Anglo Eastern Group’s executive chairman Peter Cremers looks back on a sparkling career and the creation of one of the world’s greatest ship management companies.
Anglo Eastern Group’s executive chairman Peter Cremers was born in Hasselt, a small town in Belgium’s Limburg province in 1949. Almost as far away from the sea as it is possible to be in Belgium, nevertheless, due to a branch of the family being involved in barging, Peter was barely six years of age when he first set eyes on the great European ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. During school holidays he would frequently head off on one of the barges and witness the crew offloading cargo from the Congo, which was a Belgian colony until 1960.
Back at school the merits of a good education was drummed into the lad by his father, a teacher of physics. One of his brothers went on to be a teacher too but when entering university Peter broke the mold and had his mind set on a career in electronics.
“Electronics was a sexy subject back then [1960s]. But after my second year a university professor sparked my interest in naval architecture. There were very few students on the course but that was an attraction in itself. It meant that I was getting virtually one-on-one tuition. I thought, why not?” he explains.
After completing a course that would equate to a MA today, Peter was soon accepted at a Belgian shipyard beginning what at first appeared to be another false start.
“I began in the engineering department, which as a naval architect is a bit of a disaster. It’s not really what you want. You want to design ships, right? You don’t want to design engine rooms and pumps.”
But, in a relatively short space of time he found himself in charge of the whole engine room design department. This would later prove to be useful when, much later he went in to ship management.
“I’d done a bit of naval architecture and design, propellers, engine rooms, hydraulics you name it. With hindsight it gave me theoretical and hands on experience of the industry, which was a useful grounding for my future career.”
Some 20 years later the past was to catch up with Peter when Anglo Eastern managed four ships built for the Canadian shipping firm, Fednav, designed by him and his team at the yard in Belgium. There’s a twinkle in the eye and a laugh when he recalls friend’s derisory comments on the ships’ quality and design.
First steps in ship management
In the event Peter was to stay just five years at the shipyard before he was looking to new horizons. In 1980 he joined the ship management division of Belgium’s Coblefret Group. Five years later and he was on the move again and Anglo Eastern came tantalisingly into view for the first time.
The CMB Group in Belgium acquired 50% of Anglo Eastern and they hired me to run it from Hong Kong,” he says.
“We started with just 12 ships. For the next 10 years Anglo Eastern Ship Management was basically an offshore Belgian in-house ship management company for the CMB Fleet. This was the time when the Belgian flag and Belgian seafarers became expensive, so it made sense that all new CMB tonnage was managed through the Hong Kong subsidiary rather than from Belgium,” he adds.
Founding a philosophy
In the story of the Anglo Eastern Group this was an important time that had an influence on the company’s strategy to this day.
“For the first ten years of our life this company only had to provide a good service at a competitive price level. But money making from this company was not there.
“I only had to make sure that the people in Belgium, my owner’s customers had a good service from us. And when we entered third party ship management we brought the same thinking to the operation. Not profits first, service has always been the main driver. I can say today profits are still not the main driver. And that is probably what makes us different from the others,” he explains.
The team takes over
During a short period between 1995 and 1997, Hong Kong’s now iconic dry bulk specialist Pacific Basin Shipping owned Anglo Eastern before passing it to a Malaysian concern in 1997. It was a significant year for Hong Kong when the territory returned to Mainland China. It was a red-letter year for Peter, too as it was the time when he and his management team of Marcel Liedts and Richard Wong bought the company out for an undisclosed sum.
“We needed money at the time and managed that by offering 24% of the shares to eight of our Indian colleagues. And that has been the strength of this company ever since. We were 11 people with a common purpose. I even got away with reducing their salaries in the early days as we fought for a position,” says Peter.
“We have had the same strong team for 30 years,” he adds.
Peter recalls that in the early days of Anglo Eastern clients came to a ship manager to get cheap crew and cheap overheads. Today, he insists the company sells expertise.
Back in the day small was beautiful. Then it was thought that 45 ships was the optimum size of a ship management company. But in the last ten years, with the advent of more efficient back offices with many automated processes the thinking has been turned on its head and large ship managers have an economy of scale that pays dividends when purchasing equipment and services.
The extent to which Anglo Eastern gets involved in crewing the vessels has evolved over the years. But the company has had a firm commitment to India as a source for seafarers since 1985.
“From the beginning we started with Indian seafarers on board and Indian superintendents.
“This was something entirely new when CMB owned most of the company.
“I was still working in Belgium when the first capesize was crewed by Indians. In those days a Belgian guy came on board a ship for four months and from that moment he was counting down the days before he could get off. With the Indian seafarers it was different. They saw the ship as their home. Being there was their life. That is why today we are so big in India. The superintendents, the people who helped buy the company were Indians. We have always been deeply rooted in India,” he says.
The reader would probably have gathered by now that there is going to be no unveiling of secret formulas for the running of one of the most successful ship management companies in the world. Peter insists there are no secrets. Anglo Eastern has no use for consultants with five or ten year forecasts and plans. Instead he maintains that with a small board comprised of close friends decisions are made as to the most appropriate next move based on prevailing conditions of the company and the wider market.
Anglo Eastern may not have a long-term strategy but it does have a philosophy.
“A basic philosophy of our company is that wherever in the world there is somebody who wants to work for us, they should be able to walk into an Anglo Eastern office from the first day. That has been a policy decision and as a result we control 95% of our crew.
“We want our people to be part of the system from the beginning. We employ 28,000 people and I’m pleased to say 27,000 of them have been recruited through an Anglo Eastern office.”
In addition to a number of training centres around the world including the Philippines, India and Ukraine, Anglo Eastern opened the first Maritime Academy in Mumbai in 2010.
“This is an example of a natural first step in this direction rather than any long-term strategizing,” says Peter.
“We train 400 cadets every year, from high school into cadetship. In a few years from now a large percentage of our officers would have been working with the company since the age of 20, he adds.
Anglo Eastern pulls off largest ship management merger
Although long-term strategizing may not be the norm at Anglo Eastern, Peter admits that the audacious takeover of one of the world’s first third party ship management companies, Hong Kong-based Univan in 2015, was not an overnight decision. He even hints that the idea may have been discussed with Univan’s founder Captain Charles Vanderperre before the latter’s death in 2009, when Peter was chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association. Ultimately his own secession plans appear to have been the catalyst for a move that many in the market had rumoured even before the deal was struck.
“I was very impressed by Bjorn Hojgaard, when he took over as chief executive at Univan. You could say it was an expensive way of acquiring a new chief executive,” he jokes. “But it went deeper than that. The family that owned Univan had always shared with us the same way of thinking that a ship management company should be run.”
Described at the time as the largest ever merger of independent third party ship management companies, the deal came with an addition of around 100 ships to the Anglo Eastern fleet, which today stands at more than 600 vessels. It was in effect a game changer that set off a number of similar deals in the ship management sector in the years that followed, though none as large as that undertaken by Anglo Eastern.
Although Peter is now considering altering his title from executive chairman to simply chairman, and taking a bit of a back seat, it is to be sincerely hoped that there are no plans to sail (a favourite pastime) off into the sunset anytime soon.