Chief executive Janette Bell is the second woman to take the helm of the £974 million
On a grey morning in Dover, the Spirit of Britain is setting out from the white cliffs to Calais. It’s one of five round trips the 47,000-ton superferry will make that day, transporting 2,000 passengers and 180 freight lorries on each crossing.
But there’s a storm cloud on the horizon – Brexit. The biggest unknown for shipping and logistics firm P&O Ferries is whether the Government will introduce customs checks at ports.
It is no trivial matter for the company and its new chief executive Janette Bell, the second woman to take the helm of the £974 million business moving people and freight between the UK and Europe.
French and Belgian port bosses told the Treasury select committee last week that ‘the clock is ticking’ on Brexit, and warned that Britain could become ‘nothing more than a series of road blocks’.
Despite the confusion over Britain’s customs union status and the Northern Ireland border, Bell is calm when she sets out her plans at the firm’s Channel House HQ. ‘I am confident that despite the current uncertainty, common sense will prevail,’ she says.
‘P&O was operating ferries long before we went into the Common Market and we were able to clear goods then. We already have plans under way to integrate customs clearance into our systems.’
What Bell doesn’t say, but is made clear on the company website, is that P&O has survived the Suez Crisis and two world wars, so in the context of almost 200 years of its history, P&O is confident it will weather Britain’s exit from the EU.
One of her big ideas is to break with ferries’ cheap and cheerful image, and make them more middle-class. Abba revival nights and darts on the overnight ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge and Rotterdam are being phased out in favour of seabass and Chablis served in brasseries.
P&O has upgraded its club class cabins with White Company toiletries and launched a shopping partnership with Middle England clothing brand Joules.
‘We have overnight cruise ferries out of Hull, and that is a very special experience,’ says Bell. ‘When you step on board, you can sit on the back deck sipping an iced beer as you cruise down the Humber river, before stepping into the brasserie for seabass and a glass of Chablis.’
Bell’s vision of cruising by Hull at sunset may not be everyone’s idea of sophistication. But she says: ‘There is a growth in premium leisure travel. It is not about products any more, it’s about experiences. People travel by ferry because you get to places you just don’t reach when you travel by aeroplane.’
French and Belgian port bosses told the Treasury select committee last week that ‘the clock is ticking’ on Brexit
P&O has also drawn up blueprints for two new cross-Channel ships, costing at least €150 million each, which will join the fleet in 2021. ‘The ships will last for 30 years so their design has to look to the future,’ Bell says. ‘We are considering driverless lorries manoeuvring on and off our ships.’
She adds that changes in technology, such as Artificial Intelligence and 3D printing, will also change the mix of goods that P&O transports. ‘There is a whole melting pot of trends that are coming together.’
Despite her outward calm over Brexit, P&O, which is privately owned by Gulf investment firm Dubai Ports World, has been lobbying Whitehall hard. Faced with the threat of tailbacks at ports due to increased customs checks, a number of shipping firms have laid plans to bypass ‘Brexit Britain’ by transporting freight straight from Ireland to continental Europe.
P&O, which carries cargo from Dublin to Liverpool and Cairnryan in West Scotland, is considering new routes too. Bell says: ‘We have a fantastic position in Zeebrugge, Europoort and Calais, the key export ports from North West Europe, and ports in Liverpool, Dublin, Hull, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
P&O has upgraded its club class cabins with White Company toiletries and launched a shopping partnership with Joules
We will connect those in whatever way they need to be connected to ensure that people and goods keep moving.’
P&O, a former FTSE 100 firm, has survived worse storms since it began 181 years ago as the Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, taking cargo to outposts of the Empire by packet steamer.
In recent years, it has battled competition from the opening of the high-speed Eurotunnel and low-cost airlines, which it blamed for 1,200 job cuts and the closure of its Portsmouth routes. In 2015, there was cross-channel chaos at Calais, when strikes and the migrant crisis brought the French port to a standstill for three days.
‘This business has ridden the tide of the onslaught of low-cost airlines, it’s had competitors open on the tunnel, it has seen the demise of duty free goods,’ says Bell. ‘We are a business that has to look forward. Whether it be Brexit or changes in technology, we need to draw on our experience of how to solve problems.’
Each year, its fleet of 21 ships transports 8.4 million passengers and 2.3 million freight units
Bell, 53, is a biochemist by training. Married to Peter, she has two children: Edward, 21, and 17-year-old Constance. She started her career on the graduate trainee scheme at Tesco, then under the leadership of Lord (Ian) MacLaurin, before a spell at consultancy Coopers & Lybrand, now PwC, and commercial roles at British Gas and property company Hammerson.
She joined P&O six years ago and was promoted to the top job in December, taking over from Helen Deeble. Six months in, she is using her varied experience to ‘piece the jigsaw together’ as P&O ‘seamlessly’ moves people and goods around the globe.
Each year, its fleet of 21 ships, connected to a vast truck and rail network through P&O’s Ferrymasters arm, transports 8.4 million passengers and 2.3 million freight units.
Goods made by manufacturing giants such as Unilever, Ikea and Jaguar Land Rover come by rail and road from Romania, Poland and Italy to huge depots in Rotterdam and Zeebrugge and then cross the North Sea on P&O ships.
Freight is P&O’s ‘bread and butter’, bringing in 60 per cent of its £974 million revenues, which generated £47.9 million pre-tax profits at the latest count.
Back in 1910, P&O chairman Sir Thomas Sutherland forecast that the firm had, ‘say another 75 years’ to run. More than three decades after his deadline, it’s still full steam ahead.
Shipping firm that’s used to sailing troubled waters
P&O is Britain’s best-known maritime firm, but its 181-year history is stormy. The company first floundered in 1837, when it almost lost its lucrative government contracts shipping mail to the Far East. It was back on an even keel by the Edwardian era, but then two-thirds of its fleet was commandeered by the British Army in the First World War.
Post-war recovery was slow, then the Wall Street Crash devastated world trade. Shortly after P&O’s 100th birthday, Britain was back at war with Germany.
This time, its entire fleet was requisitioned, and half of P&O’s ships were sunk. As the Empire disintegrated, post-war P&O focused on cargo, but the 1956 Suez Crisis once again blighted the shipping industry.
Boardroom battles rocked the boat in the 1970s, when director Lord Inchcape challenged the firm’s plans to buy Bovis Homes and eventually installed himself as chairman. After making half the board walk the plank, he bought the housebuilder anyway.
In 1987, 193 lives were lost when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized leaving Zeebrugge. Today, having weathered the rise of low-cost airlines and the opening of rival transport link Eurotunnel, P&O is battening down the hatches for Brexit.
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