"Shipping is a people business." Theo Xenakoudis
In a market dominated by news of disruptions in shipping operations (i.e., travel restrictions for seafarers, which have been affecting crew changes, etc.) and possible risks to established supply chains due to COVID-19, we have the honor of hosting this timely interview with Mr. Theo Xenakoudis, Director, Worldwide Business Operations and Managing Director of the Piraeus office of International Registries, Inc. (IRI), which provides administrative and technical support to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) Maritime and Corporate Registries.
As of 30 April 2020, over 4,715 vessels fly the RMI flag. Not surprisingly, around 1,000 of these vessels are managed by Greek shipping companies. The RMI Registry is one of the largest in the world and a preferred registry for foreign flagged vessels in Greece.
[ Parenthetically, as someone who has been to Majuro and has done business at Majuro (acting as Liquidation Trustee for two tuna fishing vessels by order of the High Court of the Marshall Islands), I have been fascinated by the country and my experience there. Even more amazing was learning that the Marshallese have been expert celestial navigators for thousands of years—they could precisely sail with outriggers, going from one tiny island to another in Micronesia and the Mariana Archipelago. Such navigational skills were passed on verbally through the generations and over the centuries. It is evocative for an island nation so rich in navigation (and so important a hub for tuna fishing in the Pacific Ocean) to have become one of the most active ship registries worldwide. Basil Karatzas]
Q: Theo, thank you for your consideration for this interview, especially now, when operational matters with ships demand a great deal of your time to address logistical issues on behalf of ship owners and managers. From your front row seat as a ship registrar, what are the biggest disruptions and risks you have seen in shipping operations since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mr Theo Xenakoudis (TX): COVID-19 has been tough for everyone, particularly seafarers. COVID-19-related travel restrictions around the world have forced many seafarers to extend their tours of duty. Having already spent many months onboard, and then having to face an unknown extended length of time is tough: it can have a profound impact on both mental and physical health. We are concerned that this could have a cascade effect on safety, and we have echoed the calls by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other leading bodies to designate seafarers as “key transport workers,” thus allowing them to disembark and travel home by air.
Ship inspections are another challenge we are working through. Many inspections have been disrupted by the inability to get inspectors onboard. The RMI Registry is allowing for temporary alternative inspection arrangements when an in-person inspection is not possible. In these instances, the regional Fleet Operations Manager reviews the performance history of the vessel and company and decides whether to reschedule the inspection for a later date, or to conduct the inspection remotely with crew interaction. We’ve already completed more than 230 remote inspections, with another 122 in the pipeline. Remote inspections are labor intensive and require extensive coordination and planning.
We have set up a COVID-19 information center with the latest marine safety advisories and directives online at www.register-iri.com/covid-19/.
Q: Recently, cruise ships have been in the news most prominently as many countries are hesitant to grant them permission to dock, even as a port of refuge. At times like this, the flag State gets to play a greater role, and one gets to see the different level of services—tangible and intangible—that flag States get to play. For the benefit of our readership, could you provide us with a synopsis of the services that a flag State provides on behalf of a ship and a ship owner and manager?
TX: We provide hands-on support and reassurance to large and small vessels in the cruise sector. There are very few cruise ships currently completing schedules. The Registry’s cruise clients have all suspended their operations, but navigational crews remain onboard these vessels, ensuring their well-being, and the continued safety and maintenance of these vessels is crucial. From a regulatory perspective, super yachts and cruise ships are subject to the same challenges, and the same rules and regulations as the cargo fleet. Crews need to be changed, vessels need to be inspected, and documentation needs to be provided.
A flag State, through its ship registry, imparts nationality to a ship. A ship’s nationality indicates which rights it enjoys, what obligations it may be subject to, and the laws of the State that govern it. The flag State must ensure that the vessel complies with national and international law. This is achieved through interaction with classification societies and similar organizations, vessel inspections, and casualty and detention investigations. As mentioned above, annual safety inspections are conducted to ensure compliance. RMI has an extensive worldwide network of nautical inspectors to help our fleet achieve high standards of safety and operational excellence and we continue to do this through the temporary alternative inspection program. A flag State also provides ships and their crews with the necessary documentation to trade, including manning certificates that set forth the number of crew required to serve aboard the vessel, certificates for officers showing their competence and training, seafarer identification documents and record books, and ship radio licenses. One of the most critical roles the flag State plays is to provide technical support and advice. We have technical experts in many disciplines, including naval architects, engineers, surveyors, and safety and environmental protection to help answer questions, support compliance with global and regional regulations, and to keep owners up to date with Port State Control (PSC) activities.
