Interview: Mark Geilenkirchen, CEO, SOHAR Port

Mark Geilenkirchen, CEO, SOHAR Port and Freezone

How would you describe SOHAR’s near-term objectives and long-term vision?

Our near-term and long-term vision is intrinsically linked, with the objectives of Vision 2040 being the driving force behind our business today. SOHAR Vision 2040 will help us rapidly grow in a way that is aligned with Oman’s economic diversification objectives.

With regard to our near-term objectives, the existing and upcoming projects will provide methods to increase our cargo capacity and are a key aspect in boosting businesses at the port. Since the establishment of the food cluster, we have secured significant public and private sector investments that have allowed us to attract a large portion of the agricultural cargo trade in the region.

We are paving our own path to development and growth.

One of our notable projects is the SOHAR Port South expansion, alongside the potential land investment opportunity at Terminal 2D.

We are proud to showcase our year-on-year growth trajectory which evidences our emergence as a logistics hub. We are in many senses, paving our own path to development and growth.

How does the partnership with the Port of Rotterdam serve to heighten the attractiveness of SOHAR?

As a leading port in Europe, the Port of Rotterdam has been renowned as a foundation for port developments worldwide, due to its centuries’ worth of expertise. We are extremely fortunate to benefit from this experience, as well as our strong relationship. The partnership between the Government of Oman and Port of Rotterdam draws from the strength and experience of both parties to continuously contribute to our growth and success. We utilise Port of Rotterdam’s six centuries-worth of proficiency in the carrying out of our daily operations. Subsequently, we are inspired by their top-notch practices with regard to the principles of environmental protection and technological innovation. This has also played a part in unique developments and offerings. Alongside this, the shared knowledge exchange and bonds with Port of Rotterdam have created an immensely fruitful partnership. As a result, despite being 15 years young, we have emerged as one of the fastest growing ports in the region.

How important is SOHAR in driving the Sultanate of Oman’s prosperity and that of the wider region? To what extent does SOHAR’s ongoing development echo the national economic vision?

Oman has proven to be a worthy competitor for other more established transhipment complexes in the region and has also been able to position itself as a unique centre for several supply chains, as well as a gateway for over 3.5 billion consumers in the larger part of the region. SOHAR Port and Freezone has become the core link in the Sultanate’s commercial logistics industry and is an essential contributor to the globalisation of the economy.

According to the NCSI Statistical Yearbook 2018, the total GDP in Oman in 2017 was valued at OMR 27.8 billion, with SOHAR Port and Freezone contributing approximately 4.8% to the total National GDP.

Furthermore, Oman has also remained active in consolidating its food security by increasing domestic production. This growing contribution by the local agricultural sector aims to account for 3.1% of Oman’s GDP by 2020.

We strongly believe in enhancing the Sultanate’s food security, which has been a matter of great focus for the government in recent years. The construction of the large capacity grain silos emphasises the rapid growth and development of the food and agriculture sector in SOHAR, while at the same time aligning it with the country’s continued economic diversification efforts.

What do you consider to be the chief challenges on the horizon for ports, free zones and the global shipping industry, and how is SOHAR working to mitigate the risks presented by these?

We are working in a very challenging environment, both regionally and globally. All challenges, however, bring with them immense opportunities. One example of this is our diversification plans, which are linked with the diversification strategy of the Government of Oman. We are working to shift the national dependence on the Oil and Gas sector, which is the main contributor to the economy, to a more diversified directive. This includes plans for a regional hub for liquefied natural gas (LNG) bunkering and the implementation of energy efficient resources, such as the upcoming solar power project.

All challenges bring with them immense opportunities.

On the technology front, what has been the impact of AI, blockchain and robotic process automation on operations and strategy at SOHAR?

AI and logistics offer faster delivery worldwide, with more accurate predictions on estimated departure and arrival of shipping vessels. The technology also aids container operations and has cloud-based applications to optimise travel routes.
We have recently launched SOHAR Navigate, a unique online route planner, which provides information on available connections to hinterland destinations. The platform is the first of its kind in the region and will comprise of sea schedules connecting to 550 ports worldwide. The platform takes into consideration the specified point of departure and the desired final destination, to offer the user several different routes based on modality and expected transportation time. The platform also offers extensive analysis tools and dashboards with relevant user data.
At SOHAR, we are currently reviewing our strategies to include initiatives that include the implementation of blockchain technologies to be utilised for logistics management. Intensive research into digitisation platforms that are designed to aid shipping industries and finding one that meets our specifications, are just the first few steps and will potentially improve efficiency and productivity at both the Port and Freezone

Are there plans to diversify further beyond the logistics, metals, petrochemicals and food clusters or is the strategy to consolidate on these fronts?

