Profiles in Maritime Leadership: Ulla Nielsen, MD, V.Ships Germany
As a former master mariner with Maersk Line and currently the Managing Director of V.Ships, Germany, Ulla Nielsen was a natural choice to kick off Maritime Reporter & Engineering News’ profiles in maritime female leadership in the run up to the Women's International Shipping & Trading Association’s (WISTA) annual conference, scheduled to be held in person October 12-15, 2021 in Hamburg, Germany.
- Ulla, to start, can you provide some insight on your maritime career path?
My background is as a master mariner sailing with Maersk Line, primarily in the container vessel trade from Europe to the Far East. I then went ashore, taking up various positions within Maersk and another shipping company, before joining V.Ships in January 2019. What I've taken away from my time at sea is teamwork. (At sea) you develop some incredible leadership skills working with a team, because (at sea) you know that you just have to make it work; there is no one to call. The team simply has to work together and pull in the same direction.
- What do you see as some of the pros and cons of ascending the ranks in maritime, traditionally a male dominated field?
Personally, I don't see that I have had any obstacles, or have been hampered in my career (related to being a female in a male-dominated industry), and I've been in shipping my entire adult life. Personally, I think the balance is good: 100% women is not good, and 100% men is not good either. I would prefer a 50/50 balance. Starting a family traditionally was a reason that women did not reach all the way to the top (leadership spots), but the world is changing and I think it will even out, with more women in shipping going forward.
- When you joined V.Ships in 2019, did you join in your current position?
When I joined V.Ships in January 2019 I joined as the COO of operational excellence, responsible for covering all of V.Ships’ 12 ship management offices. At the time, we were starting a transformation of our fleet cells, which operate the vessels. Overall, we set out a strategy on how to best deliver flawless service to our customers, ensuring the same experience, the same service, the same deliverable (across all V.Ships offices). So for my first 18 months with V.Ships, that was the transformation we created and implemented throughout all 12 offices. Furthermore, we established the V.Group operating model, a single model making it simple to explain to our customers how we deliver service.
- Taking the MD spot in November 2020 was, of course, during a global pandemic … interesting timing for sure. When you look at the challenges presented by COVID, what do you see as the greatest challenge to date?
There is no doubt that the biggest challenge has been crewing. That is our people onboard the vessels that still have not been recognized as key workers, which would allow them to travel freely around the world. As an industry, we cannot be proud of this. We and our customers have worked together, but moving people around is still very, very difficult.
What I also see is that we have some mental health (problems) onboard as a result. (Seafarers) cannot go ashore and their relief is unclear; they have uncertainties with the family at home. So we are putting in a strong effort focusing on the mental health (of seafarers) onboard ships. Personally, we have 53 vessels managed out of Hamburg, and I call them once every quarter, making about five or six vessel calls every week. I'm calling the captain, and in many cases he has gathered the officers and the crew on the bridge (to listen in on speaker phone), and we a have a 10-15 minutes chat. It's not much, but I can tell that it makes a difference, knowing that they feel valued and they know that we do think about them and we care for them.
- COVID has provided many challenges, but do you see any silver linings? And by that, do you see any positive impacts on the way you're doing business that have resulted from COVID?
Absolutely, I see many. We are a large company, and I used to travel an enormous amount of time every year. But now with TEAMS and Zoom, we can (not only) reduce our travels, but when we do travel, we can still easily communicate with our teams. Now you can be on the fly, you can be anywhere and still be part of a team communication.
Also, how we have come together as a team, working together in a really smart way and supporting each other, has grown to a completely different level. As a local office being part of V.Group, I see this as a huge advantage because of the scale we have. We have received a lot of positive feedback from our customers because, as a group, we have been self-sufficient during the pandemic. Even if we couldn't travel ourselves (we have the support of our global network), so we have been able to deliver our usual standard of service.
- The context of this interview was the WISTA international conference coming to Hamburg. Can you discuss your membership in WISTA; specifically, what does it provide to you personally, professionally?
I joined WISTA Germany when I moved to Hamburg two and a half years ago, primarily for networking and support, and this year V.Ships Germany is a Silver Sponsor. So we want to support this organization and I will take up the role as a mentor (to younger and newer members of the maritime industry).
- What can visitors expect to gain from this annual meeting?
There will be a lot of discussions in regards to regulations, IMO requirements, (in terms of) what we as an industry are doing, and how we can meet (growing emission reduction requirements). I think the largest topic will be the environment, which I look forward to be part of myself, because that is our greatest focus in V.Ships and V.Group. I just took part in some commercial calls before this interview, with investors and bankers, and their main focus is ESG; it's on everyone's agenda.
For more information on WISTA 2021, scheduled to be held October 12-15, 2021 in Hamburg, Germany, visit: https://wistainternational.com/2020-wista-international-agm-conference/