine months later. This is a challenge for a small operator. Not only getting to the table and finding the right partner but ensuring we have the right assets ready for deployment is essential.
We are looking to obtain this tonnage- the Far East represents a good opportunity for this and we intend to do so through either purchase or bareboat charter with the intention of holding that asset when the tenders arise. This is our main route forward. We are seeking to find a niche where our assets are capable of pulling greater weights than tugs, but equally capable of doing decent sized jobs- over 100 and under 200tons bollard pull
Your business also works closely with the Tschudi group- which does offer ship management. How do you promote and capitalize on this activity which is affiliated to your own services?
Ship management is handled by our sister company within the Tschudi group. Originally ship management was handled internally within TOT, where expertise and abilities were developed and honed. When the group divested a number of vessels, the managerial skills were retained by the business, then utilized as a service which the group could capitalize on, selling this experience and ability to clients. Due to Tschudi Offshore and Towage’s increasing prevalence in the offshore market, the group was able to expand its ship management into this sector of activity too. The management personnel in Tschudi are small in number but very dedicated.
This is just one of the many ways in which the wider group supports itself. We also share clients and expertise wherever possible.
Tschudi as a group is not headquartered in the Netherlands. Why has Tschudi Offshore and Towage retained its presence here?
Building on the traditional presence of ITC here, there are many seafarers originating in the Netherlands who very much give a solid base of capabilities and experience to build on. The importance of the ‘capture of knowledge’ means that the Netherlands is a very important base for us- crews and expertise is easily accessed. With the Netherlands’ coastline bordering the North Sea, our area of operations originates in one of the more hostile maritime environments for oil and gas exploration and production activity. It is also where the highest standards are requested by client companies- working here means a company can work anywhere.