What was your earliest memory? Playing in the garden of our home north of Copenhagen on my own — carrying and lifting branches and other items too heavy for me to carry. It resulted in me being taken to hospital with a hernia.
Did you go through training/university or straight into work? I went to university for a year but didn’t thrive, so I switched to a polytechnic institute (British Columbia Institute of Technology) where I obtained a diploma in business administration — in half the time of a university degree — and went from there straight to work (in Hong Kong) at the age of 22.
Who have been your mentors? In the earlier days, Jack Vibe Christensen, who headed the East Asiatic Co (EAC) in Canada. EAC was at that time, 50 years ago, larger than Maersk. Hard to believe. The others were Jack Cunningham (Cunningham Transportation, today known as CTL Westrans) and Erik Tofsrud. Later, although he was my boss, I always looked upon Anthony Hardy as a mentor.
Ambition or talent, which is more important? I have no idea. What I think is by far the most important is to have passion for whatever you do, and that certainly applies to shipping.
What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into shipping? Had my father not passed away when I was very young, I would most likely have followed him into the family wine business in Copenhagen. But my mother remarried after some years and we moved to Vancouver, and that is where my shipping career began.
Your biggest extravagance? A really good bottle of red wine ... and my sail boat.
How do you relax? Exercise — sailing, skiing, jogging, biking. And after that, to read a good book, or watch a really good documentary or drama series.
What would you like to own that you do not possess? A bigger sailing yacht.
Where and when are you happiest? When I am with family: offspring, grandchildren, siblings and cousins. And when sailing, preferably racing, or skiing in pristine conditions — new snow, cold and blue skies...
What would you change in shipping if you could? Finding a quicker, simpler route to agreeing regulation that works across the industry and is applied globally, fairly and consistently, ensuring healthy and fair competition. So easy to aim for, seemingly so difficult to achieve.
Is politics important to you? It is, because it is seemingly an unavoidable fact of life, and I admit to a fascination with politics (I read lots of political biographies). I wonder how so many politicians can say the things they say and still somehow keep a straight face, let alone look at themselves in the mirror at night! It never ceases to amaze me.
Which four people, living or dead, would you like to invite to dinner? Margaret Thatcher, Vladimir Putin, Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton.
What would your 20-year-old self say about you today if you met? “This white-haired old geezer looks ancient, but he still seems to have a touch of humour and energy about him.”
What keeps you awake at night? Personal and family-related issues.
What are your favourite song, book and film? Return to Sender by Elvis Presley; Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown; and Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean.
What is the most important lesson you have learned? Treat others as you would wish to be treated.
What are your best and worst characteristics? Reliability I see as my best. Being a pushover for the sake of harmony and being a people-pleaser is my worst.
What is your greatest achievement so far? Becoming chair of the International Chamber of Shipping [ICS]. I was told at the time I was first elected that the position is akin to herding cats. It is not far off, but as with any such position, there are high points and low points. The commercial world and that of association work are very different — the phrase “lost in translation” says it all. The industry needs more big names to understand association work and get involved in it. Don’t sit on the sidelines and criticise: get involved and help move the needle!
What has been your greatest disappointment? Not having made a fortune! More seriously, I think disappointments are more of a personal nature and best left unsaid.
What ambitions do you still have? To be a good mentor, as I have tried to be with a number of young people. And to continue making a contribution to the industry, making a difference and adding value, but also being keenly aware that the day will come, just as it does for everyone, to leave the scene, graciously and without fuss.
- Esben Poulsson has been in shipping since gaining a diploma in business administration at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in 1971. He will step down next June after serving his third term as chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents about 80% of the world fleet.
- Poulsson is executive chairman of Singapore-based Enesel, an owner and manager of large containerships, where he has worked since 2013. He is also a non-executive director of Nordic Shipholding, Epic Gas and Finnlines, and non-executive chairman of Cambiaso Risso and Tamar Ship Management. In addition, he serves as senior advisor to X-Press Feeders and is on the board of the Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore.
- He was president of the Singapore Shipping Association until 2019 and before that joined the advisory panel of the Singapore Maritime Foundation in 2011. In 2016, he was appointed to the Baltic Exchange Advisory Council after its acquisition by the Singapore Exchange. Poulsson has previously held senior shipping management positions in Hong Kong, London and Copenhagen.