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CEO Tom Hautekiet experiences a captivating first year at Port of Zeebrugge

“Focusing on a diversity of sectors enables us to maintain our economically strong position. Even in times of crisis”

Tom Hautekiet, CEO of the Port of Zeebrugge

Tom Hautekiet became the new CEO of the Port of Zeebrugge in a year marked by challenges such as COVID-19 and Brexit. Despite this, the port managed to grow by 3% and to tap into new markets. “Resilience is key in times of crisis.”

After the growth in revenue experienced by the port in 2018 and 2019, 2020 was expected to be an even better year. Until the COVID-19 pandemic inexorably struck. The consequences were also felt immediately in the Port of Zeebrugge, not in the least due to the slump on the car market. As the largest car-handling port in the world, new cars are a very important trade flow in the port. Despite this, the port managed to remain fully operational all year long. In fact, the port authority sought – and found – many new opportunities. It invested in crisis breakers.

In a year in which the economy was badly hit, the Port of Zeebrugge recorded a growth of 3%. How did it manage to be so resilient?

CEO Tom Hautekiet: “Zeebrugge consciously opted for a healthy sectoral spread for many years: LNG (liquefied natural gas), road transport, paper, etc. This commitment to a diversity of sectors has enabled us to maintain our economically strong position. One example of this is container traffic, which grew for the third year in a row in 2020. Successes like these offset the losses we suffered due to COVID-19. The resilience of our team enabled us to keep the port running during the crisis. This was achieved in part by quickly releasing funds for sectors and companies that needed them. Neither have our private players in the port thrown in the towel. Investments were made at the CSP-Zeebrugge container terminal and at the PSA terminal, where many paper mills were able to keep making use of all our services despite the crisis.”

Terugblik met de CEO

"You could, in a certain sense, consider Brexit an opportunity for our port."

Tom Hautekiet, CEO Port of Zeebrugge

How is Zeebrugge coping with the first few months of Brexit?

“You could, in a certain sense, consider Brexit an opportunity for our port. We have seen this in particular with C.RO Ports and CLdN, two operators who have strengthened their ro-ro (ro-ro or roll-on/roll-off, the term used to describe the transport of rolling goods, such as cars, ed.) network to the Irish market. In addition to the RX/SeaPort digital customs platform that we, as a port, have launched in cooperation with Apzi-Voka West-Vlaanderen, they have taken similar initiatives in the area of customs handling. That’s what I call resilience.”

“As a port authority, our primary focus in 2020 was on responding to a rapidly changing market to prevent our customers and other business undertakings from being inconvenienced. However, that chapter is still being written. Many businesses on either side of the Channel have already started to think locally: British companies no longer have their eyes trained on the continent, while leading German players on the shipping market are no longer seeking to serve the UK. Moreover, there is talk in the UK of ‘free ports’, British ports where lower import tariffs are said to apply. Scenarios like this could have huge implications for a distribution port like Zeebrugge.”

You have stood at the helm of the Port of Zeebrugge since the first of October. How do you look back on your first few months?

“It has been incredibly busy lately, but I like that. One advantage for a newcomer is that the port market is highly concentrated and consolidated. There are only 150 major shipping companies around the world, and so it took me hardly any time at all to become acquainted with all our partners and stakeholders. I think the biggest challenge is that, as a port, you are in the middle of the chain and can influence only a specific part of the entire trade. We don’t work end-to-end. If we were to gain more control in that area in the future, we will certainly grasp the opportunity.”

How do you want to make a difference as CEO?

“The biggest challenge for our port is to maintain the right balance between our growth and its impact on our port environment. We want the port to grow, but there are limits to that growth. The development of the port should also be in line with the targets we have set for our climate. This awareness with regard to sustainability will become increasingly important in the years to come. If we in Flanders want to achieve our climate objectives and join the European Green Deal, a lot will depend on us, on the ports. At the same time, we must continue to be vigilant with regard to the quality of life for the residents living in the immediate surroundings of the port. Some residential areas are located very close to the port. We are aiming for healthy growth, in dialogue with a very broad community. Only by listening to all our stakeholders will we be able to meet the challenges we will be facing. There is the climate issue, and the pan-European problem of transmigrants, with which we, as a port, are also confronted and to which we are trying to offer a humane response in conjunction with various partners. Growth, in the narrowest sense of the word, is only a small part of our future.”

Terugblik met de CEO

What contribution can the Port of Zeebrugge make to a climate-neutral society?

“We aim to play a leading role in the energy transition. Zeebrugge is a port where a lot of LNG is handled, so we have a great deal of expertise with regard to the storage and transhipment of liquid bulk. We can use it to make hydrogen a success story, too. It’s hard to predict when we will really see a change. I am in favour of a stricter CO2 tax, a decision that must be taken at European level. The sooner this higher tax is introduced, the sooner resources will be freed up that will allow us to focus on non-fossil fuels in the Port of Zeebrugge as well.”

“One of our key agenda points is a sustainable modal split, a combination of road transport, rail transport and inland navigation. In the new concessions we grant, we define the minimum standards that our customers must comply with in regard of rail and inland waterway transport. At the same time, we are helping them make the switch. A prime example of this is the deployment of additional vessels for estuary shipping across the Western Scheldt and the innovative solutions we are seeking, such as small unmanned vessels to facilitate the fast trade in limited volumes.”

“As a port, we also try to set a good example. Our goal is to make the port fleet and our assets carbon neutral. Tugboats, for example, are already required to rely on cold ironing when not in operation. In time, we want to make them fossil-free. We want to invest in electric buses to support cruise transportation. We are currently commissioning a survey to examine the energy efficiency of all our buildings, vehicles and facilities. We are also looking at how we can enhance the sustainability of our employees’ commutes.”

What do you expect from 2021?

“2021 will inevitably be a transitional year. We are still not free of COVID-19 and that has inevitable consequences. Economically, we expect a better year than 2020, but we are not expecting normalised sales again until 2022 or 2023. At the same time, 2022 is the year in which, after the commitment we have put on paper, the merger with the Port of Antwerp will be officially started on our site. As the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, we will become an international port that offers companies more opportunities for development than the two ports could possibly do separately. Our ties will become stronger in midst of the energy transition and we will come up with ideas for the further development of our port together. There are many good things to look forward to.”

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