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The Port of Antwerp: Transitioning from elephant to dolphin

The Port of Antwerp: Transitioning from elephant to dolphin

Posted by Vlerick Business School
on May 27, 2019
in Entrepreneurship

Master Student Fernando Tonelli attended the Vlerick MBA Alumni Event with Mr. Jacques Vandermeiren - CEO Port of Antwerp. The port of Antwerp is one of the biggest ports in the world and, along with the port of Rotterdam, one of the most important in Europe. A deep and structured corporate transformation – led by the CEO Jacques Vandermeiren himself – moved the Antwerp Port Authority into the 21st century. Resulting in above-industry growth over the last few years, and profiling Antwerp as the ‘port of the future’. However, this was by no means an easy task…

Transforming from the top

During the presentation, we learned about the basis for carrying out a successful corporate transformation. First of all, it’s important to start the transformation from the top. Assembling a management team and board of directors aligned to the same objective is the seed for a successful transformation – and this was Mr. Vandermeiren’s first challenge.

Traditionally, the Antwerp Port Authority’s board of directors has been composed of members of Antwerp’s City Council, which has sometimes created conflicts of interest and didn’t really provide a professionally qualified body for port business. To improve governance and separate the board of directors from politics, professional independent directors were installed; on top of that, new talent with a fresh vision was incorporated into the executive team.

The second step is to diagnose the current state of the business, by conducting studies concerning the perception of the business and the potential that it could achieve. In this phase, management ascertained that the Port Authority was regarded as a heavy, dominant and controlling entity – hence, the image of the elephant.

Lastly, a clear multi-year plan, including clear and measurable objectives and targets, must be agreed upon by the different stakeholders. And even more important than the plan itself is the right communication to all the employees, from the top managers to the new hires.

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Becoming a community builder

The backbone of the transformation carried out by Mr. Vandermeiren was to change the role of the Antwerp Port Authority from a traditional landlord, regulator and operator to a community builder. There are around 1000 different companies, operating in a range of different roles and businesses, under the ecosystem of the Port of Antwerp. According to the current strategy, the future is in building bridges between the different companies and the Port Authority to enable a higher degree of cooperation and sustained growth. This means transforming from the slow moving, trampling elephant to the smooth graceful image of a dolphin: communicating and moving in a very agile way, being conscious of its environment and moving as a community.

One of the most remarkable stories of the transformation was the huge change accomplished in the IT department. Before the transformation, IT was a subservient support function inside a much bigger department, with little room for creativity and new developments. After the transformation, IT is placed as one of the main pillars of the ‘port of the future’ vision – and numerous innovations have arisen in the department, including robot boats and technological process improvement.

In conclusion, the transformation of the Antwerp Port Authority is a great example of how a very heavy and closed government-owned entity can adopt the efficiency, transparency and innovation that characterizes the private sector. Providing a better perspective, and securing the future, not only for the city of Antwerp, but for the entire country of Belgium as well.

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