A way of life. Kommer Damen on sustainability, digitalisation and passing the torch to the next generation
Damen Shipyards Group chairman Kommer Damen turned 75. He has spent his whole life in the shipbuilding industry, growing up on the family shipyard before taking over the business himself. During a success-filled career he has introduced the renowned standardised shipbuilding philosophy and overseen the development of the Damen Shipyards Group into an international shipbuilding, repair and services network employing over 12,000 people. For Damen #7 he talks about the past, present and future of Damen.
Q. Did you ever have ambitions to do anything other than shipbuilding?
I never thought about anything else. I grew up in a family of shipbuilders. We lived on the yard – literally. My father sent me to a shipbuilding academy where I studied marine engineering and naval architecture. After I left the navy, I went to work with my father and he appointed me as general manager aged just 23.
Q. Could the Damen story happen today?
It’s very difficult to say. When I started the company in the form it is in today, it was 1969, so quite a different time. But still, we have the same principles, building ships in series, trying to standardise and setting up a worldwide service organisation. So, if I should have the means to do it, I think it would be the same.
Kommer Damen in the summer of ‘69
Q. Would Damen be the same company if it was not a family business?
Certainly not. If we should have shareholders, they would be much more impatient about financial results and dividends. It is because we are a family company that we could make risky, sometimes loss-making, acquisitions.
Q. How would you describe your family?
We are a very close family. My children are very close to each other and also to me and I am close to them. They don’t always think the same, though they are all very decisive. When it comes to the company, they cooperate very well and accept the differences between themselves.
Q. Would you encourage your grandchildren to follow you into shipbuilding?
Yes, absolutely. I already try to influence them; I ask them to make me drawings of boats and I have a special archive for that – also for drawings my children made when they were young. I think it’s a nice industry, a nice way of life, so I will encourage them. I cannot think of anything better as a profession.
Q. Can you describe the people you started working with in 1969 and do you see the same characteristics in damen people today?
When I started out there were only seven of us. We were all young people so we didn’t see any risks. We were very enthusiastic, we worked extremely hard and we were very successful. Today, some Damen people are a lot older – like me! If I look at Young Damen (company group arranging social and professional get-togethers for young employees and students) though they are more or less alike, there’s a lot the same. Happily.
Q. The standardisation of ships has clearly been a great success – one that demonstrably worked before when the venetians standardised warship production in the middle ages – what is it that makes this philosophy so successful?
It was the same with the Dutch in the 17th century. Around Amsterdam they were turning out ships every day for sailing to the Baltic, Far East and the West Indies. Cargo ships and naval vessels that were very standardised. I think it’s the best way to success – you can continue to improve and it’s much cheaper. You make less mistakes and everything is more predictable. Because of this, in contracts, you can easily accept conditions because you know exactly what’s going to happen.
Q. Do you think there are limits to standardisation?
There are certain vessels that you can’t standardise, but I think almost every type you can. When you analyse your clients’ purpose and use of their vessel and their markets, you can design a standard vessel that will be better, cheaper, faster for delivery, with a higher re-sale value. And that, because the banks can predict its re-sale value, is easier to finance.
Q. What is your own personal favorite Damen vessel?
I think the Stan Tug 1606. It is an extremely compact and powerful tug. Very economically priced and lasts for ever. We started building them in in 1972 and they’re still practically the same boat today.
Damen Stan Tug 1606, Kommer Damen’s personal favourite vessel.
Q. Shipbuilding experiences cyclical peaks and troughs, what has kept you going when the industry has been experiencing difficult times?
Responsibility. You don’t want to end your life being unsuccessful. That’s not how you want to be remembered. So that keeps you going.
Q. This year’s Damen magazine has a focus on sustainability, what does sustainability mean to you and to the industry?
It is a challenging subject for our industry. For example, you can’t expect a ship owner to suddenly start using more expensive fuel, it would threaten his ability to compete in the marketplace and his business model would become unsustainable. So, you need regulations in order to have a level playing field. The technical solutions are there and I think we will see a lot of progress in the coming years.
I see huge growth in renewable energy – wind, tidal, solar – there will be enormous changes, but no one knows exactly what they will look like. In any case, it’s good that we do our part to ensure a clean environment. We are already ahead in many fields – we have electric ferries, we had the first hybrid tugs. We are fully invested in lowering emissions.
We also realise that the young employees of Damen are committed to improving the world. We see that worldwide and that’s another reason we want to adapt ourselves to sustainability.
Q. Another area of intense focus at this moment is digitalisation. We have heard a lot about how this may shape our products in the future. Do you think that digitalisation is also going to affect how we approach our clients?
The internet makes it possible to investigate the possibilities of buying a boat, so communication is totally different to what it was years ago.
We have of course quite a number of people involved in Damen’s presence on the internet; we are talking to clients this way. I also think you cannot change to the extent that we will only communicate with our clients via the internet. There is a personal context though that will still require meetings, paper and pictures.
Q. Looking ahead, where would you like damen to be in 50 years?
We are going to have extremely disruptive changes within the next 50 years, but we are still going to need ships. I think seaborne transport could be less. You saw in the past that seaborne transport was growing at twice the rate as the growth of the world economy. Today it’s about equal. But you will always have transport of commodities.
It’s difficult to say what the ships of the future will look like. Will people still travel the world for leisure? Will dredging be done from the shore? How will fishing and aquaculture develop? Will the global population continue to grow? Will vessels be unmanned?
So I think there are a lot of unanswered questions. I think the only thing we have to do is look about 10 years ahead and try to adapt ourselves to those 10 years. Then we can keep the company ahead of developments and try to be a leader, which we are in many fields.
So I don’t know what the future ships will be, I only know that Damen will be building them.