The vision of Ben Vree

Recently, the Maasvlakte II in the port of Rotterdam was closed, meaning the Netherlands has grown 2,000 hectare and the port of Rotterdam by 20%. One of the companies who have settled on the Maasvlakte II is APM Terminals, who also operates a terminal on the Maasvlakte I. Ben Vree, CEO APM Terminals Europe, oversees the operations, expansion and strategic planning.


APM Terminals (APMT) is one of the leading worldwide container terminal operators, stemming from A.P. Møller – Mærsk Group. Mærsk Line is its biggest client, but APMT becomes more and more independent and is looking to do business with other customers. The company currently operates in 56 ports and has terminals in 37 countries. Next to that, it offers 155 Inland Services operations in 47 countries. The APM Terminals Europe Region is comprised of twelve operating container terminals and four in development in 13 countries handling a combined container volume of 6.7 million TEUs in 2011. It also includes 20 Inland Services operations in 18 locations in ten countries. In total, 24,000 professionals work for AMPT, of which 6,500 are employed by APMT Europe, with its headquarters in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Since 2004, the worldwide headquarters are situated in the Netherlands as well, in The Hague to be precise. Vree: “We are a Danish company of origin, but we want to show our independence from our big sister by settling in another country. Next to that, the Netherlands has an attractive investment climate.”


In January 2012, Vree was appointed CEO APMT Rotterdam and less than six months later, he became CEO APMT Europe. “I was asked if I knew someone for the job as CEO for APMT Rotterdam and I said that I was interested myself, so that is how I ended up here.” Vree has been working in the maritime industry all his life. Starting as boarding clerk in 1975, he later worked for Furness B.V. and Van Ommeren (known today as Vopak after a merger with Pakhoed in 1999). In 2000, Vree joined Smit Internationale N.V. and became CEO in 2002. During an interview with the Maritime & Offshore Career Newspaper in June 2008, Vree revealed that he planned to finish his career as a regional director for Smit somewhere in South America. Obviously, these plans have changed. “Sometimes you can’t predict the future”, smiles Vree. “I enjoyed my time at Smit. Working at a stock market listed company was exciting, especially during the take-over by Boskalis. However, the last years at Smit I was very much occupied with corporate business, I had meetings with lawyers and financial analysts instead of overseeing operations and talking to clients. I was managing expectations more than managing the company itself.”

Vree continues: “After the take-over, I was part of Boskalis’ executive board, but if you have led a company in your way for many years and another party decides to do it differently, it is better to leave. I didn’t want to sit at home, I am too young for that, but I also didn’t want to work at a competitor. In 2011, I prepared North Sea Group for the merger with Argos Oil as interim CEO and now I am at APMT, doing what I enjoy most: visiting clients and terminals and talking to the operators, managing the European network, optimising and expanding it. Basically, it is still the same plan I had in 2008, just not abroad. I enjoy not having to work always in the evenings and the weekends and I also don’t have to travel long distances as much as I used to. It is nice to be at home more often. Since I started my career, I have always been on the road. For how long I will be working? I have no idea. Not until I am 67, as the Dutch government has now determined, but I have started something I enjoy doing and I definitely want to stay here for the next couple of years.”

New terminal

APMT is currently building a state-of-the-art terminal on Maasvlakte II. Construction works are well underway and the commercial opening is planned for November 2014. The terminal will be equipped with a lot of innovative equpiment. Vree: “Building a new terminal is fantastic, setting up the strategic plans, overseeing the operations and the expansion. I am still involved in this in my current position, but now it has been expanded to the whole of Europe. All ‘groceries’ for the terminal, like the cranes and the Lift AGVs, have been ordered already.

The new terminal will be fully automated and everything will be electrical. We will use remotely operated ship-to-shore gantry container cranes, eight in total; there will be no crane drivers in the cranes anymore, they will sit behind a screen in an office and operate the cranes with a joystick. As the terminal is designed to also handle Mærsk’s Triple E ships, the cranes are so high and big, that they are too difficult to operate from above. Next to that, the crane’s movements back and forth are less good for the human body. Next to that we will be using 37 battery-powered Lift AGVs, that work op GPS. These Lift AGVs can lift containers into a rack, where the containers can be picked up by the cranes. This means more efficiency, as the AGVs don’t have to wait for the cranes anymore, but can immediately go back on their route.

