Heinrich Schoeller and Mark O’Neil step up ‘friendly’ succession planning

Monday, February 6, 2023

Schoeller Holdings shipowner still active as CEO reveals aims for 2023 and beyond.

Schoeller Holdings has big plans for the future as it works on its succession planning.

Chief executive Mark O’Neil told TradeWinds that the Cyprus-headquartered shipping group has used the past three years, which have been dominated by the pandemic, to sort out which of its businesses fitted where in the group.

O’Neil has a dual role, having been CEO of parent Schoeller Holdings, which owns ships, since 2019, as well as CEO of ship management arm Columbia Group since 2017.

The group is owned by Heinrich Schoeller, who set it up in 1978 and remains chairman of Columbia and executive chairman of Schoeller Holdings.

“And long may that continue. It’s teamwork we have, and friendship,” O’Neil told TradeWinds.

His role at Schoeller Holdings has gained more prominence in recent times as part of the “overall succession planning”.

“That’s something we’ve been doing probably since the start of Covid, for obvious reasons, where everybody was exposed, and focusing on what happens when and if. And that succession planning has built up a momentum,” he explained.

As for his own focus: “The main priority remains Columbia Group, there’s no doubt about that.

“Certainly, while Captain Schoeller himself remains active, there is perfect alignment, and I do mean perfect alignment, between the two of us as to where we should best focus our efforts and where those efforts are most needed. So it is two very different hats.”

Columbia Group is described as being “probably more active”, with Schoeller Holdings much more the centre of asset holding and whatever investment opportunities come along.

“The beauty of Schoeller Holdings as the holding entity is that it’s extremely strong, financially, operationally, strategically,” O’Neil added.

The owned fleet stands at 46 vessels, with 16 on order.

The group also includes the “very successful” AAL Shipping for multipurpose vessels, as well as hotels, restaurants and aviation through private jet management business Skyside, and shipbroker Hanse Bereederung.

“We have a growing number of partnerships with other vessel owners and we are open to those who want to come in on an equity mix on vessels,” O’Neil said.

“We are looking to invest in start-ups and IT platforms going along as well. Within all of that and around all of that is a very strong management team.”

The group has redefined itself.

Columbia is now an integrated maritime logistics and energy services platform; a one-stop shop for equity, finance, catering, crewing, technical management and IT.

But ship management remains “the beating heart”, he said.

“The marketplace has become a lot more sophisticated. One of the most demanding clients at Columbia group is Schoeller Holdings.”

The two drivers for this year are its people and a project-led approach to new business.

A directors’ strategy meeting for 2023 at the end of last year reiterated that “people will be at the front, middle and end of everything we do”, the CEO said.

He is now focused on getting the right staff in, and will visit universities in the UK and Germany to attract dynamic young people.

“How terrific is this industry? I don’t think we’re getting our message out there enough. We tend to be recirculating the same people, going from one company to the next to the next. There’s not enough new blood coming in,” O’Neil added.

As for work-life balance for a man with two jobs, he said: “The most important thing is you have fun doing what you’re doing. I always say to our people I haven’t done a day’s work in the last six years because I’m having so much fun.”

He described the group as “a wonderful family environment”.

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