Lars Rolner, Managing Director of United Shipping Group, talks exclusively and openly to Joanne Kelleher of BBN.

Challenges

“Challenges? No challenges.” In a time when there seems to be only talk of challenges, it was uplifting to hear Lars Rolner honestly describe 2020 as a year of hardly any challenges and say “presently we actually do not have any large challenges either.” Admittedly, the MD goes on to concede that of course ship managers and crews have had and still have challenges in respect to crew changes due to COVID-19, and that it is an important problem which quickly needs to be resolved.

With regard to ongoing challenges facing the shipping industry, the founder of UHL suggests that we will see more focus on the environmental impact that sea transport is causing.

“In the coming years substantial investments will have to be made in order to comply with regulations and also to fulfill the requirements of clients. It will for sure be a challenge for the MPP and Heavy lift owners. The average age of the MPP fleet is said to be above 20 years, which in itself will become a problem. Unfortunately a poor market which lasted for 10 years does not leave room for large investments,” Rolner says.

For United Heavy lift, it has been an impressive year. “In February, we took-over nine F-900 Eco-Lifters within four weeks. We had to ballast a number of vessels from South America, USA and Africa into position for loading and then COVID-19 struck. Numerous clients declared force majeure, as they could not get their cargo into ports and we faced very high costs as a consequence. Our QHSE team quickly worked out contingency plans in order to comply with the requirements of the health authorities in various countries, and for certain projects slow steaming was introduced in order to comply with the 14 days quarantine required to avoid the spread of COVID-19.”

Since then, the company has been able to operate without any interruption. “The home office set-up has worked well, and there are daily team meetings amongst the various departments and offices. We had our Christmas gathering online. It was a great experience also having the vessels joining the party!” Rolner said.

Opportunities

With every challenge comes opportunity, but with so few challenges is the United Shipping Group faced with fewer opportunities? A number of prospects were seized by the group last year. It’s hard to keep up.

First was the nine vessels they took over from Zeamarine. “Last year we reacted very fast in order to secure the F-900 vessels. They also happen to be the most fuel efficient and versatile heavy lift vessels in the market. All vessels were fully employed last year and we have a backlog of orders we have for 2021, we are confident that we will get through this year without problems”

Then there’s the newbuilds. “We have already taken delivery of the first of eight new buildings. The vessels have a large intake, 26,500cbm in the hold and a deck space of 130 x 25.6 metres.The shallow draft and the max LOA of 149.99 m is also a competitive advantage.”

Rolner continues, “On top of this, the vessels are fuel efficent and have a very low consumption rate, between 30 -50% lower Co2 emissions compared to many of the existing fleet. Their average consumption is 20 tonnes of fuel per day at 15 knots, but it is possible to reduce that to 12 to 14 tonnes when slow steaming.

We are aware that many of our clients have started to focus on reduction of Co2 emissions and it is great to be able to support their requirements.”

When United Heavy Lift receives five more ships this year and the last two newbuild ships in 2022, they will control a fleet of 25 specialised vessels, of which 17 are identical vessels, which Rolner tells us, is an advantage when planning and executing projects.

And finally, there is the partnerships, some of which began before last year. “We have been building up United Heavy Lift (UHL), United Wind Logistics (UWL), United Engineering Solutions (UES) and United Heavy Transport (UHT) over the past five years. It has been a very fast growth which was only possible due to the partnerships we made.”

The four separate business centres operate in different complementary markets. “The core of our company is a strong engineering team, in 2016 we founded United Engineering Solutions (UES),

which is headed by Managing Director Capt. Philipp Tietjen and Managing Director Capt. Hendrik von Brauchitsch. Today we have more than 50 engineers and port captains in our group.”

In 2018, Lars Bonnesen became partner and CEO in United Heavy Lift (UHL). He has a long history in the project business and with his knowledge they have expanded their network globally.

