Competitive shipbroking is intensifying as shipping markets hot up, which means brokers need to differentiate themselves and add value to their services.
It is also likely to drive consolidation in the sector, especially of small to medium-size broking shops, according to Mark Richardson, chairman of shipbroker Simpson Spence Young (SSY).
"I don't think there's necessarily too many individuals. I think there's probably too many shops," he told TradeWinds.
"I think there's a lot of room for growth actually, but does the market need a myriad of different broking shops all doing exactly the same thing? Probably not. You've got to differentiate yourself, and you've got to add value in any business, not just ours."
SSY is in talks to buy two broking shops, but Richardson would not be drawn on specific details.
He sees a divergence between the packages of services that big firms such as SSY are able to offer compared with more traditional services. Take, for example, the futures market.
"If the market suddenly shoots up in the morning on the derivatives, our brokers all know that immediately because they can hear the noise down the floor," he explained."
"Obviously if you're sitting in a 10-man shop somewhere else in the world, you have no idea that that's what's happening. Those things are absolutely vital."
Data, too, has been a big "dividing line" and bigger shops such as SSY and Clarksons are building systems to look at metrics like vessel speeds, emissions and markets.
"Ultimately, that leads to deals. But if you're in a small or medium-size shop, I don't see any of those companies actually doing anything in that area. I know, from our clients, that that's what they want," he said.
"Now, if you're a client, you're not going to be calling a small five-man shop to get those answers — and those answers are way more important now than they were five years ago."
It is not just clients who want to make us this joined-up service offering, according to Richardson.
"We're already seeing experienced brokers gravitating towards us, but also we are constantly looking at companies to buy," Richardson said.
The last time SSY made an acquisition was in 2017, when it bought Copenhagen-based bulker broker Bidsted & Co.
"I think that these current factors of giving people worldwide opportunities to be able to travel and learn their business, data, derivatives — all these factors that have become so much more important in recent years — are probably squeezing the small to medium-size companies," he said.
Since becoming chairman in 2017, Richardson has worked to join up the various teams within SSY, break down silos and make the firm more of a one-stop shop for its clients.
Earlier this year, the firm poached broker Toby English from rival Affinity (Shipping) to be its new global head of sale and purchase. English is still on gardening leave, but is set to join the firm before the end of the year.
Richardson wants to leverage English's "team-building mentality".
"That's the only way that you can make that vision work — of pulling together the chartering, the finance, the period and projects, everything," Richardson said.
"I think this is going to be a new sort of regeneration of that side of the business."
There have been some lessons along the way.
In 2019, SSY bought out Swedish investment bank Carnegie's stake in the ship finance joint venture SSY Carnergie, now known as SSY Finance.
The joint venture did not work as the partners had envisaged, Richardson explained.
"Often the deal gets driven from the other side, whereby it may be the 'money men' that are actually driving the deal," he explained.
"They'll be saying, 'Well, we've got this amount of cash to be able to invest. We want to get this kind of yield on it'. That's where the deal starts. So, actually, there wasn't a match-up there."
SSY plans to grow the business further and make new hires.
Nikos Stratis joined SSY Finance from Clarksons at the start of 2021 and has already completed deals.
"He did the finance, the S&P department did the S&P and dry cargo [department] did the charter," Richardson said.
"That model is there and functioning, we just want to make it bigger and invest in that. That's where we see the growth.
SSY still has no female partners worldwide and, according to its chairman Mark Richardson, it could be "three or four years" until that changes.
"I would say that in my own department, the derivatives side of the business, we probably have the highest proportion or highest ratio of female to male staff," he said.
"There's a lot of bright young ladies that are working for us here, in New York and Singapore. And I'm actively encouraging those [women] to come through."
Richardson considers SSY to have a diverse workforce in terms of race, ethnicity and nationality, but it remains male-dominated.
"It takes time to come through. Partnerships don't get given out lightly, and most people would probably work for us for at least 10 years before they would actually be considered for partner," he explained.
SSY employs just under 400 staff and currently has 22 partners.
Richardson said he would like to grow the headcount to 500 or 600 people.