The family-owned Royal Wagenborg (Delfzijl) has been earning its living on the water for more than a century now. CEO Rob Wagenborg tells us about the growth possibilities for tomorrow and the opportunities for today. “Being close to salt water gives you good ideas.”
Marktstraat in Delfzijl is right next to the Handelskade West quayside. The sea air finds its way right into the little town through the tunnel in the harbour embankment. Wagenborg’s modest main entrance leads into a whole block of different but interconnected buildings. In the province of Groningen, you don’t boast about who you are or what you’ve achieved.
Inside the complex, it’s all about maritime activity. In the former boardroom, upstairs in the oldest building, the heirlooms from a rich past are a dominant presence. “That cabinet was presented to us by the Dutch shipbuilders for our 50th anniversary in 1948,” says CEO Rob Wagenborg. “Yes, back then they still had loads of money, haha... and that writing desk against the other wall comes from the resort hotel on the island of Schiermonnikoog, which our grandfather bought, once upon a time. Taking people across to the island is nice – because that’s what he did with his ferry service – but you also want to offer the trippers something when they get there … and earn a bit of extra money too.”
Rob Wagenborg is one of the fourth generation of owners and with Egbert Vuursteen he heads the family business. Time has not harmed the entrepreneurship of the current generation. Rob Wagenborg says that his mother always says that the attitude is one of “seeing and daring”. And in his own words, he says “If there’s an opportunity, we investigate it thoroughly and check whether we can take a calculated risk. There’s always a solution.”
This also applies to the challenging offshore industry with which the company has been closely linked since the end of the last century. The turning point was 1998, when the Groningen family business planted its own flag in Kazakhstan, on the Caspian Sea.
Rob Wagenborg enjoys talking about it. And he does so proudly, because the development of those activities illustrates the quiet strength of the company.
With a great deal of enthusiasm, he paints a picture of a little David confidently making his way between the Goliaths of the energy sector by providing services and knowhow that the oil giants themselves don’t have in house.
By gaining the concession for keeping the planned oil rigs free of ice, the company trumped thirty international competitors. Rob Wagenborg: “We were initially invited by the operator Shell to act solely as a consultant, but we suddenly saw opportunities. After all, our company grew up operating in shallow water and in ice.” He’s referring of course to the ferry service out to the islands of Schiermonnikoog and later Ameland.
The Caspian Sea assignment was no simple matter, but that was in fact the very key to success. The requirements and the conditions were more than just challenging. In that part of the Caspian Sea, measuring two hundred by two hundred kilometres, the depth of water is only three metres. During the long, hard winter – with temperatures down to minus 30°C – it freezes up, with an ice layer about a metre thick.
Rob Wagenborg (on the left in a yellow jacket, next to NAM Director Gerald Schotman) is a member of the fourth generation at the helm of the eponymous family company based in Delfzijl. As is usual in family businesses, potential successors are first given the opportunity to prove their worth outside their own circle. For Rob Wagenborg, who graduated in both business economics and social economics at Groningen University between 1972 and 1978, that meant working for the renowned consultancy firm of Boer & Croon in Amsterdam. After that, he did consulting work for Neelie Kroes, the then Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management. In 1985, he began working for the family business. His first position was as director of the newly purchased Kramer Transport, a company that carries out work on land, mainly for NAM. Three years later, he took a seat on the board of the parent company, as did his cousin.
When the ice breaks up and piles up into “ice shoves”, the mass of ice becomes many times thicker and forms a danger to drilling rigs and the environment.
The Groningen company came up with a solution that was both unconventional and simple. Instead of breaking up the ice in the traditional way with their bows, the ships operate in reverse and use their propellers – which can be adjusted though 360 degrees – as giant ice crushers. But that did demand a smart ship design, which was delivered through the combined efforts of all concerned. One year later, the pioneering vessels were operating in the Caspian Sea.
