Karin Orsel

Karin Orsel: Collaboration and embracing diversity are vital for shipping's future

Published: 18 May 2022

MF Shipping's CEO and President of the Royal Association of Netherlands Shipowners sees continued collaborations within and outside shipping, and tackling broader diversity issues will help shipping weather the combined challenges of Ukraine and decarbonisation

The maritime industry is close to Karin Orsel's heart. She was only at the start of her twenties when she started what has today developed into MF Shipping – forging a unique trajectory at a time when young women were expected to take a very different path in life. No one day is the same, she says, and this isn't surprising when you look at the impressive roster of roles she holds: CEO of MF Shipping Group, President of KVNR, the Royal Association of Netherlands Shipowners, Board Member of BIMCO, Board Member and Chair of the International Chamber of Shipping's (ICS) Diversity Panel, Executive Board Member of INTERTANKO, Vice Chair of ESCA, the European Community Ship Owners Association, Trustee of ISWAN, International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network, and former President of Women In Shipping Trade Association (WISTA).

There “is never a dull moment” in shipping, she notes, something shipping likely feels in need of after the last few years have seen the industry weather COVID-19, the crew change crisis and a major upheaval of the global supply chain, now further compounded by the Ukraine war.

As CEO of a global ship management company and head of a shipowners’ organisation, Orsel is uniquely placed to have strategic oversight of the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. She notes that at the beginning of the pandemic there was a “huge gap in communication” in maritime, between organisations, across the supply chain and also, importantly, with government departments tasked with developing health strategies to deal with the pandemic.

Lessons were learnt quickly, she says, and shipping promptly set up regular cross-maritime meetings with major organisations and regulators. This vital work continues amid the current geopolitical crisis. “You can see now with Ukraine that luckily all the industry bodies are doing the same thing, joining forces, setting up meetings, talking to all the regulators.” It is not about one organisation, Orsel stresses, “it is about our global industry and making sure we recognise and help to resolve the impact this is having on our seafarers and their families.

Weathering the storms

MF Shipping employs around 1,250 people and, as for many companies, crewing has been a concern throughout the pandemic, although largely operating and managing short sea lines meant they fared better than others. “By having short sea lines, we were able to manage quite well and didn't face huge problems, for example, with vessels not being able to go to drydock. The current Ukraine situation, however, is somewhat different.”

Fortuitously, MF Shipping has not had a major impact on its operations as its oil and chemical tankers do not operate on trade routes in Russia. Like so many, it is, however, having to navigate the complexities of employing a large portion of its seafarers who come from Ukraine and Russia. A crew welfare coordinator, hired during the pandemic, is now being deployed to assist those crews and their families, and keeping the seafarers updated on family members that have managed to escape to the Netherlands or other countries. However, the possibility that 15% of the workforce will be unavailable to shipping is “one of our biggest concerns,” Orsel says.

The industry must continue to engage with governments to stress the importance of access to crews from major seafaring nations, Orsel says. She notes this is where collaborations set up during the pandemic, with major ship managers, shipping organisations including BIMCO, ICS, Intertanko, and unions, continue to push forward this important work.

Increasing shipping's influence

Old ways of working and keeping largely to itself are no longer a viable option for shipping. As Orsel points out, traditional routes into governments for shipping have been via transport departments, yet during the pandemic it was health departments leading decisions on the closing of borders and vaccine protocols that precipitated the crew change crisis. There is an increasingly urgent need, Orsel agrees, for shipping to increase its influence in the political sphere to better advocate for the needs of the industry. This is particularly vital as critical decisions are made about decarbonisation and shipping's ranking in the hierarchy of national decarbonisation policies, investments, and access to alternative fuels and ultimately zero carbon fuels is being decided.

Orsel's own approach to decarbonisation is forward-thinking and embraces innovation. For MF Shipping's green plans, she notes they analysed and improved on energy efficiencies ahead of incoming regulations such as the Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) and the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI). The company also built two of the first general dry cargo vessels with dual fuel capabilities and in its next phase is looking to commission new builds powered by battery.

Initiatives such as the Poseidon Principles, greater discussions around ESG and shipping organisations calling for net zero carbon emissions all help to accelerate the green transformation in shipping, she says. Yet the majority of shipping companies, that do not have the deep pockets of the multinational giants, will need the support of governments, she adds. Again, cooperation is needed, not just within shipping, but across different transport modes, the supply chain and with the energy sector to get the “green deals done”, she says, continuing: “We are too segmented and too small to achieve this mammoth task by ourselves.”

Embracing diversity

It is clear to see that Orsel's penchant for collaboration and diversity that first attracted her to the shipping industry underpins her leadership style. Former president of WISTA and current chair of the ICS Diversity Panel, she is now recognising the need to take a step back and support the incoming younger generations and the positive changes they are ready to make.

“There are more women in higher, visible positions, including at BIMCO, and this is positive as having such role models does make a difference,” she says. “But now it is the next generation that needs to step up. and we can support them. I have a lot of faith as there is a lot of new talent out there. While much positive change has happened, there is still a need for many to set KPIs not just for women but also diversity in a broader perspective.”
Charlotte Lord


Charlotte Lord

Chief Communications Officer

London, United Kingdom