When CFL was still an idea forming in his mind and Kees Koolhof was negotiating with the Canadian and American governments for a licence to operate his yet to be built vessels on the Great Lakes and the rest of the Hudson Seaways, the novice was welcomed with little enthusiasm and much reserve by its future competitors. CFL was to be incidental; a minor player that owing to its lack of scale would soon collapse in the grim state that international trade was already in at that time.
Now, more than seven years later, CFL is busily working on expanding its fleet of 15 newly built vessels and is regarded as an example of a anti-cyclical investor with a better than average grip on economic and environmental developments. Kees Koolhof and his fellow-directors have access to the most influential decision-makers in international maritime transport and finance, they co-operate with contractors and service providers all over the world, have set up a global commercial network and formed strategic partnerships by means of intelligent matchmaking, and employ more than 250 seagoing crewmembers on contract and a lean support staff of 25 fte’s in their Groningen- and Amsterdam-based offices. All in all, the former new kid on the block has come of age and is definitely here to stay.
‘We have grown in every respect,’ admits Kees Koolhof, when confronted with this introduction. ‘What started as a wild idea of realizing a boy’s dream has become a day-to-day reality with, for the shipping industry, a rather unique focus on market niches and a innovative approach to creating capacity that meets the demand. As CFL we have benefited from the fact that we are relative newcomers and carry no burdens from the past.’
> Pioneering entrepreneur
Above all Kees Koolhof is a pioneer. Born in Groningen, a northern province in the Netherlands and well known, among other things, for a long tradition in shipbuilding and for the stubbornness of its inhabitants, a young Koolhof choose to become a marine entrepreneur.
He set up a joint venture with his former partner Spliethoff to transport luxury yachts all over the world. Although he still has a say over this successful business, Koolhof eventually used most of his earnings to achieve his ultimate goal: setting up a new shipping company of his own with a fleet of newly built eco-friendly vessels sailing under the Dutch flag. The pioneer culture has never left CFL since and the company is still loyal to many of the original ideas of its founder and present CEO. For instance, CFL has a reversed approach to the markets in which it operates. Where other shipping companies try to sell the capacity of their fleet, CFL is always looking for market segments that require specialized transport solutions. Therefore CFL is strongly involved from day one in co-designing and building the new vessels that it operates and is constantly rethinking the size and composition of its fleet.
‘Our added value in the market place is that we have the flexibility to immediately respond to market developments. For instance: when the demand for bulk and container capacity diminished, we were already focussing on shifting our capacity to project cargo, such as components for windmills and offshore platforms. Our second generation vessel, the Sole, is especially designed for this. Because of the unique configuration for a vessel of its size (10,000 dwt), it can transport odd-sized cargoes up to 70 meters in it's single hold and it has the ability to self-load and unload in areas with low infrastructure and strict environmental regulations.’
Whatever happened to the original idea of operating ships in the seaways between Canada and the US?
‘Officially we are still in the loop for an operating license, but we have moved on since. However, we have indirectly benefited from it. Why? We had to design a multipurpose vessel that can operate in polar conditions and is also fuel-efficient and eco-friendly. Our experience with operating the Jumbo Type vessels helped us to take the next step from there and create the Sole and the Caranx. Both types of vessels have a green label and a very precise focus on various niche segments, and therefore earning higher yields on average.’
> On course
What kept CFL on course?
‘We have a strong belief in what we stand for and are successful in convincing our partners that this is the right track. Naturally, it helps that we turned a profit in every year and for most of our vessels, however marginal sometimes, and that we are transparent to our financial and strategic partners. Mind you, since the crisis (2008) we have been adding a new vessel to our fleet every three months. I only recently calculated that since CFL was founded we have invested a million USD a week on the expansion of our fleet. And despite this remarkable investment ratio for a company of its size, we succeeded in creating a positive cash flow and overall good results for our investors. Our track record is an important asset.’
At what stage of development is CFL now, according to you?
‘We are a well established midsize shipping company with an above average young and dedicated fleet and a very strong commercial and support network. Concerning the latter, last year we took the initiative for the merger between Scan-Trans and Intermarine resulting in CFL becoming a partner in the new venture that became one of the largest service providers in project cargo business globally. According to Marine Money, this was the Deal of the Year in 2012. Either way, for us it means access to a huge sales and financial network and the certainty of a broader influx of new business. For instance, two of our Soles (Industrial More and Industrial Martini) are trading for a longer period of time on a liner service between Houston and various destinations in Latin America. That assures us of guaranteed work and we gain time to further professionalize our support organisation.’
> Team play
Were your shipbuilding plans too big for your organisational skills?
‘No, what’s the use of building a larger fleet if you can’t operate your vessels with economically sound results? Naturally, as in any fast growing company there is a friction between creating new opportunities and making sure that you can support them, and the organisation is fully compliant to all of its stakeholders. I, for one, am an individual who likes to think and act fast. I need a team around me that is complementary. It takes time to arrange this and select the best people for it. But now we have found the perfect balance, with Jan Anne (Haisma, controller) and Peter (Meijer, fleet director) to support Mark (Nieuwland, CFO and co-founder), Sander (Moojen, general manager) and me. Together we manage a very experienced and dedicated support staff, that is constantly improving the essential response time in the shipping business for any problem that keeps a vessel of ours non-operational for longer than is strictly necessary. Because that is what running a shipping company nowadays is all about: managing a fleet of vessels with a competitive edge with the utmost time and cost efficiency.’
What will be the next step?
‘At the moment we are in the process of financing the first two vessels of a new generation, the Caranx Type. We are taking one step further with both the design and the commercial proposition. Basically we (CFL and naturally our partner in this, Dutch-based shipbuilder Peters Shipyards) are designing and building it to be a hybrid configuration that will be chartered out to one of the biggest contractors in the world. It can operate as a supply ship for offshore destinations and as a project cargo vessel with extraordinary navigational characteristics. This helps us to diversify further and to build up a stronghold in one of the most promising growth markets of the near future. CFL is here for the long run.’