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30 Erik Hånell, Stena Bulk

Stena Bulk boss Erik Hånell's cool head at a time of inflamed geopolitical tensions in the Middle East helped secure the release of product tanker Stena Impero, seized in July by Iran’s revolutionary guard corps

The chief executive led an internal team of eight that met high-profile politicians, diplomats and their apparatchiks under the intense international media spotlight

STENA Bulk’s president and chief executive found himself front and centre of the US-Iran conflict in July, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the UK-flagged product tanker Stena Impero as it transited the Strait of Hormuz.

Mr Hånell’s diplomacy, tact, patience and unwavering support for the 23-member crew at a time of extreme geopolitical stress propels him well into the Top 100 for the first time.

The Gothenburg-based tanker operator of 72 vessels fed global news headlines for nearly a month while Mr Hånell led company efforts to extricate the vessel from Iranian waters, where it was held for two months.

Stena Bulk’s vessel was in the wrong place at the wrong time, taken simply because it flew the UK flag, in retaliation for the detention of an Iranian-controlled tanker in Gibraltar two weeks earlier.

Mr Hånell’s cool head amid inflamed tensions in the Middle East, along with an open and responsive demeanour as he was thrust into the world’s political and media spotlight, was an asset to Stena in negotiations to release the vessel.

With so many countries involved, the Swedish-born executive led an internal team of eight that held daily meetings or calls with the world’s highest-profile foreign ministers and their apparatchiks, including those based in Sweden, Iran and the UK.

Mr Hånell skilfully handled this pressurised environment and diplomatic challenge, helped by his long-time executive role in global trade.

He has worked at Stena Bulk since he started as manager of commercial operations in 1999, working his way up to president and chief executive by 2012.

Like most shipping companies, Stena had tested emergency responses to crises, but you cannot prepare for everything, especially something like this, Mr Hånell told Lloyd’s List in an October 2019 interview.

The July 19 seizure occurred on a Friday evening and coincided with Sweden’s summer vacation. There was also extreme political instability in the UK over Brexit at the time, adding a further degree of difficulty. 

Five days after Iran took Stena Impero, UK Prime Minister Teresa May resigned and a new Home Secretary was installed in the consequent shake-up.

It was all pure politics, Mr Hånell recalled.

“We never gave up, even though there were days when we felt like nothing was happening,” he said.

There were constant trips around Europe and to the Far East, plus keeping relatives of Indian, Latvian and Russian crew updated, initially three times daily.

Stena Bulk also worked to protect their families from intrusive media calls received worldwide.

Mr Hånell admits he was unprepared for the scale of media scrutiny, which he said was “a new experience”.

He answered 50 to 60 calls daily to his mobile from journalists — most with little understanding of the maritime world — on top of the day-to-day running of the business and working to release the tanker.

After Stena Impero’s release, the tanker immediately sailed to Dubai to disembark the traumatised crew. Mr Hånell was there to meet them, eschewing publicity, keeping his presence quiet.

He remains sanguine about the episode and has nothing but praise for the UK Foreign Office. This was despite a politically charged (and incorrect) message fed to the media inferring Stena Bulk did not provide enough notice to the UK government to organise a naval escort before it was seized.

Now the drama is over, Mr Hånell says there are no plans to reflag any Stena tankers and he remains, for now, with the Red Ensign.

Also adding to his global profile in 2019, Mr Hånell was appointed chairman of tanker operators’ industry group ITOPF in November.

The low-profile London-based group wields much influence in tanker circles, and Mr Hånell had served on the board for seven years. Paddy Rodgers, formerly from Euronav, was the prior chairman for eight years.

This is Mr Hånell's first appearance in the Top 100.

 

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