Meet the new boss: Ian El-Mokadem shares his vision for V.Group

The shipping newcomer tells TW+ there is more to his plans for private-equity-backed V.Group than securing a stock listing

Floor-to-ceiling windows in Ian El-Mokadem’s office provide a clear view up Cannon Street towards the London Stock Exchange.

It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from the V.Group office on Queen Victoria Street to Paternoster Square, home of the stock exchange — a metaphorical journey the company has been expected to take for some time.

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Anticipation has only increased since Advent International bought the world’s largest third-party shipmanagement firm in late 2016.

New chief executive El-Mokadem arrived last October with previous experience at private-equity-owned companies and having overseen the 2014 flotation of testing and calibration company Exova.

“As you probably know, one of the things we are thinking of doing is listing the business,” he tells TW+. “I have done that before, so I guess that is one of the reasons why I’m here.”

While the wider shipmanagement community is convinced V.Group will float in the future, El-Mokadem says an IPO can never be a foregone conclusion.

“You have to be ready and the market has to be ready for you,” he reasons. “You can control one of them and you can’t control the other. So, who knows. But as an ambition, I think it is very credible. I think this would be an excellent public company, if we get there.”

c5397b652ac82978b3b25c810de4d21a Ian El-Mokadem with Weng Zuliang, party secretary of the Pudong New Area government, during his visit to China in March. ‘What you can expect us to be doing is committing more resources to mainland China,’ El-Mokadem says. Photo: V.Group

El-Mokadem took three months off in the south of France with his family before taking the helm at V.Group, his first shipping job. He planned the break — his first summer off since leaving university — fully aware of the work and travel demands of a position that will see the company reshaped over a four- to five-year period.

“That is a nice time horizon to drive some of the changes we need to make,” he believes. “A listing is a milestone on the journey for me. If we continue to run this business properly, if we continue to grow, because of that, we will be in a position to list the company.”

While London is seen as the most logical location for an IPO, other stock exchanges could come into the picture, particularly given the shifting nature of shipping business to Asia.

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El-Mokadem describes himself as a “what and how kind of guy”, which prompts the questions: what will listing offer V.Group and its clients, and how is it going to get there?

Access to capital for further investment, a higher bar of quality and reputation and a further competitive advantage, comes the reply.

“To do a listing, you have to jump through an awful lot of hoops. You are checked and checked and checked again,” he says.

“The banks have a responsibility not to take somebody to market who is not well run. The governance hurdle is a very high one. The reputation hurdle is a very high one.

5148182e8afacd93fde70d39d10eafe7 Manish Singh, group director, corporate development, who heads V.Group’s M&A team Photo: Thomas Lovejoy

“For me, the listing is as important a hurdle for what it encourages us to do as a business as the actual listing might be if we do one. The focus is on transforming and growing. If we are doing all those things, we may well do a listing in a few years’ time.”

Transformation is a word El-Mokadem uses regularly when discussing his first few months in the job and his vision for the company.

He cites the opportunity to “drive some genuine transformation, both for the business and the industry” as one of his key motivations for taking the post. It is a vision shared by Advent and Haris Kyriakopoulos, one of the shareholder representatives on the V.Group board.

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Ian El-Mokadem joined consultancy Accenture in 1990. He moved to UK-based energy company Centrica in 1997, working there for nine years and rising to managing director of its One.Tel telecoms arm, before becoming UK and Ireland managing director of contract foodservice giant Compass. In 2011, he joined Exova, the provider of testing and calibration advisory services, where he was chief executive for more than six years, before the switch to V.Group.

“If you think about us in a competitive context right now, we are a well-established business, with the backing and the capacity to invest in genuinely driving transformation,” El-Mokadem says. “That is quite exciting and those stars don’t always align very easily.”

His first few months in the job have involved plenty of time on the road as he and his senior management visited various offices and spoke with the teams.

“You can’t learn a business sat in head office. The instinct is get out, meet customers, meet the team — not just the senior team — say hello to as many colleagues as you can. That is my style.”

