Seeking Solace in Ships

How BBC Chartering Won Over MPV Veteran

By Carly Fields

His resume reads like a Who’s Who of the multipurpose vessel sector. With stints at AAL Shipping, Rickmers-Line and then Zeaborn, and now BBC Chartering, what Ulrich Ulrichs doesn’t know about MPVs probably isn’t worth knowing.

But before his appointment as chief commercial officer at BBC Chartering – the steppingstone to his current CEO posting – Ulrichs was seriously considering a move out of shipping altogether.

In an exclusive interview, he confides to Breakbulk that he had reached the point of needing to constantly motivate himself in the industry. “It was difficult,” he said. “When I left Rickmers/Zeaborn I didn’t know if I wanted to do this again in this sector.”

Little wonder that Ulrichs confessed to feeling a “little tired of the market” in his previous position. While he started his career at Rickmers in 2005 in what proved to be shipping’s halcyon days – the bellwether Baltic Dry Index reached its historic peak of 11,067 in 2008 – he has also lived through the pain of the global financial crisis and the sustained challenge of meeting the decidedly downcast new normal of multipurpose ship operation. This tumultuous market ultimately led to Rickmers’ demise, allowing the then-new kid on the block Zeaborn Group to swoop in and swallow it up, taking Ulrichs in too. But when Zeaborn founded a joint venture with Intermarine to start Zeamarine, Ulrichs decided it was time for a new challenge and left the company.

The experience led him to take five months off to truly take stock of his career options, including those outside the shipping sector. He explains that he wanted to think outside of the box.

“During that time, I traveled, met with friends, and sought advice from mentors. I played sports for two hours every day, and spent time thinking about my future. I talked a lot with people; it was an enjoyable time – but there were some really big decisions about my future that were hanging over me throughout,” he said.

Hand of Fate

In the end, fate may have played a hand with his decision to stay in breakbulk. Ulrichs’ family hail from the Leer area, home to BBC Chartering, so he knew the mentality and the culture of people from that area.

He’s also no stranger to family-run outfits: the Rickmers family has been in the shipping industry for more than 180 years; BBC Chartering is owned by the Briese Group, headed by naval architect Capt. Roelf Briese. “BBC was kind of a match,” he admits.

Ulrichs said that he had a “good look” at BBC before he made his final choice, and praised the team for being “super supportive and welcoming” of him when he started in May 2019. With a year under his belt at the company, Ulrichs is able to reflect on the main challenge of the role: the mammoth size of the fleet. BBC has a fleet of more than 150 ships, ranging from 4,325 deadweight tonnes to 56,800 dwt and capable of lifting up to 900 tonnes. According to Drewry, BBC deploys the world’s largest MPV fleet in terms of dwt capacity and number of ships. The company has six ships on order, two to come this year and four next year. BBC needs an average of six to eight ships every year to maintain its fleet size.

“It’s a much larger fleet than I have managed before,” Ulrichs says. “It’s huge and in one day you cover the number of topics that would have been covered over a month in previous roles.”

While he admits to putting in long hours, he has found the role interesting. Key to his success in the position has been his willingness to involve staff in the decision-making process. “I ask for the opinions of senior people in the business, then decisions are relatively transparent and acceptance is high. It’s a well-oiled machine,” he says. And while his management style is different to former CEO Svend Andersen, people have, he says, got used to him. Andersen had been with the company since its inception in 1997. “Sometimes I do have to fight my corner,” Ulrichs says. “But I have good people around me and the support of the BBC family.”

Secrets of Success

But what makes BBC Chartering different to the other carriers that Ulrichs has been involved with? After all, year-on-year, the promised upturn of the market has failed to materialize. Ulrichs says BBC’s stoicism is down to a combination of factors.

Firstly, the company was not built up overnight; it has been going a long time. “This has provided a strong culture which is very positive and where people help each other.”

Secondly, the company size means that it is truly active in every market. “So when one trade lane goes up, another goes down. That means we can react and benefit from trade wars, for example.”

Thirdly, it is a family-owned business. “That factor was important to me in my decision to join BBC,” Ulrichs says. “The family is very aware of what’s going on and is very involved in the business.”

Fourthly, the focus is on cargo and putting cargo first. “BBC doesn’t book cargo for a specific ship. We book for the cargo and can be super flexible.” Here, the diversity of the fleet is a strength with its mix of small and large tonnage. “I think that mix and size has allowed BBC to have a different approach to cargo.”

Ulrichs does, however, acknowledge the “very tough market,” coupled with the challenge of securing funding from shareholders and investors who are aware of the risks and ready to fund until there is an upturn. “Risk is very high in shipping generally – so many people have got it wrong in the past. My duty as a manager is to ensure awareness of the risk and a timeline. Then people can decide if they want to take that risk.” A passion for shipping and knowledge can certainly help, but only if it means that those at the top understand the risk, he adds.

And while margins are undeniably slim for MPV operators, Ulrichs works on the mantra that the margins are still there and it’s entirely possible to make a living on lots of small margins if you avoid making mistakes. Here, he’s in perfect synch with the mentality of staff at BBC: “They always have confidence that they can still make a living.” Added to which, there is still room for greater efficiency in operations.

But BBC is not willing to share. When asked about possible consolidation, Ulrichs answers with an emphatic “no.” While there might be an interest in specific ships, BBC has a certain way of thinking that is unique to it, so finding a perfect match in a partner is a tough job. “To have different systems, different company cultures and different ships that do not suit us do not make sense,” Ulrichs says.

BBC’s new CEO has come a long way from the university student “sent” to Plymouth, UK, to learn English on the advice of his professor. With 20-plus years of multipurpose ship operations under his belt and an international career spanning roles on three continents, Ulrichs appears to have found his calling in BBC in his hometown.

Carly Fields has reported on the shipping industry for the past 20 years, covering bunkers and broking and much in between.