As one of the largest the flag States in the world, we also represent the interests of our owners and operators at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). RMI participates in all the major committee and subcommittee meetings, and we are proud of the active support we offer to our clients through activities at the IMO. During these days, however, meetings have been postponed, but our team has been participating in the Secretary General’s virtual meetings.
Q: What is your standing with the various port State control regimes, and how does this impact your owners?
TX: For owners and operators of all classes of vessels, flying the flag of the RMI is a mark of quality. They benefit from our very strong relationships with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and port authorities, and the fact the RMI Registry has maintained an excellent PSC detention ratio in the US and worldwide. Our three-year rolling ratio for detentions is just 0.79%, which is well below average. We retain a high ranking on the Paris and Tokyo MoU whitelists.
We were recently awarded the USCG’s QUALSHIP-21 certification for the 16th consecutive year, and approximately one-third of all QUALSHIP 21-certified vessels are flying the RMI flag. This speaks to the high quality of vessels in our fleet, and by extension, the vessels in our fleet are deemed, generally speaking, to be of lower risk to most PSC authorities. It’s also important to note that none of the other major registries like Panama or Liberia have this distinction.
Q: Besides acting as a ship registrar, IRI has also been active as a corporate registrar for offshore companies. And, judging by the number of maritime lawyers who have been flying to Majuro in the last years to pass the local Bar, I suppose you are a busy corporate registrar as well. What are the main advantages for companies, especially shipping companies, registering in the Marshall Islands?
TX: With 36 business entities listed on either the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ, the RMI has become the jurisdiction of choice for many multinational entities.
The RMI is a modern, stable corporate jurisdiction that provides the flexibility and efficient service required by corporate users. The jurisdiction is considered to be largely compliant with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and compliant with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The RMI is also currently whitelisted by the European Union. This is in part due to the economic substance regulations that the RMI implemented.
All non-resident domestic business entities registered in the RMI are governed by the RMI Associations Law, which is primarily modeled after the corporate laws of the US state of Delaware.
Q: To the extent possible, could you provide us with a quick analysis of the Greek fleet flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, as well as the international fleet flying the flag of the Marshall Islands? What is the most unusual shipping asset under the RMI flag? And the most expensive?
TX: As of 30 April 2020, there were 4,715 vessels totaling 174,495,517 gross tons (GT) registered with the RMI. In terms of vessel numbers, 35% of the fleet is represented by bulk carriers, 27% are tankers, 13% are yachts, 7% are containerships, and 4% percent are offshore vessels. However, by tonnage, the figures break down this way: 39% are bulk carriers, 34% are tankers, 11% are containerships, and 8% are gas carriers.
I am particularly proud of the fact that the RMI Registry is a leading flag of choice for Greek shipowners. Approximately 21% of Greek-controlled vessels fly the Marshall Islands flag.
I don’t know whether it’s unusual, but we are proud to flag the world’s first wind assisted ship propulsion ultramax carrier, the M/V AFROS, and we have some of the world’s most exclusive megayachts, including the FB275, a 108 meter Italian-built yacht.
Q: What ship registries do, or can do, to effect change in the shipping (and other) industries, especially under the current ESG (Environment, Society, Governance) guidelines, global warming, etc.? For instance, the Marshall Islands Registry has been one of the most vocal and proactive registries for lowering emissions, etc. How much power do registries have to effect change and bring other constituents in the industry into line?
TX: Ship registries, under the umbrella of the IMO, help develop the international regulations that ensure shipping is safe, secure, and meets environmental standards. Ship registries play an absolutely critical role in effecting change in the shipping industry, representing the interests and voices of ship owners and operators.
RMI has its finger on the pulse when it comes to the complexities of international maritime-related regulation. The Registry is well placed to offer insight and expertise, contribute constructively to the drafting of regulations, and assist owners to adapt and comply with changing regulations.
