Women in Maritime with Katja Otten

Building on our learnings about diversity from past initiatives, we’re changing track and exploring what it’s like to be a Woman in Logistics. In a series of interviews and conference presentations, we’ll explore a broad range of topics from what it’s like to work in the industry through to what women see as the predominant opportunities and challenges lying ahead. In the first interview of the series, INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier caught up with Katja Otten from APM Terminals.

An Introduction

KO: I am the CFO of APM Terminals, based in The Hague. I was born in the Netherlands, and I studied business economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Following that, I joined Shell, a company with which I worked for 20 years in different finance roles. While working for Shell, I lived abroad for 10 years in countries like the UK, Malaysia, and Australia. I joined APM Terminals as their CFO in 2017 and have now been in this role for three years, once again working in The Hague. I am married and I have one daughter, 11 years old.

MW: It must be nice being back home in the Netherlands.

KO: Yes, it is. It was also a bit of a lifestyle choice. The freedom kids can have in the Netherlands is really something, and together with my husband, we wanted to give that to our daughter.

MW: We’ll probably come back to that in due course. We’re talking about women in maritime. So you said you started your career working 20 years with Shell, which is in petrochemical and gas. You’ve come across to maritime industry relatively recently. Why did you make the decision to come across from another industry entirely into maritime?

KO: Well, I always look at what excites me in a role. When I am working, I want to contribute to the lives and well-being of people. Both the oil and gas as well as the maritime business contribute significantly to the lives of all people around the globe. In the maritime business, we ensure that food and goods end up at all corners of the world where they are needed.

In addition to that, it’s a global industry, and having worked around the globe and having been in contact with so many diverse people, I looked for something “extra” in a role, which the maritime business also has to offer.

I have grown up in long-term investment decisions, where we work together with joint-venture partners and local authorities. Again, this is an extra dimension both industries offer. So for me, it’s very exciting to work together and find solutions with all the different stakeholders, not just making decisions for tomorrow, but for 20 or 30 years to come.

Both businesses have these characteristics, so from that perspective, it was not that difficult to get that excitement also in the maritime industry.

MW: A recent study that came out from LinkedIn suggests that Generation X and Baby Boomers are a third as likely to change industries compared to millennials and Linksters. You’ve obviously made that change, so what was that like?

KO: First of all, exciting! If you have worked 20 years for an industry, it’s a new challenge to join another and see whether you can be successful there as well. It’s a personal challenge that either scares you or excites you. For me, it was the latter. Secondly, I feel I was very much welcomed in this industry, so it’s also about the openness of the people in this business. When I joined, people were honestly interested in my views and what I had learned in the other industry. That’s really heartwarming.

And then, lastly, it is a bit of hard work. You need to get used to the new jargon. That was the most difficult part for me, because certain words in the oil and gas industry are similar to those in maritime, but they have a different meaning, and you can easily miscommunicate without even realizing it. I found that to be the toughest part. In my case, the people really helped me make that jump and allowed me to be successful.

You need to get used to the new jargon. That was the most difficult part for me because certain words in the oil and gas industry are similar to maritime, but they do have a different meaning, and then you have miscommunication without really realizing it.

MW: You noted that you see the risk as either scary or something exciting. Do you think your willingness to take that risk contributed to people’s willingness to listen to your ideas, or were there some other underlying factors at play?

KO: I think there are more underlying factors at play. It’s really about culture, because if you have a very open, inviting culture where people listen to one another and value diversity, you feel at home quicker, you feel supported, and you connect with people more easily. What I experienced here with Maersk and APM Terminals was that inviting culture, because people simply want the best for their business and are humble about their own contributions. They believe they can always learn from one another and they have the customer in mind.

At APM Terminals, we want to attract and retain the best and brightest people from the broadest pool possible and ensure that we select the right candidates based on merit, skills, and personality. 

We value individuals who bring diverse talents, skills, and perspectives to the organization. Diversity of thought makes us stronger. At APM Terminals, we treat all employees and job applicants equally, fairly, and respectfully and will not discriminate against anyone based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, political or other opinion, or cultural background.

This is applicable to all people processes, including recruitment, selection, and promotion decisions. We always aim to choose the most qualified person for any position from the widest possible pool and ensure an inclusive environment to drive exceptional business results.

MW: From your perspective, then, APM Terminals has quite an open culture that values diversity. How does that play into your role as a mother at home?

KO: Here, when you are in a certain role at work, people expect you to get the work done as part of that role and they give you freedom to arrange how you do that. Because the trust and openness are there, as long as you act in harmony and in collaboration with others and you get the job done, then it’s okay. I think that builds strong teams because it allows for diversity of thought, creativity, and agility, and people are willing to give each other a chance at success. So, people allow me to be successful while being a mother at the same time.

Now I have a senior role, and that also means I need to work hard and travel often. This in turn means I have, first and foremost, made some choices about how I want to live my life, and how we, with my husband and daughter, as a family live together.

