Makeover time for the shipping industry

Makeover time for the shipping industry

Frank Coles is a provocateur. But unlike many noise makers, he knows what he is talking about.

Text: Alexander Farnsworth Photo: Transas, Wärtsilä

Frank Coles is the CEO of Transas, a UK-based company acquired by Wärtsilä in May 2018. With 1000 employees, Transas is a global leader in marine navigation solutions that include complete bridge systems, digital products, electronic charts and vessel tracking equipment for traffic separation schemes.

For Wärtsilä Marine Solutions, the EUR 210 million acquisition brings vital expertise in solidifying the company’s Smart Marine Ecosystem vision with 21st century products and platforms.

Coles has spent his career in the maritime sector in various global functions and is no doubt the man for the job.


Food for thought

“The business of maritime operations is FOSSIL: Fleet Operations Solutions Stuck in Limbo. We are in a limbo because we add technology while navigating with paper,” said Coles during a keynote address at the Transas Global Conference 2018 in Vancouver, Canada, which could double up as a TED-style talk.

“Maritime operations and infrastructure thinking seem to change at a snail’s pace. We seem to be content to have old-fashioned ships and an old-fashioned business infrastructure sitting alongside modern logistics,” he continues.

In very broad terms, most people know how the maritime industry remains a traditional tonnage-based industry racing to stay afloat in a sea change of new technologies.

“I do like to churn things up,” Cole says. “And I won’t be silent! The problem with this above scenario is that the maritime industry is just not keeping up, with the logistics. The pace of change in logistics far exceeds that seen in maritime operations.”

Coles will continue as Transas CEO in the fold of Wärtsilä, and help in this process of finding efficiencies in the business.

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Advanced integrated ship simulator suite at the City of Glasgow College.

Master and commander

Coles was born in 1959 in Zimbabwe to British parents with a maritime background and sailed for 12 years in the UK’s merchant navy, gaining a master’s certificate in the process. It soon became time to continue his career onshore, which led to a law degree from the University of Wales, Cardiff, in the UK. With time at sea and by then a full-fledged lawyer, a young Coles went on to become the very hands-on Operations Director for Pacific Basin Bulk Shipping in Hong Kong running a fleet of 50 bulk carriers around the world.

The time at Pacific Basin in the early 1990s coincided with the advent of ship-to-shore email and other electronic communications and Coles moved to Globe Wireless, a specialist in ship-to-shore wireless communications applications. He was recruited to the Transas CEO position in 2015 to whip the company into shape for a possible merger or sale.

“Transas is very good at what it does,” says Coles. “But with the direction the maritime industry is now taking, consolidation is required to take the business to the next level. I’ve been fortunate to be in this industry for over 40 years and even run a shipping company. So this merger with Wärtsilä is what I myself would have wanted.”

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CSMART Academy, Carnival Corporation – one of the most advanced maritime simulation and training centres powered by Transas technology.

A donkey or a racehorse?

There is a lot of energy, enthusiasm and thinking out of the box in Coles’ entrepreneurial and organisational spirit.

“For the longest time, efficiencies in shipping only came from moving larger volumes with bigger ships and the environment be damned,” Coles says. “That is how this penny-pinching industry has been structured from the very beginning. We layer modern technology on top of old-fashioned business processes. The old-fashioned structures of regulators, clubs, lobbies and representative bodies no longer fit with the new world. Nor do they move fast enough to keep up. We cannot keep designing a donkey when we are looking for a racehorse. It is going to bite us in the ASS (Archaic Spaghetti Structure). We need to build ships with integrated systems and not a mishmash of stand-alone IoT applications.”

While the acquisition of Transas by Wärtsilä provides the digital platform and scale, Coles is advocating for step-by-step modernisation of the industry into a smart marine ecosystem that will also help attract younger people to careers in the industry. “Young people want safe and environmentally safe workplaces and efficiencies on the scale of Amazons or Alibabas. Black smoke is no longer acceptable,” says Coles.

For Wärtsilä, Transas will help connect bridge systems, condition-based monitoring, power generation and other dynamic technologies with the Transas portfolio of ship traffic control, simulators and e-navigation solutions.

“It is incredibly exciting to have this opportunity to join the Wärtsilä brand in delivering the future of maritime transport,” Coles says. “We share a common vision, one of a safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly maritime industry. The Transas team has significant competences in technology, along with a globally recognised leadership position in navigation, simulation and traffic control systems. Adding these to the extensive, world-leading Wärtsilä portfolio of services and products provides an unparalleled opportunity for a new ecosystem for maritime operations. If anyone can do it, Wärtsilä can.”

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