Recently, UHL won the Akita Noshiro offshore wind farm project in cooperation with SAL, who had the lifting capacity for the largest units and UHL had a larger intake on some of the voyages. Akita is the first offshore wind farm in Japan and will have 33 wind turbines with a capacity of 139 MW and be able to supply power to 130.000 homes.

United Wind Logistics (UWL)  headed by Managing Director Christoph Puschmann, was founded in 2016, and in 2018 they partnered up with Fred Olsen who acquired 50% of the company. The past four or five years have seen renewables take-off with the size of cargos increasing year on year. Boldwind and Bravewind both built in 2020, are used to carry wind turbines, blades and nacelles.  Rolner says UWL recently acquired a third ship, the 10,000-dwt VestVind built in 2016 which had previously been on bareboat charter.

Then…“In 2020 we delivered two deck carrier new buildings to one of our key clients. These vessels are state of the art design. We avoided heavy fuel and chose for MDO, urea injection was added, which reduces the NOx emissions by  95%, and catalyzers were implemented in order to burn diesel particles. Further, the vessels have electric propulsion and we are in the process of upgrading the vessels with a hybrid solution.”  

United Heavy Transport (UHT) headed by Managing Director Andreas Rolner was established last year as agents for a fleet of five purpose-built semi-submersible heavy transport vessels for Guangzhou Salvage (GS). “We have had an amazing turnover on that account and we have now established an office in Houston. UHT is also responsible for Offshore Wind foundations and have performed large scale projects last year, mainly in Taiwan, we shipped all the foundations including monopiles and jackets for the Formosa 1 offshore wind farm and our enginnering team designed the grillages and custom lashings. We are also executing the Formosa 2 project later this year.”

Regarding the groups partnership with Ocean 7, Rolner describes it as strategical. “We see many owners who operate 15 to 20 vessels with expensive offices around the globe, it is not economically viable. With our partnership we are controlling a total fleet of 40 vessels, which gives us a much stronger position in the market and drives down the operational costs.” United O7 has shared offices in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Japan and Norway.

“United Marguisa is another partnership where we use each other’s strengths to gain a stronger position in the African market.”

2021

2021 started with another partnership deal. “This year, we have partnered up with Gustav Zech Stiftung who have contributed with the 17 F-900 Eco Lift vessels. The Guztav Zech Fond has acquired 50% of the shares in United Heavy Lift. We see it as a strategic partnership and having secured the F-900 Eco Lifters for 14 years provides us with a strong position in the market.”

When asked if he is open to further consolidation, Rolner says “We are always open-minded if we can achieve a better position in the market. We are on an expanding course; I suppose one of the largest expansions you have seen in the heavy lift market in recent years. We will always be looking at opportunities.”

Rolner sees loading a ship full of containers rather than project cargo as a temporary opportunity, “The vessels are container fitted and when there is an opportunity, we use it!  We have a bottom line to think about. Right now we have a vessel sailing from Shanghai to Hamburg full of containers. This is a product of increased consumer spending in response to COVID-19. I don’t see this is a long-term prospect.”

Change

While discussing the need for change in the shipping industry, Rolner explained that innovation is a key driver, and so is the environment.

“Presently we are working on a project implementing batteries to make our UWL ships hybrid vessels and our next target is to implement fuel cells in the design of the vessels.”

The company has also developed an innovative lashing system, which enables their vessels to load various components on the same system, meaning the ships can depart a loading or discharge port 30 minutes after the last piece of cargo has been loaded. All material is being reused and significantly contributes to lowering the operational costs of the vessels.

“We have our engineering team constantly working on vessel optimisation and design in order to be a front runner when it comes to innovation and lower emissions.”

To keep on top of it all, Rolner says they have a rather flat organisation where partners and employees take responsibility. “The average age in our company is around 35 years which means that we have a very young and agile team.”

Things appear to be looking good for the United Shipping Group. For now, Lars Rolner is sailing on an uplifting wave of positivity and growth, and leaving challenges for dust.

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