The Top 100: A tale of tension, transition and trade wars
Shipping has been making front-page news in 2019, with oil tankers being attacked or detained, the Sino-US trade war rumbling on, the economic crisis in Venezuela and uncertainties surrounding Brexit being among the hottest topics. In the Lloyd's List Top 100 People, we look at who has been front and centre of these stories, who has driven change, broken boundaries, inspired and influenced their peers
Geopolitical tension and trade hostility were among the overriding themes of 2019; the Lloyd’s List Top 100 People seeks to add clarity to the narrative
REFLECTING on the year that was in shipping can be summed up in one word: eventful.
The ongoing saga overshadowing the past 12 months has been the trade war between the world’s two largest economic superpowers, China and the US.
Trade wars, no matter how you try to dress them up, are bad for business. For an industry that relies on the frictionless and seamless movement of trade, the standoff between its biggest net contributors has been particularly bad. The risks are palpable.
In 2019, shipping, too, became front-page news.
In July, an Iranian crude oil tanker, Grace 1, was detained by UK authorities in the Strait of Gibraltar on suspicion it was transporting crude oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
Tehran responded by seizing the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, alleging it had violated maritime laws.
This was off the back of a spate of tanker attacks in the Red Sea and Middle East Gulf region, which the US blamed on Iran in response to trade restrictions against the country. That claim was denied by Tehran.
Either way, shipping found itself at the centre of a political storm. Escalating tensions raised alarms for safe navigation in the Middle East and particularly the Strait of Hormuz, one of the major oil chokepoints of the world, with the stability of global crude oil markets at considerable risk.
Geopolitical tension and trade hostility were an overriding theme of 2019 — and one that was not confined solely to the Middle East and the war of words between the US and China.
The uncertainties surrounding Brexit, the economic crisis in Venezuela, the protest movement in Hong Kong, and others, added further volatility to global trade flows.
Indeed, economists made a habit of downgrading their trade growth expectations for 2019. The latest forecast from the World Trade Organization at the time of writing was for full-year trade growth of a measly 1.2% — a figure in stark comparison to the near 4% at the start of the year.
Understandably, this trade tension made for a fraught backdrop for shipping in 2019.
And that is without considering the many challenges surrounding the pipeline of environmental regulation; the reluctance of banks to lend to a highly capital-intensive yet volatile industry; and the digital disruption that continues to reshape shipping and transform traditional relationships in the freight and logistics sector.
Our Top 100 seeks to add clarity to the narrative.
The rankings pay homage to the shipping kingpins that have either been front and centre of this story, or those that have driven change, broken boundaries, inspired and influenced their peers.
Importantly, we have stuck to our guns and refrained from acknowledging the prominent political figureheads.
There has been a case for both US president Donald Trump and China’s president Xi Jinping to top the bill consistently in recent years.
Yet while their impact on the industry has been undeniable, the verdict was once again to highlight shipping’s chief protagonists forced to react to state policies and directives that have had major repercussions on global trade.
So it is perhaps of little surprise that China’s shipping juggernauts China Cosco Shipping Corp and China Merchants Group, represented by Xu Lirong and Li Jianhong, respectively, top the tree in Lloyd’s List’s 2019 rankings.
Both parties — and, indeed, Capt Xu and Mr Li — have been intertwined with the rise of China to an economic and maritime powerhouse over the past four decades.
However, the pairing takes the rankings crown due to the sheer scope, scale and reach of their combined shipping entities off the back of another period of accelerated merger and acquisition.
Further, the two state-owned giants Cosco and China Merchants Group continue to play a pivotal role in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, even if its progress has slowed in recent months.
The decision is also flanked by their frontline position in the US-Sino trade war and as a proxy for a dispute that has been far-reaching. It has spawned new trades and repositioned both regional and global supply chains, while adding a distinct layer of uncertainty to the wider shipping market.
Last year, Lloyd’s List elevated the International Maritime Organization to our premier spot on account of its January 1, 2020 sulphur cap. At the time, we labelled this a real game-changer for shipping, having stimulated the search not only for new types of fuel but also for new ways of working.
In 2019, the regulation dominated shipping discourse. The cost of compliance, scrubber retrofits and issues over fuel supply as the industry strived to meet the emission goal took centre stage, and garnered plenty of column inches at Lloyd’s List, too.
However, it has also proved a catalyst for the acceleration of a green shipping directive and decarbonisation drive. For that alone, the UN body should be commended and is thus a worthy rankings runner-up this year.
Indeed, shipping’s low-emission push gains strong ranking representation.
Citibank’s Michael Parker debuts in our Top 100 on account of his leading role in the launch of the Poseidon Principles, an initiative that ties financial lending to climate impact that could — if developed, expanded and applied — lay new blueprints for shipping lending.
Cargill, represented by Jan Dieleman, is also rewarded for its focus on decarbonisation.
Elsewhere, there are high climbers in the form of Igor Tonkovidov at Sovcomflot and Trafigura’s Rasmus Bach Nielsen, recognising the respective concerted efforts to champion alternative fuels.
Similarly, CMA CGM’s Saadé family shifts up, having hedged its bets on liquefied natural gas as a marine fuel, placing notable newbuilding orders that have not escaped our radar.
Maersk, too, represented in our rankings by Robert Uggla and Søren Skou, has been recognised as one of the top three influencers for its ambition to become carbon-neutral by 2050.
It continues to lead the industry by example, but is also recognised for its reinvention to stay at the forefront of container shipping as a global leader in integrated box logistics. This strategy is starting to come together.
Of course, the scale of Maersk is difficult to ignore and that deserves merit in itself. This theory also holds water with other major shipping players.
However, scale alone is not enough to catch the eye. Some players have been more active than others.
Take 71-year-old John Angelicoussis, head of Greece’s biggest shipowner and the world’s largest purely private shipowning group, who remains as engaged as ever with the market; or Idan Ofer of Eastern Pacific, leading the charge on LNG dual-fuelled investments.
Our rankings naturally feature some of the old guard, whose role and influence on the global shipping market cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, there are nine new entrants that Lloyd’s List believes warrant acknowledgement.
The highest new entry is Andrea Gacki, director of the US Office of Foreign Assets Control, known as OFAC. Although she merely oversees the mercurial policy whip-lashings of the Trump administration, the sanctions imposed on both Venezuela and Iran by her Washington office caused untold disruption to global shipping in 2019.
Geopolitics were also behind the inclusion of fellow debutants Abdullah Aldubaikhi, who heads up the Bahri tanker fleet, which hit the headlines this year when two of its tankers were attacked in May off Fujairah; and Captain Akhilesh Kumar. The master of Grace 1 found himself at the centre of a bizarre sub-plot in the story of the tanker’s detention and release.
These, though, are just a snapshot of the stories and events that shaped shipping in 2019.
Dive deeper into the rankings and there is plenty more to digest in our account of the movements from the very best minds in shipping. 2020 has much to live up to.