Headquartered in Hamburg, DNV GL is the world’s leading classification society and a recognized advisor for the maritime industry. The company also helps customers improve the cost effectiveness and availability of their fleets through advisory, training and software services that crunch large amounts of data to help make the best decision at any given moment. Greece, with its long maritime history, is now the group’s regional hub for southeast Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Regional chief Ioannis Chiotopoulos explains the industry’s spectacular progress in recent years, and the challenges that still lie ahead
You bring considerable experience to the position, which you have held since 2015. How has your past work for DNV GL helped you with your current job?
I have been with the group for 20 years, 10 in China and six in Korea, and the main thing I bring back from my far east experience, is the certainty that nothing is stable, everything flows. We have been through many changes throughout this time, and we have overcome many obstacles, learning to be resilient and move forward regardless of what is happening around us. This kind of skill helps in any environment, as being resilient makes you adaptable to change.
What are your goals as Regional Manager for South East Europe, Middle East & Africa?
My main focus is to establish Greece as a home market, which was a company global initiative. As soon as I arrived back home in 2015, I got a call from the CEO and was asked for a plan, which we drafted, and in a few weeks’ time I was asked to implement it. This initiative rests on several pillars, such as to enhance communication with Greek owners, to hire new people, to develop our R&D policies in Greece, to establish a business development center, and to create a decision-making center in Greece both for technical and commercial issues. All these measures have now been established and we have had a very good market response. We had about 15% of the market share in gross tonnage when I arrived, and now we are at over 17%. This figure fluctuates depending on several factors, but we have seen a continuous positive trend, and my focus now is to maintain that and enhance it as much as I can. But to do that, people must be motivated, because people are our biggest asset, and training and education is a key element in our company. In our line of work, a lot depends on the individual business relation with the customer, as there is a lot of face-to-face time. How you communicate is therefore of the utmost importance.
What was the rationale behind choosing Greece for this global role?
We mainly focus on maritime activities, and that has a lot to do with the Greek fleet and its composition, Greek shipowners, the age profile of the vessels and the quality level of the companies. When I left Greece back in 2000, vessels used to be on average 20 to 25 years old and quality was not always the priority, so I was constantly working to solve really serious problems. But by the time I came back in 2015, there had been a complete transformation of the local industry: Greek companies now have the youngest fleet in the world as well as the biggest one, and it is continuously growing. At the same time the number of companies is shrinking: in 2002 there were roughly 1,000 companies, and now there are around 550, yet the gross tonnage and number of vessels is increasing. The quality standards have become extremely high, and some of these companies have become role models for others around the world. They have developed in-house a lot of software and digital tools to help their own operations, and they are very highly regarded in the industry globally. They are a jewel in the crown of Greece.
How did that transformation come about?
Behind that huge transformation there is a lot of hard work by professional people, which upends the perception of Greeks as not being very hard-working people. They are extremely hard working and at the same time very well educated, and for all of these reasons it made sense for us to make Piraeus our 3rd maritime center. The expansion into Middle East and Africa is very challenging on several fronts: geography, military and trade wars, sanctions, travel restrictions, health issues… In a way this is a vote of confidence in our leadership here in Greece, which has been entrusted with management of the most challenging countries in the globe, and we are doing just fine. We are very proud of that.
Do you have any activities outside the maritime sector in Greece?
We mainly focus on maritime because of the vast number of vessels controlled from Greece, but we have also established an oil and gas unit very recently and there are plans to expand it further as we are seeing a lot of movement in the sector, including projects in LNG and exploration in the western Peloponnese and others. We have a strong feeling that natural gas will be the prime mover of energy in the years to come. It may not be the perfect solution for decarbonization, but it is much better than what we have now.
What are your main lines of work in the maritime sector?
We provide classification services and we also have an advisory arm that gives clients the tools and resources they need to solve non-class items. We have tools to help them make sense of the huge amount of data they are receiving, and which is currently in many cases their number one problem. Owners need to know how to use the data to make smarter decisions, and we provide the tools and the education to make that happen. We have an academy with around 3,000 attendants a year and 100-plus courses, to create the proper environment for all this to flourish. We attach great importance to human capital, and in a period when everyone was reducing personnel, we were increasing it. In 2015 we were around 65 people and now we are 85, and we have a lot of interns, around 15 per year, who learn from our in-house experts and some of whom may later be offered an opportunity to join the company.
