Entrepreneurship, Gender Parity, and the Future of Sustainable Shipping

Having gone solo before working her way up in one of the world’s most powerful shipping groups, Ioanna Procopiou, Managing Director of Prominence Maritime and Sea Traders, is upping the ante in the international shipping arena, as a foremost voice in the quest for holistic solutions in the industry’s green transition, and a role model for female leadership in what is known to be a predominantly male-dominated industry.

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GIG: I’d like to jump into your role as an entrepreneur. After joining Dynacom in 2003 – the family business – you went on to establish Prominence Maritime in 2010, which you continue to lead in conjunction with the management of Sea Traders. Can you tell us about Prominence?

PROCOPIOU: Prominence Maritime is a dry bulk company that runs six dry bulk carriers, one supramax, one panamax, and four kamsarmax carriers. It began as an idea I had in 2010 to begin with something small in an effort to understand what a shipping company entails in its totality.

Each department was set up from scratch, and all the people we hired were interviewed personally by me; we didn’t take anyone from Dynacom, or any of the other companies within the family businesses. I wanted to establish a company where I was responsible for my own decisions.

GIG: How has this entrepreneurial experience shaped your vision of the family business and, in retrospect, changed your leadership skills?

PROCOPIOU: In terms of how this experience has changed my vision, I believe that once you have skin in the game you appreciate things in a completely different manner. When you know that you are responsible for your own decisions your approach changes significantly, and it’s only then that you really learn that every decision you make is going to affect your bottom line and the viability of the company.

Leading a small company enables you to have a macro view of what works in terms of processes, and understand what should be done differently. When you then get involved in a bigger company like Sea Traders, which is five to six times the size of Prominence, you can then put these procedures into action at a larger scale.

Inevitably, you get to learn much faster. As a result both technical and non-technical skills improve day-by-day. I also believe that you appreciate things differently because you’re responsible for your own actions. This whole process was a big learning curve for me.

Starting something on your own is a humbling experience and I believe that everyone who can should do so – especially people who are going to eventually end up in positions of power. You can’t just land a position; you need to work your way up.

GIG: What are the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome as an entrepreneur?

PROCOPIOU: There were a significant amount of challenges we had to overcome, which we did, slowly but surely.

To begin with, establishing a name for yourself from the start and building your credibility within the market are very important, while you also need to create trust with the people you work with. Saying that you’re affiliated with Dynacom does open some doors, but the rest you need to open for yourself. As a shipping company, the charterers need to get to know who they are doing business with and understand why they should bring their business to you rather than to any other company in the market.

When I was interviewing people at Prominence’s beginnings I was pregnant. It was clear that in addition to the business adventures, I had other major projects and priorities in front of me. Looking back, I should mention how much I appreciate the people who trusted me and shared my vision during the early steps of Prominence, and I am happy to say that almost all of us are still working together.

However, during the last 10 years the dry bulk sector has faced decreased earnings, significant changes in the regulatory regime, and on top of this there’s now the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am very proud that during these challenging times, we gained experience, we proved to be a resilient player, and I am confident that we have set the ground for a sustainable future.

Sea Traders tanker. Copyright: Sea Traders S.A.

GIG: Family-owned businesses are at the centre of the Greek shipping industry. Given the fragmented nature of the wider industry, is consolidation the way to go? How can smaller companies compete within the current landscape?

PROCOPIOU: Consolidation is happening because the cost of running a small shipping company is incredibly high: the overheads are substantial, compliance with new regulations is going to be very difficult and costly, and vetting is hard and, again, expensive.

In addition, due to the international nature of our sector and fierce competition between companies, shipowners have very limited room to get above market charter rates and, in effect, increasing their revenues. This means that managing to cut costs by running a lean operation is the only way to improve your bottom line. Therefore, streamlined and efficient operations are essential.

In order to succeed in the shipping industry economies of scale are essential, and you can only achieve this if your company is large enough. In our case, by jointly managing Prominence and Sea Traders we have a fleet of 40 ships, which provides us with the benefits of economies of scale without adding the bigger fleets of Dynacom and Dynagas.

