Port of Rotterdam’s way to navigate uncertainty, address ESG and tackle the war on talent

During the past 24 months, companies had to face outbursts of uncertainty. Europe experienced yet another conflict, energy prices spiked, inflation rose quickly, and supply of key personnel dropped sharply. We were happy to interview Mr. Tim de Knegt, Head of Treasury at Port of Rotterdam, the company that runs the harbour activities of Europe’s largest port.

The port of Rotterdam is Europe’s gateway to the world. Huge flows of commodities and other goods flow through its harbour. Port of Rotterdam services many companies with land leases and shipping movements. Any disruption, anywhere, leads to operational and financial consequences at one of the leading Dutch companies.

He believes that three of the four disruptions, the conflict, energy prices and inflation are related hence must be addressed accordingly. The conflict led to a sudden drop in availability of carbon energy sources that quickly drove European energy prices up, contributing to broad inflation within the space of weeks. Tim saw components of one of Port of Rotterdam’s strategic scenarios, “Protective Markets”, unfold. As the countries of the Western world continued to cooperate closely and keep markets open, many other countries turned inward which impacted global trade. Quickly, direct trade flows such as the Russia-Europe trade, dropped sharply. Within weeks however, trade flows slowly re-emerged but trade flows had changed. Countries that first turned inward sent goods and services to intermediary countries such as China, which then traded into the open markets. The hiccup however sent ripples through the markets, changes trade dynamics that affected companies using the services of Port of Rotterdam quickly.

Port of Rotterdam supported its key clients that proved to be vulnerable to these dynamics in two ways. That vulnerability became visible in credit reports sourced from credit rating agencies, like Dun & Bradstreet, but also from direct discussions with clients. Risk and credit profiles changed. Firstly, payment terms were adjusted temporarily. Tim noted that Direct Debit instructions lead to quick drops in net cash positions at clients. Port of Rotterdam discussed with clients a more balanced payments structure. The decisions worked out well. Clients were able to adjust, and the Port of Rotterdam’s core activities continued without major disruption. Secondly, not all clients are able to cope with such situations and a fit for purpose support structure emerged.

The spike in energy prices made a painful dependency on a limited set of carbon-based energy resources clear. That was a call to action for the company, which re-wrote its strategy to allow for a broader client base that had serviced heat and electricity generation via carbon resources. Port of Rotterdam decided to target other sources too, of which hydrogen logistics and carbon capture storage are prominent. Here, the Dutch government is instrumental: Carbon Dioxide licenses are needed to execute the carbon capture storage plans.

A management paradox emerged. How to match long-term corporate politics with short-term stress? Making choices that please a broad group of stakeholders is key to the success of Shareholders, Management boards, Clients, and broader Society. The need for more corporate agility became clear. A new set of parameters had to be defined. We discussed the blocking of the Suez Canal by a containership, which led to disruptions in many value chains. How could Port of Rotterdam have anticipated such an event? How should Port of Rotterdam react in case of such a scenario? Is the company agile enough? One other scenario is that of a disruption that changes a steady flow of goods into an erratic flow, requiring land-based transportation companies to time their arrival at the harbour differently to avoid congestion and traffic jams.

As the corporate community rightfully addresses Ecological, Social and Governance (ESG) questions, companies must adapt their strategies to assure normal course of operations without changes in their own ESG targets.

Banks have embraced ESG principles in many ways. One of the consequences is that several banks are cutting their exposure via reduction of eligible client lists and risk preferences. Companies must pre-empt the likelihood of losing bank access whilst maintaining their ESG principles.

Port of Rotterdam has adjusted its consortium of banks. Strikingly, some Northwest European banks -often with government as stakeholder- and North American banks appeared to deploy ESG strategies that did not match those of Port of Rotterdam. The result was a shift from risk-driven banks to impact-driven banks.

The War on Talent requires a smart human resources strategy. Tim told us that Port of Rotterdam has chosen an inclusive human resources strategy that allows for tapping the broad and diverse Dutch labour market. Reaching out to the diverse group of human sources requires an active communication strategy via all modern platforms.

The company must be an appealing employer, which is why Port of Rotterdam showcases its activities via social media and professional media such as LinkedIn. Connecting to the company must be easy, and applicants must feel the genuine attention of the company’s HR personnel.

It all starts with a balanced view about the company’s desired employee profile. The balance between the genders, academic levels and backgrounds must be fair. Port of Rotterdam has listened to the desire of its employees to live a life where private and professional activities meet. The desire to be impactful and effective rather than earning a living alone poses another challenge. Here, management plays a role during work hours: Listening and Coaching are key to keep employees happy and keep them on board. Tim believes that talent will only join a company and stay employed if a company manages to be a conscious partner for its work force.

Profile picture of Tim de Knegt

Tim de Knegt

Head of Strategic Finance & Treasury, Port of Rotterdam