We are currently striving to create a value chain by the creation of several upstream and downstream opportunities. An example is the Food Cluster and Liwa plastics, with the former being the foundation for an entire upstream and downstream food production, packaging, and distribution eco-system and the latter with opportunities in the polypropylene and polyethylene plants. At SOHAR Port and Freezone, we keep ourselves up-to-date with all technological developments and aim to be a forerunner in shipping, logistics and industry, thus giving us an edge over our competitors in the Middle East. In the future, we expect to see even more growth across the port and free zone complex, including an increase in transhipment and cargo. There are still plenty of opportunities waiting to be explored at SOHAR.

There are still plenty of opportunities waiting to be explored at SOHAR.

We also remain focused on enhancing the very broad industrial offering at SOHAR, keeping an eye out further expansion and investment opportunities across our various clusters.

How is the SOHAR Port South Development serving to enhance SOHAR’s offer?

The SOHAR Port South expansion is one of our major projects, which will witness the reclamation of around 200 hectares from the sea (adding to the port’s existing 2000 hectare capacity), starting with approximately 50 hectares in the initial phase and correspondingly adding more in later phases. The second phase will be focused on hosting new industries that require deep water berths. Trescorp, a Singapore-based oil and petroleum products trading firm, is one of the first investors to benefit from our new deep-water project. Other investors are also being lined up to take advantage of the additional 150 hectares being offered as part of the Sohar South expansion.

Due to its close proximity to the bustling petrochemicals cluster and with access to cool water, this expansion will be assigned almost exclusively for oil and gas-based investment.

To what extent does SOHAR support sustainable green energy initiatives?

SOHAR has always been committed to protecting the environment and encouraging sustainable development for its tenants, partners and the surrounding community. SOHAR aims to implement untapped cross-industry opportunities that could benefit customers both financially and environmentally, such as in the case of the redistribution and reuse of waste by-products. Together with their tenant companies, SOHAR has been attempting to find synergies that aid energy cost optimisation and also minimise the impact of their businesses on the surrounding environment.

A few key projects that the Port is looking into involve utilising ‘green power’ to provide several environmental benefits. These include conducting research for a means to carry steam to other industries as an energy source for production and a study to convert port vehicles to run on hydrogen.
We entered into an agreement with Shell for the establishment of solar-powered projects to reduce overall electricity consumption, while also undertaking the task of monitoring the ambient air quality of the entire industrial complex. This is to ensure all operations are in accordance with the standards set by the Ministry of Environmental and Climate Affairs. The agreement for a MARPOL-compliant (Marine Pollution) vessel waste discharge facility will ensure environment-friendly operations.

Further reinforcing their concept of ‘Smarter Thinking’, we continue to keep ourselves abreast with efficient solutions that modernise and simplify port and free zone operations. This is mainly focused on utilising the by-products of certain industries as a source of energy for other industries or facilities.

What do you hope you bring to your role? How do you motivate and inspire those around you? How do you benchmark success?

Team members and employees look to the management for guidance and support, and to be effectively briefed and engaged, for instance, in the case of new projects or developments. Close collaboration with everyone in the company ensures that there a much higher rate of success at SOHAR. Additionally, this approach makes every individual, regardless of their role, feel like they are an invaluable asset to the team, forming a stronger bond through teamwork. Moreover, having a clear strategy and execution, effective, open, and transparent communication is vital across all levels of our organisation. Doing so consistently encourages others to follow suit and reinforces our trustworthy reputation with stakeholders.
Being able to effectively delegate and control tasks, a commitment to excellence, hard work, and leading by example, are all major skillsets we need for our business to succeed. The ability to foster a workplace atmosphere that is both friendly and professional; promoting excellence and efficiency, both internally and externally are cherished in our SOHAR workplace ethos.

Profile: Mark Geilenkirchen

Chief Executive Officer, SOHAR Port

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Logistics from the Maritime Institute De Ruyters in the Netherlands, Mark set-up and managed HT Research from 1991-2001, an international consultancy focusing on logistics and quality.  In 2002, he returned to De Ruyters as a lecturer, where he created a specialised business faculty for logistics and established many working relationships with other leading universities. In 2006, Mark joined ABN AMRO as Vice President, where he helped to lead the company through the global financial crisis. From 2010-2014, Mark was appointed CEO/CCO of APM Terminals at Port of Zeebrugge, in Belgium, where he was responsible for attracting significant Chinese investments and returning the loss-making port to profit.  Mark joined SOHAR Port and Freezone as CEO in July 2016 from Hong Kong, where he had been working for two years as Global Client Director with APM Terminals. Mark is married, lives in Oman and has three children.

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