INTERVIEW | DFDS’ Torben Carlsen on keeping safe, staying afloat through challenging times

Photo: DFDS/Moby

Interferry CEO Mike Corrigan recently interviewed Torben Carlsen, CEO of Danish shipping company DFDS, to talk about his personal experience in running a business and keeping safe amid the Covid-19 pandemic and other challenges.

What has the first year been like for you as the CEO of DFDS?

The change was bigger than I had anticipated, even though I had already been with DFDS for a number of years. I accepted the challenge after having worked closely with former CEO Niels Smedegaard as his CFO, but I immediately felt a different kind of pressure since it had been easier for me back then to give advice to somebody else making the big decisions than to accept advice from others and make the big decisions myself. I also had to deal with looking for a new CFO and other team members, but I believe I have succeeded in this regard and I even managed to delegate some of my responsibilities to my team.

I had the benefit of having been in the CEO position for about nine months by the time the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, so I didn’t have to make any major adjustments in my new role after this crisis began. Like with everyone else, we were shocked as we had thought Covid would never reach our shores. Now that it’s here, my team and I have been given an opportunity to coordinate more closely through daily calls at first before moving on to calls made every other day with the goal of identifying how we could manage our current situation.

I introduced the policy of video logs throughout our organisation wherein we gave updates to our employees. We had to furlough about one-third of our workforce, so around 2,800 people were at home not knowing whether there would be jobs waiting for them when they returned. The policy of video logs, in my opinion, turned out to be a very efficient way of updating our people on what was going on.

By the start of April, after we had decided to suspend our passenger operations, we were beginning to see just how bad the pandemic was affecting our business, and we had actually contemplated “turning the keys” over to the banks and our lenders. In hindsight, it seems odd that we had harboured such thoughts during the early days of the crisis, but we knew our employees and our customers appreciated our efforts to keep them and the company safe so that we could continue operating in spite of what’s been happening.

Could you please provide an update on how your business has been faring during the pandemic?

Our freight operations were adversely affected especially since the pandemic had led to the cessation of manufacturing activities throughout Europe, and so we had significantly fewer goods such as textiles and automotive related components to ship compared to before. We had to lay up 17 of our vessels, but we nonetheless decided to keep our operations running while taking all possible precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus and thus keep our people safe. I believe we are successful in that regard as we have yet to disrupt our operations due to health issues.

Our operations in Turkey were hard hit after that country’s currency hit a record low against the Euro in July. Our import volumes had dropped significantly compared to the satisfactory figures we had achieved in January and February, so now for us, it’s a matter of starting all over again just to be able to achieve the necessary numbers. Fortunately, we have been in business with our partners in Turkey for two years now, and I believe the resulting cooperation has played a key role in enabling our operations to continue amid this crisis.

Our vessel crews and our other ferry workers have also been doing a tremendous job sustaining our operations despite the risk they put themselves in whenever they come in contact with our stakeholders. I suppose no one, even from outside DFDS, knew in the beginning just how dangerous the virus would become, but our people were still out there, doing their jobs diligently and faithfully. This is all being done by them despite an ongoing problem especially in Denmark wherein anyone who is even suspected of interacting with a person confirmed to have Covid-19 is subjected to unfair discrimination in some circles.

For the first couple of weeks after the pandemic broke out, we were uncertain whether this meant the end of DFDS as a business. But I think our decision to focus on keeping our people safe and on delivering essential services enabled us to form a picture of how our company would look like once the crisis is over, and this has motivated us to do what we can to keep our business afloat.

How are you holding up amid the challenges you’ve been facing in running the company during the pandemic?

Even with the heightened pressure I felt when this crisis began, I used this period as an opportunity to begin working even more closely with my new team, and our becoming more familiar with each other’s capabilities helped relieve me of some of the uncertainty. I also learned that getting enough physical exercise each week does wonders for one’s mental ability, and so I’ve been setting aside enough time for that to better prepare myself for the hours I spend at work.

Click here for the other news, features and reviews comprising this month’s Passenger Vessel Week.

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