The Lift AGVs are also equipped with a system that alerts when the 1,200 ton battery is empty. The AGVs then automatically go to one of the two robotic battery exchange stations where the battery is changed, automatically as well. The new system is cost-effective, as we want to stay competitive and automatic service enhances the productivity, especially with those big ships the terminal is designed for.”

Being sustainable is one of Mærsk’s vanguards. According to their website, Mærsk ‘strives to create long-term value by balancing social and environmental responsibility with the obvious need to remain profitable’. The fact that the new terminal will be the first in the world to operate with zero CO2 and NOx emission and will re-use heat from for example the IT rooms, fits perfectly in this vision. But also other terminals are greening up, tells Vree: “The existing Rotterdam terminal is becoming one of the greenest in the world as well. It is powered by CO2 neutral, wind-generated electricity, as are the terminals in Algeciras and Zeebrugge. Next to that, we try to restrict our use of energy and work on reducing NOx en CO2 by replacing current engines with greener ones, just to give an example. We build a terminal for 30 years, so I think we have the obligation to use the latest technologies in regard to sustainability. It is an emotion: SUVs were hot only about five years ago; nowadays when you drive an SUV, it is not done anymore, now it is hot to drive a Toyota Prius. These views change so quickly and likely this emotion will be instituted in the shipping industry as well. Next to that, all these investments will pay back eventually, not only in economic sense. It will also help attracting new customers, who prefer a sustainable company over a non-sustainable one, and new employees, who want to be proud of their employer: you want to work for a winner, not for a loser.”


Talking about attracting new employees, how is the situation for APMT? “In the current market in general it is easier to find qualified people than before the recession; on the other hand, people stay longer in one job and don’t switch so easy anymore. However, you need to make a difference between young people with a good education and the experienced, older people, who learned their skills on the job; these people are the backbone of your organisation, whereas the first group will easier move to other jobs. We have special programmes for preserving best practices, Process Excellence and Global Transformation programmes; in the latter, a whole team visits a terminal to explore how we can work better and more safely. This team takes their best practise experience with them and all processes are written down. We need to exchange knowledge and experiences. In case of our new terminal, we spoke to people internally and externally, to learn from their experiences and to be able to develop the new concept. Regarding new people, the port has so many employment possibilities and there is enough well-educated talent out there, we just need to motivate them, by offering internships, inviting them to the World Harbour Days, explaining what we do and how the port works. The challenge is still to involve the city of Rotterdam in the port; the port seems to be further and further away from the city, for example Maasvlakte II, and becomes more and more invisible, which means that there is less motivation to work in the port. We should think creatively about the port as a working environment to attract people to the port. How about optimising public transport to Maasvlakte I and II, for example by lengthening the metro line. The image of the port is already changing, and now we have to motivate the youngsters to come and work in it.”

The recession is also felt by APMT, according to Vree: “Of course we feel it. The container market in general has problems, the volumes are under pressure, overcapacity and a high oil price. We have to look at the costs and keep improving our efficiency; it sounds strange, but we have to improve our productivity to help ships to be able to slow-steam and therefore save on fuel. Fortunately, we didn’t have to let go employees. My vision is: reduce costs to save jobs, not reduce jobs to save costs. At one point, the crisis will be over and then the company with the best and most motivated personnel will win the battle. Stones, steel and iron can be bought, people can’t. You have to invest in your people, you don’t throw personnel away. Letting people go is a last resort as good people are the backbone of your company and important for your company’s success. If you invest in people, they take more initiative and also feel more confident to address colleagues in regard to, for example, safety issues. You create an open culture, which is ever-important. APMT has an open culture, but has not been very visible to the outside world until recently, as big sister Mærsk Line was coming to their terminals anyway. In the last couple of years, APMT became more independent, so we will need to become more visible, too. I don’t have a plan for this, it has more to do with your attitude: be open to questions, within the company, but also from the outside, be open to students and the press. Of course you can make a plan for this, but it is more a mentality issue and this mentality gives me pleasure.”

Gail van den Hanenberg

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