ESPO is sitting this month with Mr. Victor Schoenmakers. Beginning of this year, the Port of Rotterdam said goodbye to Victor as Director Corporate Strategy after a long-standing career in the port. We look back at his long career in the port sector. We also asked for his views on the decarbonisation and digitalisation of the transport and logistics chain, as well as his plans for the future. As former Chair of ESPO, he also shares with us some good memories and gives us some good advice.

Earlier this year, you retired after a long and rich career in the Port of Rotterdam. How did you get into maritime transport? How do you look back at your career in the port? What were the highlights of your career in the port and what do you consider as the most challenging period?

The start of my career in the port sector can be traced back to my involvement in the National Planning Agency of the Netherlands, where I started working not very long after my graduation in planning sciences and human geography.

During the economic downturn at the end of the eighties, the government decided that the Netherlands should improve their economic structure by strengthening the position of the Port of Rotterdam and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The international connectivity was seen as crucial for the recovery of the Dutch economy with its large service sector and international orientation. Next to that, the large-scale urban clusters were also seen as structural building blocks for the Dutch economy and were strongly connected to the Port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport. The Mainport concept was born, and up to this day it is still a very valuable focus for large-scale infrastructural investment planning.

When I first entered the Port of Rotterdam Authority, this organisation was integrated in the administration of the City of Rotterdam. As a major consequence of the then emerging globalisation, the process of corporatisation of the Port of Rotterdam Authority started. The motto of this process was “From landlord to mainport manager”. It was a difficult and politically complex adventure but in the end we succeeded to establish the public company Port of Rotterdam. This new company was to be managed and supervised as a private entity with two public shareholders: the City and the State. For me, it was a major achievement to contribute to the creation of this new entity and enable the port of Rotterdam to be ready for the future.

You were very active in ESPO over the last years and you were Chairman of ESPO for four years. How do you look back at your chairmanship and involvement in ESPO? What does ESPO mean to you? What is the importance and added value of an organisation like ESPO, in your view?

First of all, I think it is of the utmost importance for the European port community to have a single and strong voice in the political debate in Europe and to operate as a unified organisation that also gives room to individual ports to underline their specificities and distinguish themselves in the debate. As Chairman of ESPO, I have tried to keep and strengthen this position. It was also important to keep ourselves to the positions we had taken. Under the pressure of the interests of political entities and fractions, it was necessary to show leadership and not, for the sake of a compromise, give in to watering down our points of view. It created respect and also made us a valuable strategic partner of the European institutions. It empowered ESPO and we should safeguard this position, based upon our strength as a major European player that contributes to policymaking.

Some important events for me were the creation of the Trans-European Transport Networks with its strategic two-layer approach of core and comprehensive ports and the Port Service Regulation, which was finalised after 15 years of discussion with the European Commission, Parliament and Council and made very clear the crucial and strategic position as well as the added value of the Port Authorities in the development of the European port sector.

With its Green Deal, the EU aims to have a climate-neutral economy by 2050. How do you think a port managing body can contribute to decarbonising the transport and logistics chain? 

The Port managing bodies in Europe are at the crossroads of the future. Many developments in different sectors revolve around the geographical focus of a port area. More specifically in the field of the logistics of global supply chains, a port can and should facilitate the smooth and seamless flow of goods to and from their markets. It is a factor in the challenge to decarbonise the supply chains, next to the CO2 reductions in the different modalities themselves. The potential efficiency and CO2 reduction gain is important and a port that is best facilitating this potential creates a better market position for itself.

Looking to the industrial sector in ports, you can see that in a lot of cases the industries located in a port area are an important source of CO2emissions. Also here it is true that a port which enables its port-based industry to reduce its CO2 emissions contributes to the national and international climate targets, but at the same time also improves its competitive position in a world where greening the economy becomes the first priority. Port authorities can also play a pivotal role in attracting and co-funding the establishment and exploitation of new green energy, for instance, in the development of off-shore wind and of hydrogen. In all those fields ESPO should continue to play the role of strategic partner in the realisation of the EU Green Deal. Again a great example of how European ports can contribute to a better and greener Europe.