Now, having distilled the key messages, El-Mokadem and his fellow executives have a clear plan of what they intend to do and how they are going to get there.

One core aim is to simplify the business. “It’s a bit too complicated,” he admits. “We have too many brands. Our website is a mirror into that complexity.”

Instead of being seen as a third-party shipmanager, he prefers to view V.Group as a marine support services business — “a subtle difference in language”.

Within this vision, technical management, crewing and insurance are among six distinct service lines. All are expected to be “competitive and credible” in their own right, with customers having the choice to select one or multiple options.

Another change, which El-Mokadem says is on the softer side, is the introduction of a new set of company values that will be unveiled internally in the coming weeks. Again, the process involved consultation with staff globally.

0e076abc83dc20fa7da6fd46b84fb615 V.Group CEO Ian El-Mokadem spent a few days at sea sailing from Hamburg to Antwerp on one of the company’s managed vessels. Chief engineer Igor Vladimirovych Transky, second from left, and his team are pictured with the red-suited El-Mokadem and Matt Dunlop, group health and safety director. Photo: V.Group

“It will be more than just words,” he says. “When we evaluate a colleague’s performance going forward, the way I work is there has to be a what and a how. Both are equally important and you should not expect to progress your career with us if you are not doing both.

“I’m not interested in people who hit targets but don’t value safety and don’t work as part of a team and who are not consistent. That does not work for me. The what and the how are equally important.”

The what and the how come out again in the six legs of V.Group’s new strategy. Top of the list is “enhance the operating model”, with safety and quality front and centre, something that is already under way, on the evidence of the briefing TW+ received on arrival for the interview.

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“The worst call you can ever get as a leader is that somebody has been hurt, or, worst case, not going to go home to their families,” El-Mokadem says, recalling first-hand experience. “That is a very real risk in this industry. We have made sure safety is the first thing we talk about in our board meetings.”

Under the same banner, regional managers will have more autonomy to make decisions, given their deep understanding of customers. “I kind of hate head offices. I think head offices sometimes make bad decisions in big international groups like this.

“So what we are trying to do philosophically is say the job of the guys here is to create a good framework with good systems — to create a culture. But we want our general managers to own their businesses, to feel empowered to make decisions, to act in the interest of their customers and not to have to refer back to London every five minutes for silly decisions which we are not in a good place to make. That, culturally, is quite a shift.”

The second leg is investment in talent, which includes a multi-million-dollar investment programme in crewing, described as the biggest in the industry.

“We can make their lives much easier by using technology. By avoiding them having to take a three-hour bus ride to bring us three bits of paper at the Manila office by letting them do it on a hand-held device at home. We are simplifying that crewing operation, making it easier for us to attract and develop the best crew.”

Driving innovation is also identified as a key pillar. “The trick here is not to think of it as technology for technology’s sake,” El-Mokadem says, noting the work will be practical and involve external partners.

Leg four is organic growth, with inorganic expansion split out as leg number five, both reflecting a belief that there is a “genuine advantage to scale” in the maritime services business.

7484fe8e1dc29b991558a0b552b9a470 Manish Singh chats with Ian El-Mokadem Photo: Thomas Lovejoy

Expansion will see V.Group grow from today’s turnover of $500m per year, 650 vessels under full technical management and a further 300 under crew management.

“We will aim to be a consolidator in the industry. If we have good systems, good processes and a good team, we earn the right to be an acquirer,” says El-Mokadem, who began his career as a management consultant.

“I believe you don’t just get to do acquisitions. You have to be a good acquirer and you do that by bringing value to the businesses you buy.”

V.Group has a long history of acquisitions, with the 2001 addition of Acomarit replicated more recently with moves for Graig Ship Management, Bibby and Selandia.

The M&A approach has now been formalised, with company veteran Manish Singh, who has the office next door to El-Mokadem, heading the M&A team with support from advisers at Advent.

