ICS Secretary-General lends a hand to global consensus

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton

10 January 2019

International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) secretary-general Guy Platten has done a lot of travelling since he took up the post last August. Most of that has been to visit ICS members, who are national shipowners associations across the globe so he has shaken a lot of hands in the past few months. In a few weeks’ time, “I start the whole process again”, he told me during a reception held in its London offices on 7 January, where the heading photo was taken, nominally marking Twelfth Night as business gets back to normal at the end of the Christmas period.

He has an enthusiastic handshake. As we met, his hand swooped to grab mine as if I was a long-lost friend. It was a welcoming and inclusive greeting and I commented on it when we found a quieter spot for a chat. To my mind, the head of an international organisation should be personable and approachable; someone that people are pleased to meet, and I said so. A handshake that can convey all that in an instant is a clear asset.

Guy Ics

“I enjoy people and I like to think that I can get on with most people and can speak to people at all different levels,” he said. “That is an important attribute of the job.” It is probably stretching a point to think that his handshake got him the job, but for a role that involves finding consensus among members with a range of views and priorities, first impressions can make a difference.

Over the next 20 minutes, our conversation often returned to the importance of people, especially those who work for ICS and support its work. One of his initial briefs when he was appointed was to look at the organisation’s strategy, but that was second on his list when I asked him about his initial priorities. Number One was to get to know his staff.

“The level of expertise we have among the secretariat is a wonderful resource for the industry,” he said, citing colleagues’ knowledge in areas ranging from technical, environmental, safety, and navigation, to piracy, migration and employment affairs.

But work on the plan soon got under way. “We’ve now got a good five-year strategy, at least in draft form,” he told me. That draft covers some broad themes: how to increase the organisation’s influence, how to ensure that IMO regulations are practical, how the organisation can serve its members better and increase the services it provides, such as its publications. “And lastly, to make sure we are sustainable financially,” he said.

“Shipping and trade has lifted people out of poverty”

With guests gathering in the next room, there was not enough time to explore all those goals, but I was able to get a sense of what he has in mind about a few of them.

‘Influence’, for example, packs in a range of ideas. First, there is ICS’ role in developing maritime regulation, which has a long history. In 1961 it became the first non-governmental organisation to be granted consultative status at IMO and Guy said that one of the most important parts of his new strategy will be to make sure that whatever regulations IMO develops in future, “shipowners can work with and live with them, or to be able to adapt to them.”

It is a comment that has echoes in an article on the ICS website, in its excellent Key Issues section. It is called The Future of IMO and, although undated, was clearly written sometime after March last year but before Guy took up his post. It is well worth reading in full.

“Over the past 20 years or so, ICS has observed an inexorable ‘politicisation’ of IMO debates,” it says. It refers to “the intrusion of the politics of climate change” and links this with a trend for “many of the government delegates attending IMO meetings [to be] drawn from environment ministries rather than being transport officials with specialist technical knowledge of shipping.”

I brought this up with Guy and he was quick to stress that “we believe fundamentally in the principle of the IMO. It is absolutely essential. I wouldn’t do anything to try in any way to demean that.” The item on its website makes a similar point: “ICS does not question the good intentions behind proposals that are made by IMO member states,” it says at one point.

But it is clear from the article and from Guy’s comments to me that there are concerns. “What we have to constantly do is to make the case for the shipowner” and push for pragmatic and sustainable regulations. “I think that’s where the ICS really comes into its own,” he said.

Another aspect of ‘influence’ is to reach beyond the specialist shipping community to politicians who are developing shipping policy so they understand the importance of shipping to world trade. “Shipping and trade has lifted people out of poverty,” Guy said.

So “I think we have [as much] right to talk about geopolitical issues as we do to talk about the intricacies of the sulphur 2020 cap or ballast water management,” he said, “particularly now, when we appear to have a number of potential trade wars and other types of protectionist measures being introduced around the world.”

Guy was formerly chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping so I wanted to ask about his transition from that role – where he represented the interests of one nation – to his new one, where he has to offer a global view. “When the ICS comes forward with a policy position, regulators, media and others can be assured that this is the position of the industry,” he told me. But how does he discern the industry’s position on any particular topic? Is he constantly asking member associations what their regional shipowners think, in some sort of global referendum?

No. “Building consensus can sometimes be challenging with different viewpoints,” he said, paying tribute to ICS’ board, which meets three times each year, and its committees, which each focus on a specific aspect of shipping policy. The secretariat carries out research and issues discussion documents to its membership for feedback.

So “we are constantly talking to people and understanding positions,” he said. “We listen and our positions evolve.” In many cases, what appear to be opposing views, he said, “at the end of the day aren’t opposing views. Everyone’s saying the same thing but in different ways.” But establishing those view is clearly an art, not a science. “I couldn’t write you an ISM procedure on how to build consensus,” he said.

As my time ran out, I challenged Guy on one of the ICS’s recent statements. It was about autonomous ships, about which ShipInsight has carried a number of important stories in the past two months.

“I couldn’t write you an ISM procedure on how to build consensus”

In October 2018, ICS issued a press release about a study conducted on its behalf by the Hamburg School of Business Administration (HSBA) about the potential effects of autonomous ships on the role of seafarers and the global shipping industry. ICS gave its release the headline ‘Separating fact from fiction’ and quoted Guy as saying that, although “clear opportunities might arise for the shipping industry which may not exist today, much more work must be done … to address concerns about the impact of MASS [maritime autonomous surface ships] on seafarers employed worldwide.” Yet it was not clear to me what ‘fiction’ it was referring to.

Guy has an obvious interest in seafarer concerns. He began his career as an 18-year-old deck cadet and continues to have an interest in onboard management through his daughter, who is a captain on a Red Funnel ferry that links the Isle of Wight off the UK’s south coast to the mainland. So the topic is close to his heart.

The ‘fiction’ he said, is “the idea that we’ll have fully autonomous ships in the next five years” with no need for seafarers. His fear is that, as publicity about autonomous ships becomes more widespread, it will affect recruitment. “We want young people to come into our industry for a career and if they think their job will be gone in three years’ time, they’re not going to do that.”

Based on the HSBA report, he said, “that clearly isn’t going to happen” and the view that jobs are at risk from autonomous ships had to be ‘debunked’, he said. Ships and their technology will evolve and “seafarers’ skill-sets will change and evolve as a result.” And recruitment is essential “so that there are people equipped with the right skills to do the job properly.”

We are back to the topic we began with – people – and the number of people now waiting next door for Guy to say a few words of welcome would be enough to crew a few large vessels. So we brought our conversation to a close with, of course, a handshake.