What global trends are impacting the industry right now?
One trend is out of my league, which is market volatility tied to geopolitical uncertainty. This uncertainty is creating a lot of hesitation when it comes to investment. Another important issue is the fact that we are experiencing a data revolution: we have enormous amounts of information coming in from thousands of sensors via satellites and into computers, but often it is hard to make sense of it all. And the other trend is the decarbonization / regulatory targets, which are very ambitious, as we have to decrease the intensity by 70% by 2050 and total volume by 50% compared to 2008 baseline. This is not feasible right now, and new technologies must emerge for that to happen. We are involved in many programs and worldwide initiatives to determine which technologies can be implemented and whether they are scalable in a big industry such as ours. This requires time, as you need to create ecosystems of companies to sculp this pathway into a sustainable future.
What are some of the specific tools you are using?
We have a carbon model comparing the various designs of vessels to see how compliant they are with future legislation. We also have a program showing all LNG bunkering stations and where alternative fuels are available, so you can make any decisions you need regarding gas use. We also have a program called Cossmos, which configures and designs engine rooms to make them more efficient based on thermodynamic principles. We do technology qualifications, LNG risk assessments, and we have a free web application to demonstrate due diligence in terms of the safety risks of the fuels that clients will use. All of this helps the industry to decarbonize.
You launched a data analysis platform named Veracity in 2017. Do you believe that data is the currency of the future, as has been said in the past?
Data was always important, nowadays we have billions of data sets coming in and various programs to analyze them, but how do you make decisions based on them? How do you make all this data useful? This is where Veracity comes in. You can plug in various programs and data sets from various equipment/programs, and we create interfaces and user-friendly outcomes, filtering out the non-essential items and keeping the things that you want according to your own needs, combining your information with data from other providers. This helps clients make decisions on solid facts and trends, and also helps them justify the decisions they may have previously made. You can create very dynamic results when you can combine a lot of data like that.
What other digital tools do you offer clients?
We know what vessels are sailing around the world and where, we know when they have a service to do and what kind of service this is including the tests they must pass. We also know all the ports around the world and the services they can provide, we also know our worldwide network of offices, where our people are, when they are available and what skills they have. So if a ship owner tells us his vessel itinerary, we can by combining all above databases propose: if you need to do this and that, there are no service facilities where you are planning to have the service, plus that port is remote and expensive; why don’t you go to this other place instead where the cost is lower, you have everything you need and everything will be more efficient and take less time? By combining our databases, we can find the most time and cost-effective solution for each client.
We also have electronic certificates to replace paper ones, and most flags have accepted it except a few, like Greece. In Greece we still need to take every certificate to be stamped at various offices before being validated. But in most of the world this long process is over: the certificates are in the cloud. It seems though that the new government is taking the right steps to overcome above.
We were the first ones to do it, and we are the only ones to have a live system that allows us to update information and fix errors in a matter of moments. Thanks to technology, we can also have experts looking remotely at your ship and telling you how to fix your problem through a livestream conference, and you no longer need to have specialized engineers traveling on the ship in remote places and adding cost, which is something that nobody wants to do these days anymore anyway. All these tools are game changers.
How do you see your company elevating the profile of the country as an investment destination?
Greece is blessed with very good weather, wonderful beaches, great food, and highly educated people. But there are downsides: sometimes we don’t work together enough. My strong belief is that if we can find a dynamic to channel all this positive energy in a common direction, we can work miracles. An investor wants a secure tax environment where the rates will not change every six months. They want properly educated people to manage their business, and Greece has that, plus the wages are competitive. Greece also offers a secure environment to live in, which investors also want. But investors also want no bureaucracy – and that is where the problem lies. After 16 years living abroad, I could write a book about bureaucracy in Greece and my personal experiences when I returned from Fareast, and we need to address this issue like it was an enemy coming at us. In our sector, the laws are incredibly complicated, with some of them dating back to the 19th century. We are trying to help the ministry map all the existing shipping laws, align them with international regulations and standards, and guide them in order to get rid of burdens created by centuries of accumulated legislation.