V.Group will be an active acquirer, with its sights on “well-run businesses” with “committed management teams”.

“What we are not going to be is an exit route for people who want to cash out and go and sit on a beach. I’m interested in management teams as much as I am businesses,” the chief executive says.

“I’m interested in management teams who see benefits in being part of a bigger organisation and where we can genuinely help them and they can genuinely help us. Those are the kind of acquisitions I want us to do.”

One likely avenue for growth is China, which El-Mokadem has visited twice since his appointment, including a trip in February to open a new Shanghai office and meet regional government officials.

“What you can expect us to be doing is committing more resources to mainland China, both serving customers in China and fulfilling activities that serve our global network from China. As we think about our global network and the likely cities to be key for us in our operation going forward, it’s very likely we will build a stronger presence, probably in Shanghai and certainly in mainland China.”

d22f92ee28f44f1ce4418b8d5a3c46e6 Junshan Zou is the new managing director of V.Group in China Photo: V.Group

In this regard, the appointment of Junshan Zou as managing director in China is a clear statement of intent.

Leg number six is financial performance, which he sees as a natural by-product of getting the other processes right. He has also identified an opportunity to lead the industry with “really good governance”. He explains: “I don’t think some parts of this industry are as well run as they can be, and our goal is to be a really well-run business. If we want to be a listed company, that is a requirement. But it’s also the right thing to do.”

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As part of the financial development, the company is looking at ways to take on additional risk alongside core clients, which could involve setting to work some of the performance data it has stockpiled over the years.

“We should be able to sit behind our commitments to our customers in a different way than we do today, whether that is fixed opex-type deals or an incentive scheme linked to vessel performance where we earn more if we have done a really good job. We are very open-minded about the way we contract with customers.”

With so much change under way or planned, El-Mokadem says the resistance has been less than he anticipated in an industry that is often branded as stuck in its ways. He views fear of change as a natural human reaction, with the responsibility falling on management to present new ideas “in a way that people can understand and is not seen as too theoretical or scary”.

“If you ask me how have our colleagues responded, when you talk to them openly about some of the opportunities of change, I think they get more excited than they get worried,” he says.

“Most importantly, we are engaging our colleagues in that discussion, not them feeling like it is being done to them. That is always a risk when you are trying to make some ambitious change. We need to be mindful of that.”

508a97f3012297019524ccb32f4fbacb Ian El-Mokadem, chief executive of V.Group Photo: Thomas Lovejoy

On the road again

Ian El-Mokadem is no stranger to the international lifestyle that comes with being chief executive of the world’s largest third-party shipmanager.

A few hours into the job, he was heading to Greece, and he has since visited China, Singapore, the Philippines and other key maritime hubs in V.Group’s network of 70 global offices.

With an Egyptian father and English mother, El-Mokadem says he has always had a cultural mix. This was enhanced with extensive travel during his school days due to his father’s job, followed by studying economics and statistics at University College London and post-graduate study in France.

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“I really enjoy working in multicultural environments and I think the thing I learnt as a kid — plonked in an American school in Baghdad at the age of seven — there is no one way of doing things,” he says.

“The joy of working in a business like this is enjoying some of that difference and finding different ways of doing things.

“Building a team that is multicultural — diverse in every respect — I really enjoy that. It’s frustrating and funny in equal measure but it’s one of the things I enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, you can’t do this kind of job.”

Although he has worked with service businesses throughout his career, V.Group is El-Mokadem’s first taste of shipping.

He sees the industry as “definitely going through a period of very genuine transformation”, driven by regulatory changes and technology.

“Very quietly, this industry plays an important part in everybody’s lives and, actually, that really excites me.

“There is something quite nice about this industry that you notice if you come in from the outside, which is teams form quite quickly. You can’t join a ship and say, ‘Give us three months and when we have got to know each other we will move out of port’.

“That is really interesting and it’s a strength that people don’t always realise as much as they should. If you think about that from a leadership perspective, you think: ‘How can we use that somehow?’”