Growth on Irish Sea routes has been plain sailing for ferry company despite air competition
Stena Line route director Paul Grant tells John Mulgrew about the ferry company’s positive start to the year, the challenges of doing business and why the region needs to stand on its own two feet
Stena Line’s Paul Grant has been with the Swedish family-owned ferry giant for almost 30 years — and he’s been there through the good times and the bad.
The 48-year-old route director began his career with the ferry company after leaving college, joining what was then Sealink aged 18.
“They decided to take me on, and put me through university,” he said. “I did my master’s degree at Jordanstown, and I’ve been to Cornell University (in the US).”
Paul has worked across a range of areas of the business, from reservations to working on ships.
“I kind of worked my way up,” he said. “I was in charge of all sales and marketing in UK and Ireland for a number of years, and then I became route director in 2008.”
The past few months have been good for Stena Line, with a 3% boost in freight traffic helping the firm to what Paul describes as “a really strong start to the year”.
The company boasts a workforce of around 960 staff across its Irish Sea operations.
Belfast is its largest hub, with seven ships making around 22 daily sailings between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
It links the city with Cairnryan, Heysham and Liverpool, with a combination of foot passengers and cargo.
Stena Line’s Cairnryan port, which was officially unveiled by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in 2011, cost the company £80m.
Despite the increase in competition from low-cost airlines over the past decade, which has pushed air fares down, people still use ferries.
“From our perspective, yes, we have had low-cost airlines come in, but people still need to travel by ferry,” Mr Grant said.
“It’s our freight business that’s also massive here. We carry almost 499,000 units between Northern Ireland and Britain. It’s up significantly.”
Stena Line’s Scotland route is predominately tourism-based while Liverpool is mostly freight and the Heysham connection doesn’t carry any foot passengers at all.
“There is still good value for foot travel,” Paul insisted. “But predominately, our business is with cars.
“We’ve seen recently that the P&O Larne to Troon service has ceased, but I guess that’s symbolic of the ferry industry, which is always competitive.
“Our costs generally increase, and you are seeing pressure for ports to increase their charges, and there are external factors.
“There’s always a delicate balance. The number of ferry operators... they tend to chop and change. The great thing about Stena is Stena has made a long-term commitment.”
The firm is due to carry more than 1.4 million people across its Irish Sea routes this year.
It also carries more than 300,000 cars across its various links each year.
East Belfast man Paul attended Royal Belfast Academical Institution before starting his career with one of the world’s biggest ferry firms.
And while Stena has reverted back to using more traditional ferries, the so-called Superfast ships are nonetheless decked out with a range of lounges, spas and saunas.
But it hasn’t been all plain sailing for the business. Following its move to Belfast, in 1995, it launched its then flagship HSS ships. While Stena enjoyed several years of success with the model, increased running costs eventually made the link unaffordable.
“That was driven by oil prices, and our ability to carry more freight,” Paul said. “The HSS was a great product in its day. Oil prices at that time killed the concept. Its ability to carry freight was much more restrained.”
The two HSS ships, which were built at a cost of £65m each, have since been sold off for a small fraction of their original value.
Paul — who is a father of two children, Amy (23) and Beth (17), and married to wife Lois — said the biggest challenge the industry faces is maintaining profitability.
“Rising costs and pressure on prices... those are the biggest problems that most businesses face, and we’re no different,” he added.
Stena’s need to cut costs came to a head last year, when the Belfast Telegraph revealed the firm was slashing pay for its casual workforce and for new permanent roles.
Members of staff employed on zero-hours contracts saw their hourly pay drop from £8.41 to £7.60, representing a decline of almost 9%. New permanent roles starting in January 2016, meanwhile, were hit with pay cuts of up to 24%.
“It’s very simple,” Paul said. “If you look at it, we are the only ferry company that predominately employs British seafarers.
“We had a situation where the salary levels and so forth were too high in certain positions. What we have done — with the unions and with the support of our staff — we have brought in new rates which are competitive for the service industry and for the transport industry.
“We are among the best payers (in the industry) and have the best terms and conditions in our sector.
“At some stage, when you are making changes, there are going to be some people who won’t like them.”
Any further job growth will be based on how the business performs this year.
Stena Line has grown from three ships to seven here in the space of just a few years.
“From our perspective, we will always be looking at tonnage, we will always be looking at new route opportunities and where the growth opportunities are,” the route director said.
Paul’s boss is Dan Sten Olsson, the founder and top brass of the family-owned Stena company of which the ferry arm is just one part.
It is a multi-billion pound business that also includes off-shore drilling, property and recycling.
“We went through a long period of time where our routes between Northern Ireland and the UK weren’t profitable,” Paul said. “He (Dan Sten Olsson) had the foresight and commitment to make the right investments to turn the business around.”
And looking forward to where Northern Ireland’s own tourism industry could be in five to 10 years, Paul said: “I hope it will grow, but you know something, it won’t unless we go out and promote ourselves.
“We in Northern Ireland need to go out and beat our drum. Belfast has done a good job, but it has to keep promoting itself.”
But he added that companies cannot continue to “rely on Government and handouts” in order to grow.
“Stena has been going a long time,” Paul said. “It’s a family business and that’s down to good business decisions by the owner, by the board and by the management of the various groups within the organisation.”
This time it’s personal...
Q. What’s the best piece of business or life advice you’ve ever been given?
A Don’t be afraid of new challenges — there are always people around you who’ll want to help.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone just starting out in business?
A Surround yourself with good people and listen to other points of view.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A Being involved in acquiring the superb Stena Superfast ships for our Belfast to Cairnryan service. This route had been struggling for a long time with the wrong type of tonnage, but today it’s fulfilling its potential.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A Hopefully, something similarly interesting in the travel industry, albeit at school my first career choice was forensic science. I think I made the right choice.
Q. What are your hobbies and interests?
A I like to keep reasonably fit and am a regular gym user, rather than a fanatic. It’s a great way to start the day — a little energy boost that helps to keep me focused, whether working from the office or travelling.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A Two teams. Spurs and Malaga FC. It’s fantastic to see Spurs playing so well and I’ve recently bought a season ticket for Malaga FC.
Q. And have you ever played any sport?
I was an enthusiastic footballer at school, however, I quickly realised that my enthusiasm dwarfed my ability and it was never going to pay the bills — a good move.
Q. What was your last holiday and where are you going next?
A We’ve been spending a lot of time in Marbella, hence the Malaga season ticket. I quite fancy Cuba for the next adventure and I still love Scotland — the scenery is just spectacular, all year round.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A I’m enjoying the Alex Ferguson book on leadership, and for a chuckle I love Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series. Reading is a great way to fill the travel gaps.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A Normal Belfast boy growing up through the Troubles. It’s great to see how Belfast and Northern Ireland have changed and continue to change. We’ve come a huge way in a relatively short time.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A Doubt that I’d be any more accurate than other sages. I’m hopeful for economic growth, but for Northern Ireland and any business this won’t just happen — we have to help shape our own future, not rely on others.
Q. How would you assess your time at Stena Line?
A I’m almost 30 years with Stena Line and it’s been a great privilege and a fantastically rewarding company to work for. We’ve created some of Europe’s best ferry services and it’s an organisation that’s always changing and looking forward. I’m immensely proud to work for a company with such strong values and long-term vision. Being a key transport facilitator for the Northern Ireland economy is also something which gives me and my colleagues locally a great sense of pride.