Supporting our representatives at the IMO are a wide range of in-house teams of experts, including, for example, our Worldwide Gas Team. This team was actively involved in providing insight relating to liquefied natural gas (LNG) bunkering for the transition to the 2020 0.50% sulfur emissions regulations (MARPOL Annex VI).
Q: Like many Greeks in shipping, you come from a family with a long tradition in shipping, both as seafarers and ashore as shipping executives. What made you follow in their steps? What made you take up a career in shipping and not in another industry? What aspects of your job as a Ship Registrar / shipping executive do you find most appealing?
TX: It is true that I come from a seafaring family, and I’ve always been interested in the world of shipping. My father, Captain Costas Xenakoudis, spent 40 years at sea and then joined IRI in 1994 and, together with Captain John Giannopoulos, set up a seafarers’ licensing and documentation system, the fundamentals and principles of which are still in use today. In those days, the office also conducted flag State inspections in Greece.
I genuinely enjoy my job—I get to meet interesting people from all over the world, and I have been able to travel a great deal and experience things that I wouldn’t experience in a similar role in another industry. It is also a very interesting time to be working in this sector and have a ringside seat on the big issues that are impacting each of us.
Q: Depending on how a “Greek” shipowner is defined, “Greeks” control, by some estimates, 25–35% of the world’s merchant fleet. This is amazing for such a small country that lacks the financial backbone of other shipping centers (e.g., New York, London) or the industrial might of other maritime nations (e.g., Japan, Germany) or the manufacturing muscle of other maritime clusters (e.g., China). What has made Greeks the market leaders in this industry? What’s the competitive advantage of Greece in this industry? Is it the passion for the sea? The penchant for trade? The amount of industry expertise available in Piraeus? Intuition? Hard work?
TX: That’s a great question and one I really don’t know the answer to—I would say all of the above. Shipping is certainly a passion for me, and something that we Greeks have enjoyed throughout our long history. Also, Greece is one of the best shipping clusters in the world and that makes a difference in our industry. Obviously, we’ve been doing it well for a very long time: today’s Greek professionals stand on the shoulders of giants. I think shipping is in our lifeblood, and we are proud of our shipowning and seafaring heritage and how we continue to lead our industry. I think it is this spirit that sets us apart.
Q: What do you see the biggest challenges for the Greek shipping industry going forward? In the next decades, will “Akti Miaouli” be as integral to shipping as it is today? The fabled story of the self-made shipowner who left his arid island in the Aegean to become a seafarer and make it all the way to Captain and ended up with a fleet of 5 or 10 bulker vessels—is it still viable? Will “Akti Miaouli” have the same connotations for the industry as “Fifth Avenue” does for shopping, “Wall Street” for the capital markets, and “Fleet Street” for publishing?
TX: I think we live in a completely different world. Today the barriers to entry are high. The level of complexity in shipping operations is higher than ever before, while at the same time global regulations are more stringent and financing more tightly controlled. But Greece, Athens, and the Akti Miaouli are still at the heart of the shipping industry. The Greek maritime community has always demonstrated an ability to adapt and to flourish. We are seeing so much innovation from maritime-related companies here in Greece, and I am sure this ingenuity will continue. I am certain that Akti Miaouli, where our Greek office is located, will always be a central hub for the maritime community.
Q: Where do you see shipping in the next decade? There are many concerns that innovation and disruption, not to mention the new phase of shipping finance, will make shipping just another cog in the supply chain in which big shippers like Amazon would set their own new terms. Will people go to the office to operate ships, to charter ships, to look after crew management, etc., or will everything be done by an algorithm fed to them by Amazon and the like?
TX: Shipping is a people business—one which is built on relationships. An algorithm can never replace that. However, our industry is evolving, and the ability to share information and use big data is at the heart of the digital innovations sweeping the sector.
What is important, from our perspective, is that change is carefully managed and regulated. The maritime industry has robust structures in place to do this, and certainly IRI will continue to be involved in helping to assess, regulate, and implement changes. This is particularly true in managing environmental regulations and the implementation of digital technologies and processes to ensure that any requirements are safe, fair, and fit for their intended purposes.
Thank you for your time and insight. It’s been a pleasure to have the benefit of your industry expertise in these challenging times.
Mr Theo Xenakoudis is Director for Worldwide Business Operations at International Registries, Inc., based in Piraeus Greece where appr. 1,000 ships fly the Marshall Islands flag.