Another priority for the EU is the digital transition of Europe’s economy and society. In your opinion, how can a port managing body play a role in the digitalisation of the transport and logistics chain?

When looking into the digitalisation options of a port managing body I think that the neutral position of a Port Authority should be seen as the most valuable quality. This neutrality should enable them to act as a broker between the different interests of market players in the logistic and supply chains. Think of shippers, shipping lines, terminal operators, and the different modalities. They all have a commercial interest that makes it problematic to share data between them. A neutral Port Authority can bring those interests and data together on a neutral data platform and facilitate the exchange of supply chain data in the broadest sense of the word. Such a platform improves the performance of the port (and probably also other ports) and strengthens its competitive position.

Victor Schoenmakers with new ESPO Chair Annaleena Mäkilä (ESPO Award Ceremony 2017) Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global value and production chains, the debate on reshoring industry back to or closer to Europe and diversifying supply chains gained a new momentum. Do you think that, in time, we will see a reshoring of industry closer to Europe as well as more diversified supply chains?

The COVID-19 pandemic made it very clear that those supply chains that do not have spread their risks are more vulnerable. A single-solution supply chain strategy will be replaced by strategies where more suppliers create a higher grade of resilience. This could mean that near or reshoring gains track in order to have indeed more diversified supply chains. Also the greening of the European economy and the compulsory reduction of CO2 will contribute to the development of those locations where production processes fit with environmental requirements. It could mean the strengthening of the EU as a manufacturing base and push the globalisation. On the other hand cheap production and transport are still there and work in the opposite direction of that.

For several years now, geopolitical conflicts, trade disputes and economic nationalism have seemed to be on the rise. This in turn has a negative impact on an open, free and equal international trade environment, which is very important for European ports. Are you concerned about those developments? How might they affect the European port sector?

In my view, transport will always be necessary in order to bring supply and demand together. What will or can change is the geographical spread. Functional and geographical specialisation will always exist but probably, maybe, on another scale than in the past. Those scale effects could be transferred also to the transport sector and affect the European port sector regarding the scale of its markets and corresponding physical port assets (access, terminals, intermodalities). Also, a more severe and strong EU environmental and climate policy could result in stronger criteria and taxation for and on the import of goods from outside the EU, and that might affect European ports as gateways for traffic into the EU.

The EU wishes to pursue an open strategic autonomy approach, where it would further pursue its own interests independently and assertively, while continuing to work with partners around the world. One of the dimensions of this approach is an enhanced screening of foreign direct investments in the EU. Is this relevant for European ports? Do you believe Europe has been too naive with its open investment and trade environment?

I always believed in an open market economy and free trade, but based on the same set of rules. Think of state aid and unfair competition by monopolistic or oligopolistic players that affect the level playing field. The EU should stick to its policies and regulations on state aid and unfair competition, and probably be more alert, keep its own position and not be afraid to intervene when the EU standards on fair competition are threatened.

At ESPOwe hope to rely now and then on your expertise in the coming yearsas you are part of the corporate memory of our organisation. Do you have some advice for ESPO and its members?

The strongest advice I can give is: continue the good work and keep ESPO and its membership unified with all their differences. Maintain the high level of professionality and fact-based knowledge and provide it to the EU policy makers and the EU institutions. Stay ahead of what is coming and be a strategic partner to other stakeholders and the EU institutions. And define ports as multifunctional nodes in a logistics and industrial network. A place where a lot of things come together. And of course, I am always available to advise ESPO, whenever relevant.

What are your plans for the coming years? Will you remain a “port pro”? Will you still be active in the port or logistics sector?

I will definitively go on and be active and move on as a port pro. Use my knowledge and professionality to contribute to the development of ports, their mission and strategies. I look forward to those new challenges!

At a more personal level, having a bit more free time, what else keeps you busy these days?

Next to rowing, running and hopefully also ice skating this winter, I am getting quite busy and involved with certain port development projects in and outside Europe.