Thecla Bodewes, owner and CEO of Thecla Bodewes Shipyards, has been named Port Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 Port of Zwolle. Winning the award is important for the region, according to Bodewes, which heavily relies on cooperation. She expects Dutch shipbuilding to overcome the corona crisis and a leading role for sustainable solutions.

Bodewes succeeds previous title holder Nutte Visser of MCS Terminals. Her international shipyard group specialises in the construction of coasters, pusher tugs, sea-going tugs, dredgers and passenger ships, among other things.

What does the title Port Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 Port of Zwolle mean to you?

‘This title is a tribute to all the people who work at our shipyards. The award is important for the Zwolle region in order to put its ports on the map. The Port of Zwolle not only covers Zwolle, but also Meppel and Kampen. Zwartewaterland with its three ports still has to be added to that list as well. Amsterdam did the same with Zaanstad, Beverwijk and Velsen/IJmuiden. Collaborations in the region make ports stronger and make them better known.’

What were the highlights of your career?

‘Merging different shipyards as we now have in Kampen, Meppel, Harlingen and Stroobos. Because of our “Dutch common sense” (Hollandse nuchterheid), we sell what we promise and our Dutch ships are known all over the world as “fit for purpose” with a very good second-hand value. Ports have to work together more and more in order to develop. It was nice to see that Port of Antwerp, Port of Rotterdam and Port of Amsterdam were present at the Port Dinner in Zwolle (Havendiner Regio Zwolle). This again shows that partnerships, in and especially outside the region, are important. In the form of joint ports, Port of Zwolle is a player for these leading ports. They probably would not have come for the port of Meppel alone!’

Which developments were less positive?

‘The credit crisis between 2007 and 2009 had a considerable impact on our sector. There were few orders at that time. This impact can still be felt today. Shipowners are still trying to regain confidence in our sector from the banks and that is not easy for the large investments needed for fleet renewal.’

‘Nesec, a shipping finance institution, provides loans to companies that purchase seagoing vessels. The company TCG is also working on a so-called “Green Shipping Fund” to finance sustainable, future-oriented ships. Initiatives of this kind are desperately needed because the fleet worldwide is old and polluting.’

You are now Port Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 Port of Zwolle. What did you get out of this title?

‘The title strengthens the regional ties with the authorities, but also with the regional business community in particular. I always say “what you can buy from your neighbours, you shouldn’t buy far away”. We like to work together with suppliers from the Netherlands and mostly from the north of our country. The efficiency and innovative entrepreneurship as we know it in the Netherlands cannot easily be found elsewhere. This is reflected in the ships we build. We are well aware that we always have final responsibility, but also that without that cooperation with suppliers we won’t win any titles. It’s also nice that, after the Port of Antwerp dinner, I was invited by the senior management of Port of Antwerp to come and talk about sustainable ships. Maybe we can work together.’

In 1998 you became the owner of Thecla Bodewes Shipyards. What are the biggest changes from then until now?

‘We have expanded from a small shipyard in Hasselt to four medium-sized shipyards. We also broadened our local clientele in inland shipping to an international clientele in sea and inland shipping. A development in the field of digitisation are the smarter “Power Management systems”, which make ships use less fuel. For example, skippers sailing on heavy fuel oil are looking at alternative, sustainable fuels or scrubber systems. These developments are mandatory due to global regulations. This is a good development. For us as shipbuilders, it is a challenge to adapt the designs to meet the emission requirements, but also to save fuel so that the investment can be earned back. The challenge lies with the shipowner, because sustainable ships require an extra investment which makes it difficult to make a return on investment. It should be the responsibility of charterers to compensate for this in the freight rate.’

You’re the seventh generation Bodewes, so it’s a real family business. To what extent is a family business different from an “ordinary” company?

‘We also consider employees who have worked with my grandfather, father and me as family. The focus is always on the long term. It is important to stay awake and open to knowledge from outside the family. Every function in the company is performed by a person who has the required capabilities; family or no family.’

‘Nothing is clear yet about my successor and what the future looks like in that respect. Of course I am proud that one of my children is studying Maritime Engineering in Delft. He has chosen to do so himself without any influence from his mother. Maybe it is a Bodewes addiction after all, but he is allowed to determine his own future. That’s what I did.’

You also have another company: Maritima Green Technology. Why did you start this?

‘Maritima Green Technology has been part of Thecla Bodewes Shipyards for over ten years. With this company we focus on new technologies, sustainability and employee training. It is good that our employees learn to work with other, sustainable materials, such as aluminium or stainless steel. An example of this is a project that was carried out together with the artist who also designed the MH17 monument, Ronald A. Westerhuis from Zwolle. At Maritima, we have also built floating drones for the seismic industry, as well as two hydrogen-powered ships. This allows us to experiment without disrupting our commercial shipbuilding activities.’

What does the future bring?

‘The future is never entirely certain. Look at the impact the coronavirus has on the economy today. A storm that we must overcome together and which is not easy, but which the Dutch maritime industry has always been capable of in the past. However, there is already a great demand for ships, especially sustainable ones. Propulsion by means of small generator sets that can eventually be replaced by LNG, CNG, methanol and batteries. Eventually hydrogen will become the norm, is my personal vision. In short: sustainability is important, certainly in the future.’

This article was first published (in Dutch) on Nieuwsblad Transport, a sister publication of SWZ|Maritime.