“To build those ships, we did have to call on all our capital,” says Rob Wagenborg. “That’s ultimately only possible in a family business like ours. You’re building for the next generation. If you really believe in something, you have to dare to really go for it. But you do of course need to have a good business partner.” The Delfzijl company now operates a fleet of 26 specialised vessels in the Caspian Sea, for both the oil and gas industry and the dredging industry.
More recently and closer to home, there’s the story of the Kroonborg, the “walk-to-work” ship that operates in the North Sea on behalf of the NAM gas and oil company. “We’ve been working for NAM for decades,” says Rob Wagenborg, “both ashore and at sea.”
That cooperation has its origin in the economically difficult 1980s. NAM was looking for a new, financially sound contractor for logistics services around the Slochteren and Schoonebeek gas/oil fields. Wagenborg was prepared to take the step so as to become less dependent on the vagaries of the sea.
But it’s out there at sea that the company still has its heart. Wagenborg was therefore delighted when NAM approached it with the request to help come up with a totally new logistics solution for maintenance work on rigs in the North Sea. The basic idea was that maintenance staff would no longer access the rigs only by helicopter.
Instead, they would stay out at sea for longer periods, spending the night on a ship that could drop them off and pick them up again in a safe and stable manner. Having both equipment and experts on board and being able to carry out both maintenance and “interventions” makes these vessels extremely versatile.
NAM’s director Gerald Schotman says that the new type of vessel is like a Swiss army knife. It needs to be out at sea three hundred days a year, it can accommodate forty maintenance workers and a crew of twenty, and it has the space on board for major repairs, storage, lifting capacity, and is safe, clean, comfortable, etc. And seasickness is practically impossible!
Ultimately it was the Kroonborg which – by no coincidence – became the successor to the Groningen company’s former flagship. “And what makes this such a successful vessel,” says Rob Wagenborg, “is teamwork. It’s about the willingness to work with people from other disciplines and to look for new solutions. It’s about the readiness to get down to work with the client in a sober, open, and solution-driven manner. Innovation is naturally about technology, but it’s even more about attitude.
“We don’t select new employees primarily because of their intelligence or their diplomas,” he continues.
”If they’re self-centred, non-communicative or pessimistic, then even the very smartest people need to go and work somewhere else,” he adds provocatively. “What matters in this business is that you’re willing to work with people who can contribute their different talents to the project.”
The success of the Kroonborg, which has now been operational for a bit less than a year, has made the company hungry for more. Wagenborg sees opportunities for further improvement of the concept. “A single ship isn’t yet a ship,” he says. “What I mean by that is that there’s room for a second ship. What is in fact happening at the moment is that the Kroonborg is being used for planned maintenance and unexpected ‘interventions’. The latter always take precedence, of course, because they often lead to the recovery of production. That’s logical but it does mean more than just scheduled journeys, with people on board who have nothing to do for a while.
“A second ship would allow us to respond to urgent jobs more smartly,” says Rob Wagenborg. “Our utilisation of both people and equipment would be increased and the time needed for a job would be shorter. So what’s wrong with that? Costs, yes, but there’s enough work to be done in the North Sea. What we need to look for is a coalition with the companies that construct and operate wind turbines.
” Dreaming aloud, he says that “those maintenance people on board and our crews should really work for both the oil and gas industry and for the wind turbine guys. That way, the costs would be lower for all concerned.”
That argument characterises an entrepreneur who sees opportunities and wants to take action. “Do you know the story of Chronos and Kairos?”, asks Wagenborg. “The first of these ancient Greek mythical figures stood for sequential time – you still find his name in the chronometer. We are actually more allied to Kairos, who stood for the right time and had to do with seizing an opportunity. Ultimately, you need both of them. You have to stand back in order to see when it’s the right moment to act. That’s in our company’s DNA. Just look at my great-grandfather. Somebody unexpectedly offered to sell him a ship and he grasped the opportunity, without even having his captain’s papers. Within ten years, he’d paid off the ship. He was an opinionated man: a freethinker, teetotaller, and vegetarian. That belief in your own decisiveness and brainpower is still to be found in our company. And being close to salt water gives you good ideas.”