Damen Shipyards CEO discusses how one of the world’s largest shipbuilding groups is responding to the pandemic, reorganising its businesses and reimaging itself and its designs for a sustainable future
There is nothing like taking over the reins of one of the world’s largest shipbuilding groups in the middle of a global pandemic. But that’s exactly what Arnout Damen did at the start of 2020 when he was named CEO of the Damen Shipyards Group, succeeding long-time chief executive René Berkvens – winner of the OSJ Lifetime Achievement Award 2020.
Shipbuilding, however, is in Mr Damen’s blood. It is no coincidence that his surname is emblazoned over the door at the company’s offices in Gorinchem, the Netherlands.
Mr Damen’s grandfather and great uncle established Damen Shipyard on the banks of the Merwede River in 1927. Mr Damen’s father, Kommer Damen – present Damen Shipbuilding Group chairman and winner of the OSJ Industry Leader Award 2015 – bought the company in 1969. But entering the family business was not Mr Damen’s first career stop.
“Of course, I’ve always been connected to the company,” Mr Damen tells OSJ, “but I didn’t start working there until 2008, when I became a non-executive board member.”
An entrepreneur, Mr Damen ran his own media, internet and e-commerce businesses for the maritime sector. Prior to that, he co-founded a company in the Hungarian real estate sector.
“It wasn’t that it has always been shipbuilding and nothing else. I think it’s good for everybody to follow their own path in life,” he says.
Adding to the difficulty of transitioning to CEO during a global pandemic, Mr Damen also had to simultaneously oversee a reorganisation of the group. But with four years as chief operating officer and another six as chief commercial officer, he was well prepared for his new role.
Still, the Covid-19 pandemic required repatriating people working abroad, initiating remote working and implementing new safety measures worldwide. “Initially,” he says, “we had to temporarily close a few of our facilities – our repair yards in France and Curacao and our newbuild yards in Singapore and South Africa – due to government regulations.”
"Change was coming, but the virus outbreak has accelerated it”
The reorganisation was necessary due to the company’s growth; Damen Shipyard Group now encompasses over 50 companies located around the world.
“We have recently reorganised all of these companies into divisions covering Naval, Yachting, Mid-Sized Vessels, Workboats, Repair & Conversion, Maritime Ventures and Services – each with its own managing director,” says Mr Damen. “This simplifies our business model considerably and allocates clear responsibility and accountability for all our different workstreams. It also brings us closer to our clients and suppliers.”
Like businesses across the globe, Damen has had to reimagine its workplace to meet the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We continue to have a lot of people working remotely, so we are leaning more on digital communication for our day-to-day work, with each other, but also increasingly with our clients,” says Mr Damen. “I think such changes were coming in any case, but the virus outbreak certainly has the potential to accelerate them.”
Digitalisation and innovation
Prior to the pandemic, the maritime industry was already in the beginnings of a sea change, reshaped by Industry 4.0 – increased digitalisation, automation, AI and robotics – and climate change. Those elements are evident in Damen’s newest designs. “We’re investing quite heavily into our R&D initiatives, which centre around cleaner shipping technology and digitalisation,” says Mr Damen. “An interesting example of the latter is the Unmanned Patrol Craft – UnPaC. It’s an unmanned surface vehicle, which is something new on our drawing boards.”
Used for surveillance and protection, the UnPac can operate in harbours, around windfarms or at sea for superyachts. The sailing drone can be controlled remotely, but can also operate completely autonomously via GPS. It is equipped with radar, cameras and infrared technology to identify objects.
UnPac is made of HDPE – high-density polyethylene – which makes it seawater resistant, virtually maintenance-free and also easy to repair, explains Mr Damen.
“We are achieving savings up to 40% against a conventional European-built OSV from the last decade”
Known for its standardised hulls, which are customised to meet individual owner’s needs, Damen is now refining its production with the launch of a new 3D CAD-PDM system, to better manage and access documents for work drawings, designs and test results. The system will be used internally and to support customers. Additionally, other changes to improve operations are underway, including the replacement of Damen’s current Enterprise Resource Planning platform with SAP. “This strengthens our process side, which leads to even better insight into all our projects,” says Mr Damen.
Sustainability is a common thread that runs through the company’s operations and its designs. This covers everything from using reusable and recyclable drinking cups in its offices to installing solar panels at its production facilities and sourcing renewable energy.
“We have the goal to become the world’s most sustainable shipbuilder,” says Mr Damen. “Naturally, the steps we take towards sustainability also include R&D initiatives towards cleaner shipping technology. Often this involves collaboration with industry partners, research institutes and universities.”
Damen has been growing its portfolio of hybrid and electric propulsion designs, with new ferries for Denmark and Canada. “We’ve also built a fully electric cutter suction dredger and are working on the world’s first fully electric harbour tug, with 70 tonnes bollard pull,” he adds.
Next generation of OSVs
As for the next generation of OSVs, they will be “relatively simple vessels” says Mr Damen, adding “they will be connected and sustainable, based on standard systems, proven technology, with low capex and opex.”
These ships will be designed for multi-use versatility and worldwide operation, in the offshore oil and gas sector, but at the same time suited for offshore wind campaigns, he says.
This glimpse of the future will be ready in Q3 2021, when the shipyard will launch its first Damen Multibuster 8020, a shallow-draught vessel suited for dynamic positioning class-2 operations in the Persian Gulf, but also in offshore wind for nearshore operations.
With 800 m2 deck space, a motion-compensated crane and accommodation for 60, the Damen Multibuster can be used for ROV operations, cable laying, anchor handling, towing and walk-to-work projects.
As the result of design experience with diverse systems at the group’s Emirates shipyard, Damen can achieve savings up to 40% against a conventional European-built OSV from the last decade, says Mr Damen.
As a family business, Mr Damen says having a long-term view is essential. “What we do is not only about the business today, but about ensuring its success for the next generation. A large part of ensuring the viability of Damen for the future is about taking a responsible approach to matters of climate change and sustainability.”
He concludes: “I’m very confident that what we have done here is what is required to position our organisation ready ready for the future.”
Snapshot CV: Arnout Damen
1989-1996 Marine Technology – Delft University of Technology
1995-2000 Co-founder DBL Investments Hungary
2001-2010 Co-founder Maritime Media company Navingo
2008-2010 Non-executive Board member Damen Shipyards Group
2010-2014 COO Damen Shipyards Group
2014-2020 CCO Damen Shipyards Group
2020 CEO Damen Shipyards Group