Departing Stolt-Nielsen chief executive Niels Stolt-Nielsen is a contented man as he prepares to hand over the reins to a new boss.

But one aspect of the group’s diverse business still nags at him: the poor returns from chemical tankers over a sustained period.

“I’m proud of having had the honour of running this company, working with fantastic people,” he told TradeWinds. “We are market leaders in most of the businesses we operate in and I’m very happy with that.”

During his 22 years at the top of the Oslo-listed family firm, Stolt-Nielsen has overseen expansion in shipping, terminals, tank containers and aquaculture.

New ventures

The company has also been involved in the formation of VLGC outfit Avance Gas, now controlled by John Fredriksen, and Avenir LNG, a joint venture with Golar LNG and Hoegh LNG.

But the CEO said: “The frustration is the shipping part. The chemical tanker market has been very challenging and continues to be challenging.”

“But that’s what we know and that’s what we do and will continue to do,” Stolt-Nielsen added.

He acknowledges the need for the group to find a way of making the sector more sustainable in terms of earnings, however.

Not good enough

“The returns of that business are not good enough,” he told TradeWinds.

“We’re working everyday to see what we can do differently. Even with low returns, I’m very proud we’ve been the leading performer in this business for such a long time.”

He remains proud of the people and the platform, Stolt-Nielsen added.

The chemical tanker operation, Stolt Tankers, has been prepared for an initial public offering for a number of years.

But the switch has not yet been flicked, due to market timing issues.

The CEO said in the firm’s fourth-quarter results on 27 January that the sector is set for an improvement this year as cargo volumes grow and the flow of newbuildings dwindles.