Sailing past Brexit: Stena chief sees new Irish Sea fleet as long-term win
Stena Line boss Niclas Martensson talks to Shawn Pogatchnik about the new ferries for its Belfast to Liverpool route
Niclas Martensson prefers to take his work with him wherever he goes - because that means he can travel by ship. By his own estimate, the CEO of Stena Line takes trips by ferry at least 50 times a year. As often as not, he chooses to travel on a competitor line, to compare practices and learn new efficiency tricks.
"Absolutely. That's a must," he says of his journeys on other firms' vessels. "If you ask my kids and my wife, they know that whenever we're travelling, my main hobby in life is to watch the ship in action, to see how each ship serves its customers. Observing how the staff are serving passengers is one of the most important things for me, because I want to ensure we're serving our own passengers in absolutely the most caring way we can."
His passion for the details of ferry travel is about to be put on display on Stena's flagship Dublin-Holyhead route.
The first of Stena's brand-new E-Flexer ferries, the Estrid, made its maiden commercial voyage yesterday, following a four-week journey from its Chinese shipyard.
The Estrid is the first of three identical E-Flexer ferries coming to Stena's Irish Sea services, with the next two slated to replace vessels on the Belfast-Liverpool route in the coming year.
Stena Line's sister ship-leasing firm, Stena RoRo, has commissioned six more from the Weihai shipyard in China; some will be leased to competitors Brittany Ferries and Denmark's DFDS Seaways.
While China provides the steel and manufacturing muscle, the ship's design is purely Scandinavian, as part of a partnership between Gothenburg, Sweden-based Stena and Finnish firm Deltamarin.
"More or less everything on the Estrid has been designed in Sweden, which makes the ship much more fantastic," Mr Martensson says. "It's much lighter and brighter, with more windows and colours, and the furniture and the interior design are unmistakably Swedish in character.
"This is important for us, because many people think that we're a British company, but we are Swedish. We want to bring the heritage of Sweden to the Irish Sea."
Stena was founded in Gothenburg in 1962 by the late billionaire Sten Olsson, whose three children and other family members own the parent group Stena Sphere, a global conglomerate with more than a dozen divisions, from metals to property.
Via a series of 1980s acquisitions, Stena Line built a vast ferry network linking Scandinavia to Germany, Holland and England.
In 1990 came its move into the Irish Sea with its purchase of Sealink British Ferries from Sea Containers.
Today, Stena operates 38 ships on 20 routes. Six connect the island of Ireland to Britain and France.
The imminent Dublin-Holyhead launch of the Estrid - barely three weeks before the UK is due to leave the EU - suggests a Brexit element to the timing.
But Mr Martensson says shipping is a much longer game, with ships ordered to meet the needs of the market for decades to come. The design of the E-Flexer class and Stena RoRo's decision to commission ships in bulk from China pre-date the 2016 UK referendum - and those ships are designed to run through to the 2050s.
"The tragic part of Brexit is that we have been working for the last 30 to 40 years to achieve the free flow of goods and people in Europe," he says. "Now we do not know what will happen."
But he says Stena, with its ownership of ports and port logistics firms, "is not just a shipping company".
He adds: "We see ourselves as an integrated part of the European supply chain. It would take a lot to damage that logistics flow and therefore I believe that what we do still will work after Brexit."
Studies of Stena's route network and port ownerships strongly suggest that the UK land bridge - the route used for more than 70% of all goods trade between Ireland, Britain and continental Europe - will remain the firm's essential path for imports and exports.
Since the 1990s, Stena Line has avoided the most crowded European shipping lanes on the English Channel, and instead has built its continental power base in Holland, where it owns the port of Hook of Holland and holds a 100-year lease on the Europort in Rotterdam.
Its cargo vessels ferry goods between those Dutch bases and two eastern English ports: Harwich in Essex and Killingholme Haven on the River Humber.
To reach the island of Ireland, continental and UK cargo can use one of three Stena Line-owned ports: Holyhead, Fishguard and Cairnryan in Scotland.
"Nobody knows if Brexit will cause problems on the land bridge. It all depends on what kind of agreement can be done between the EU and UK. One of the last things still to be agreed is the border controls. So we must wait and see," Mr Martensson says. "And I'm not a guy who wants to speculate on assumptions. I prefer to wait for facts."
Stena currently has little presence on French routes, operating a lone Rosslare-Cherbourg service as a legacy of its 2014 acquisition of Celtic Link.
Mr Martensson says he doesn't expect Stena to expand direct services between Ireland and continental Europe, bypassing the UK, as some analysts have suggested as a post-Brexit option for some goods trade currently run via the UK land bridge.
Instead, he says the solution to Brexit delays, as with so many business challenges, is to keep increasing efficiency - and this is why the Estrid and its sister ships are so important.
"We have a quite flexible fleet and can move ships around, so we are prepared to see where the demands will shift after Brexit. But we're not planning for new routes. We're focused on utilising existing ones more efficiently," he notes.
The E-Flexer class is 50% larger than Stena's current cruise ferries but - thanks in part to cutting-edge hull design and digital fuel management systems - could prove to be around 30% more efficient than the approximately 20-year-old ships being replaced. The Estrid has space for 170 container lorries, 120 cars and around 1,000 passengers. While its twin propellers will be powered by diesel, the engine has been designed to be convertible to liquefied natural gas power or, potentially, to methanol.
He sees Scandinavia as providing world leadership on adoption of green technology, and wants Stena to play that role for the shipping industry.
"We need to find a fossil-free fuel. We will not find that tomorrow, but we have started up this journey, to show our commitment to the Earth, and to find future fuels that are not fossil-based."
Last year, Stena launched a three-stage pilot seeking to develop the world's first battery-powered ferry, the Stena Jutlandica, on Gothenburg's link to the Danish town of Frederikshavn, a journey of 50 nautical miles (93km).
The project already has the ship operating fossil-fuel-free while navigating within the ports, but it has yet to complete a trip to a lighthouse between the two ports on battery power alone. "It is a must for us to develop this as a sustainable solution."
While shipping and cruise companies are often criticised in the same breath as airlines for their high emissions, Mr Martensson says Stena is determined to make sea travel the greener option. He says Sweden is already taking this view, with leisure airline travel down 20% this past summer and ferry travel up by 12%. He has already won over his wife, 17-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. Their twice-yearly family holidays invariably involve a ferry or three.
Last winter, they took the car by ferry from Sweden to Germany for Alpine skiing. "We usually go down to Italy, and it's not negotiable with our kids. We must drive down so we can start and end the holiday with a long ferry trip."
The summer was spent ferry-hopping among some of Greece's 3,000 islands.
"Daddy was very interested in the port operations and the ships. The family was more interested in staying on the islands," Mr Martensson says with a laugh. "They do have daddy's DNA when it comes to the love of ferries."