However, while consolidation is inevitable in some areas of our industry, it’s easier said than done. Greek shipping companies, for the most part, gravitate around their founder, and both the name and the personality of this person carry a great deal of weight within each organisation, whether big or small. Often, each company has a unique way of doing business which may not be standardised.

Therefore, for consolidation to happen there needs to be a specific corporate structure that can be understood by either the acquiring party or, conversely, the person who is joining the venture.

GIG: The global economy is bracing for its worst economic recession since the 1930’s. What is your outlook for the dry bulk sector over the next 12 months?

PROCOPIOU: In the shipping industry we say that we live day by day, and every day is different than the rest when it comes to the market. A global recession has a direct impact on imports and on people’s consumption: they spend less money. Inevitably, this has a ripple effect on the shipping industry, which contracts. In fact, demand for maritime transportation of finished goods is the first segment that suffers when there’s an economic downturn.

I am quite optimistic for the next 12 months. With a low order book and low stocks of commodities world-wide I believe that we will see above break-even rates going forward. Ton-miles are increasing as China has shifted to Brazil for iron ore in order to feed its booming steel sector. Grain volumes are reported to be exceptionally strong for this time of the year and there is a general tightness for vessels.

All of this is good news for the market for at least the next few months.

GIG: You are one of the few female business leaders in Greece’s predominantly male-dominated shipping industry. What is the main barrier for greater gender parity in the sector?

PROCOPIOU: Let me start by saying that I have been lucky enough to be working with some remarkably capable and smart women. The reality is that in Greece it is harder to be employed as a woman in any industry, not just in shipping. In the shipping industry, which has been traditionally male-dominated, female representation is low, especially in senior positions.

We at Prominence are taking gender equality seriously, not only by maintaining a good male-female ratio (currently 40:60), but by also helping new mothers in whichever way we can. We all need to be supportive of women who take on the dual role of motherhood and pursuing a professional career, and we will continue to do so.

In addition, it would help if both our schools and our government educated and assisted families with more benefits, even by giving more generous paternity leaves so that the burden of child rearing was shared between both parents.

Although there is still a bias towards women in the maritime sector, this is slowly changing and I believe that we will continue to see remarkable women doing excellent work and promoting themselves in senior positions.

GIG: What advice do you have for female peers in terms of how to overcome these challenges?

PROCOPIOU: Life has a way of rewarding you if you’re true to yourself, do what you love, and go wholeheartedly into whatever you do. Persistence is key; having goals and striving to achieve them, as is flexibility and knowing how to adapt to changing circumstances.

I believe that women have proven to be equally, if not more, capable than men because besides being smart and hardworking, they can multitask, and this makes us a lot more effective at accomplishing different tasks in an easy manner.

That said, I would advise my peers to venture out of their comfort zone, attempt something different, and things will fall into place.

Sea Traders tanker. Copyright: Sea Traders S.A.

GIG: Moving on to the changes we’re seeing in the Greek shipping industry, how effective do you believe the recent liberalisation of the labour relations framework applicable to crew on board Greek flag vessels will be in boosting the competitiveness of the Greek shipping registry?

PROCOPIOU: Shipping is a sector that offers excellent professional opportunities both ashore and offshore. In the past, the framework was extremely rigid but the government is incentivising people to raise the Greek flag and is making it more flexible than before to do so. The Union of Greek Shipowners has also been instrumental in raising awareness and changing the perception of Greek shipowners in this respect. I am optimistic that the initiatives of the Greek government are going to yield positive results.

One of the major challenges has been to find well-educated and motivated personnel both offshore and ashore. Regarding seafarers, there is a lack of highly skilled personnel willing to stay on board despite the high wages and the technological revolution that the internet has brought about. I am confident that these developments are in the right direction and will open new horizons to numerous people interested in the blue economy.