My husband is an entrepreneur, and he provides a bit more flexibility. I’m not going to say that I can just come in late every day. It does require a significant amount of commitment and working hours. As a family we made that work, but at the same time, there’s also flexibility from the company, so if there are important school events, I can be there. However, it requires quite some planning. You must have a firm work structure. So in November, I already know 80% of my travel schedule for the next year, and this is how you can make it work.

Industry Challenges and Opportunities

MW: Let’s change tracks a little and think about maritime in a more general aspect. What do you think are the biggest challenges for maritime in the next five years?

KO: I see three big challenges. One is our ability to change, to continuously adapt to the changing customer needs. The next challenge is effective digitization of our industry. And then, thirdly, it is technical improvements needed to deliver upon the CO2 reduction ambition and become CO2-neutral by 2050.

I see three big challenges. One is our ability to change, to continuously adapt to the changing customer needs. The next challenge is effective digitization of our industry. And then, thirdly, it is technical improvements needed to deliver upon
the CO2 reduction ambition and become CO2
neutral by 2050.

MW: Can you give me an example of what you see as adapting to customer needs? What do you see changing?

KO: One example is that the supply chains change rapidly because the end customers, the consumers of goods, have more instant needs. We need to be quicker; we need to be more agile. At the same time, our supply chains have become more complex, and that means our customers require more visibility and connectivity with their goods. Also, when an event like COVID occurs, there are many changes needed more or less instantly and our ability to respond fast is crucial.

To be clear, our customers, who are often intermediaries between the end consumers in the market and their goods on our ships and in our terminals, need increased visibility so they can know exactly what’s happening with their goods. We believe we can bring that visibility and connectivity through digitization.

MW: The traditional investment models for container terminals seem to be quite long-term focused. Do they need to evolve to reflect this instant need of the end customer, or is that something that’s still relatively, let’s say, stable for the coming five years?

KO: The way I look at this is that global supply chain trends and trade flows change, but not as rapidly as the customer needs. You invest in the long term based on trade flows; however, how you handle those flows, how quickly cargo moves, and whether you need to slow down, for instance, because goods can arrive later or need to arrive earlier – that’s the agility we need to work on. You invest based on the location of a terminal, while the agility has more to do with being able to supply storage, give visibility of the cargo, or get a container off the ship quickly so the goods can be more quickly available in the shop.

MW: Can you expand on why digitalization is a challenge for the industry?

KO: An example of what we are already doing here in the terminal business is the improvements at terminal gates, where the trucker, whom we perceive as a customer, arrives to collect a container. By digitizing that gate, by giving truckers pickup times, we allow them to spend less time in our terminal. With that, we get more agility across the supply chain. We give waiting time back to the trucker, and with the time given back, the trucker can do more and make more money during the day.

MW: What are the biggest opportunities you see?

KO: Not surprisingly, the biggest challenges for our industry are also opportunities. If we are able to deliver on those, we will be able to be successful and have a sustainable future. Next to these challenges, what we need is stronger collaboration and more partnerships across the industry. We need to adopt a standard with the technical improvements needed, because if we all start doing it differently, we will not speed up. We also need more research and development to get the environmental footprint reduced, because we want to have the first carbon-neutral ship introduced by 2030, and to have a CO2-neutral fleet by 2050.

To achieve this, we need technology developers, researchers, investors, cargo owners, everybody in the industry to collaborate to find those sustainable solutions. We will not be able to do this on our own.

Carbon-neutral vessels from 2030

Due to the 20- to 25-year lifetime of a vessel, Maersk must have carbon-neutral vessels commercially viable by 2030 to realize the 2050 target. Developing new fuels and vessel technologies as well as optimizing networks will be major contribution areas.

“We will invest significant resources in innovation and fleet technology to improve the technical and financial viability of decarbonised solutions,” shares the company. 

Over the past four years, Maersk has invested around USD 1 billion and engaged more than 50 engineers each year in developing and deploying energy-efficient solutions. The focus is on finding solutions specific to ocean transport, as the industry calls for different solutions compared to transportation by vehicle, train, or plane.

For instance, the electric truck is expected to carry a maximum load of two 20-foot containers (TEUs) and runs for 800 km per charge. In comparison, a vessel carrying thousands of containers from Panama to Rotterdam travels around 8,800 km. With a short battery life and no charging points along the route, new solutions are imperative. 

The last thing that became more visible over recent months is that we also need continuous, effective, and sustainable support for global trade because what is really important is that we keep bringing the food and goods to all corners of the world. Especially during COVID-19, we’ve realized that we can only play our role as a terminal operator by having people on-site and by working with a diverse range of people, even beyond our employees, to ensure that trade continues to move. This has been crucial throughout COVID-19 and will continue to be important in the future.