GIG: The shipping industry is currently facing a great deal of uncertainty due to incoming regulations that aim to mitigate the environmental impact of the sector, something you’ve been very outspoken about. What is the way forward?

PROCOPIOU: When it comes to legislation, we first need suggestions that are viable and offer a level playing field for everyone. The IMO cannot permit us to burn high sulphur fuel using scrubbers and then penalise the early adopters of scrubbers. Some of our colleagues who installed scrubbers on board their ships and are now facing difficulties because numerous ports will not allow them to operate open-loop scrubbers.

Another type of legislation is the recently announced European ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) for shipping. This means that the EU is most likely going to impose a tax on fuel if a ship departs or arrives at a European port. Therefore, companies are going to be penalised for loading or discharging goods in Europe. If this is the case, numerous shippers will simply load and discharge outside the EU and transport goods via land whenever possible. When we bear in mind that shipping is the most environmentally friendly form of transportation, if you shift to other means of transport, you are increasing pollution and making the problem worse.

In addition, if we are to be paying this money to an ETS it would be useful for this money to be used towards technological advances rather than sustaining policies that allow you to pay and still pollute.

The way forward should be a holistic approach that looks at the whole life cycle of the vessel and of the fuel that it burns. Sustainability accounts for the total life cycle of an asset, not just emissions and economics under operation, but also what comes before and after.

This is what is called a cradle to grave analysis (for the ship) and well-to-wake (for the fuel). It should include the extraction – refining – transportation, burning stages for a fuel, and the respective stages for a ship (materials for building the ship, the actual operation of the vessel, and then its disposal). Only then can we judge if a “new invention” is greener than what is already out there.

Needless to say, shipowners always aim to buy the best available vessels in terms of technology. In the short-term, one way in which we could reduce all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions today is by cutting down the speed (or power) at which our vessels operate. This would require little investment, and is a measure that can be easily implemented and monitored via the existing regulatory bodies. This would be sufficient to comply with the IMO’s 2030 levels of CO2 emissions, while it would allow us some time for technology to catch up with the 2050 requirements.

Also, in the medium term, regulations should be passed on the permissible GHG emissions / tone-mile for transported cargoes for all vessel sizes and types. This would provide guidelines on how new vessels must be built and operated in order to comply with requirements. Rather than having endless meetings and debates at both the IMO level and with other smaller bodies, both of these measures would buy us time, with very low levels of pollution until a commonly accepted measure or basket of measures is passed.

Sea Traders tanker Copyright: Sea Traders S.A.

GIG: How do you believe solutions to these challenges, within the scope of alternative fuels or propulsion technology, can be further incentivised on a global scale?

PROCOPIOU: Shipping technology hasn’t evolved much over the last 30 or 40 years. What is being asked of us is to make technological leaps that simply are not possible. We have the regulations, but we don’t have the innovations required to comply with them.

I would like for the next generation to live on a planet that is at least as good as the one I was lucky enough to grow up on. We need to make changes to protect the environment. This is essential and we have an obligation to do so. However, the measures need to be specific, proven, and functional.

In order to have a successful dialogue, all parties – engine manufacturers, shipyards, universities, researchers, fuel suppliers, and shipowners – should sit down at the same discussion table. Research and development requires a joint effort in order to deliver results.

There should be subsidising of pilot programmes aimed at supporting and incentivising companies to use new technologies. This would allow companies to test new technologies, provide their feedback, and not be penalised for trying out new inventions.

Last year’s sulphur regulations were not properly assessed so their implementation caused extreme upheaval and posed serious safety issues. In addition, scrubbers have set a bad precedent as shipowners invested a lot of money and it was then determined that their use was neither viable nor environmentally friendly. As a result the early adopters were penalised, which was a big shock for our sector.

It is also important that we work with universities. Prominence is heavily involved in this dialogue. We take part in technical committees, attend forums, assess pilot projects, and have a dialogue with green organisations.

We want clean oceans. We want a healthy atmosphere. But we need to look at the whole picture and take steps to protect our environment in a viable and sustainable way.

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