Women in Maritime

MW: I’m going to change tracks again, and we’re going to women in maritime. Women are quite underrepresented in the maritime industry, whether it’s looking at the terminals, the ports, through to the shipping side of the equation. Even if you come to the vendor side, as a software supplier, we’re probably still not hitting a close enough balance of male and female employees. Does the industry need to change this, and if so, how do you think the industry needs to change to be more attractive to female workers?

KO:  I believe it starts by making the women that already work within the maritime industry more visible, like you are doing now by giving me this opportunity. When I speak about my experiences, other women might find that path exciting if they recognize a bit of themselves in my story. Building on that, we also need to showcase our industry more and show what it really means to work in this business.

I believe it starts by making the women that already work within the maritime industry more visible, like you are doing now by giving me this opportunity. When I speak about my experiences, other women might find that path exciting if they recognize a bit of themselves in my story.

Within our organizations, we need to speak about the importance of diversity and train people. We also need to be open to truly support that diversity. It starts by creating a diverse talent pool so we have diversity already at the entry levels in our organizations. Once we have that diverse talent base, it will start to grow. I also believe we need to have a dialogue with the women in our industry and understand from them what is potentially holding them back from bringing their career to fruition and try to remove those stumbling blocks.

By doing that, we can build that critical mass, because it’s my personal belief that once you have it, things will start moving in the right direction and women will start feeling welcome in the industry, where they can be valued for who they are and for what they contribute.

MW: If we were having that dialogue now, are there a couple of things you feel are holding women back?

KO: My perspective is, of course, different considering my role, but we made significant progress at APM Terminals, where we now for instance have female crane drivers. But I also need to be more active in showing the world that this is happening, and we need to have pictures of these women in magazines! That way, other women might think, “Oh, I actually like that.” They might not even know that this role exists and that they could be a great match for it.

I find it sometimes difficult, myself, to judge. When I studied business economics, one out of three students were women. Later I worked in the oil and gas industry. In many meetings, I am the only woman in a room, so I sometimes lose that objective view of things and fail to notice under-representation of women. That’s why I find this dialogue so important.

MW: Yeah, absolutely. It will be quite a good opportunity at TOC Europe 2021 when we can finally bring the Women in Maritime panel to the stage and a great setting for that first dialogue. Do you see any women in maritime as role models for yourself?

KO: I don’t really have role models, to be honest. I pick and choose inspiration from whatever I see and think I can learn from others. But if I picked one, I find it close to home, and it’s Henriette Thygesen, Executive Vice President and CEO of Fleet and Strategic Brands at Maersk. What I really admire about her is that she’s a very exposed female leader in terms of her responsibility, with a role that comes with a lot of pressure to make the right decisions, so she could certainly be a role model.

She executes that role in a very approachable manner, which is what I really value in a leader. That allows her to focus not only on the business, but also on the people who help her deliver the results. Obviously, she’s reached that position because she has great commercial and business acumen, and that combination of business leadership and people-centricity she displays is, for me, a great inspiration, and should be a great inspiration for any leader.

MW: We’re coming up to the end of the interview now. If you had one piece of advice for a woman looking to succeed in maritime, what would it be?

KO: Quite often, I find that women do not talk that much about their contributions and where they potentially see their next career step. We tend to basically think that people see our contributions and know what is best for our careers. That is not the way it goes.

You need to explain how much you have contributed, because everybody else is doing that! You need to speak about your aspirations if you have a vision for your career. At the same time, you need to deliver. But by speaking about that, you will see that more people are actually excited about your future aspirations and that they will try to give you guidance and help, but you need to start talking about it. Otherwise, people will simply not know that you have those aspirations. People are willing to help, but you don’t give them the chance.

Quite often, I find that women do not talk that much about their contributions and where they potentially see their next career step. We tend to basically think that people see our contributions and know what is best for our careers. That is not the way it goes.

MW: Katja, thank you so much for your time.

KO: You’re welcome. Thank you, as well, for hosting me.

Who is Katja Otten?

Katja Otten was named Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of APM Terminals as of May 1, 2017. Located at the APM Terminals Global Headquarters in The Hague, she is also a member of APM Terminals’ Senior Management Team.

Prior to her position at APM Terminals, Ms. Otten spent 20 years with Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell, which currently ranks 5th in the Fortune Global 500, in various finance roles of increasing responsibility, including most recently as CFO for Shell’s Integrated Gas Projects business in Malaysia with responsibility for a USD multi-billion investment portfolio. 

Ms. Otten holds a degree in business economics from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and has completed advanced business programs at the Geneva-based International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and the Fontainebleau, France-based Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (INSEAD).

What is Women in Maritime?

The Women in Maritime initiative is a combination of a series of interviews and conference sessions brought to you by INFORM as part of its broader diversity program. The first step in increasing the scope of diversity in any industry is to highlight the diversity that exists and to create opportunities for conversations about diversity. While it is often men we think of when we consider the mental image of most logistics roles, women contribute to the industry in all its facets and at all levels of seniority. The initial aim of Women in Maritime is to show that diversity and to bring the conversation around it to life.


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