When Danish businessman Maersk McKinney Moller was 94, he ordered a new yacht for delivery in two years’ time.
It was typical of the long-term view that Moller, who died aged 98 in 2012, took in both his personal and business life. He spent more than 50 years helping to build AP Moller-Maersk into a conglomerate — spanning the world’s biggest container shipping line, oil exploration, drilling rigs and port terminals.
Since the death of Moller — who was at various times chief executive, chairman and head of the main shareholder at Maersk — the influence of his family has seemed to wane.
But, as the group takes its biggest strategic decision in decades — to break itself up — there are growing signs of the founding family reasserting control over Denmark’s biggest company by revenue.
“The family were pretty quiet for a few years,” says one senior Maersk manager. “But now we feel their influence much more.”
That influence has played out in Thursday’s move to split Maersk in two: a new transport and logistics business that will form the core of the company, and an energy unit that could be spun off, sold, or used for joint ventures.
The clearest sign of the family’s re-emergence was in this summer’s drama that led up to the group’s strategic rethink. In late June, Maersk surprised outside investors and its own workers by firing its chief executive, Nils Andersen — and then launching a strategy review to be delivered later this month by his successor, Soren Skou.
A Maersk insider says this only came about after a “struggle of wills”, in which Mr Andersen lost out to the family and Maersk’s chairman, Michael Pram Rasmussen.
Maersk executives are in no doubt that much of the impetus for the break-up came from the family. “If they wanted to keep things the same they could have done. This is about their long-term view of the group,” a third manager says.
The family throughout has continued to have a voice in the boardroom through Ane Uggla, the 68-year-old daughter of Moller who serves as Maersk vice-chairman as well as chair of the main family foundation.
But the novelty is that at the start of this month one of her sons, Robert, became chief executive of AP Moller Holding, Maersk’s controlling shareholder with 51 per cent of the votes. “There are more strings to play on now than just Ane Uggla as vice-chairman,” says a second Maersk executive.
On Thursday, Ms Uggla said that AP Moller Holding had “developed its considerations about the future” of Maersk in recent years and had shared them with the board. “Historically, the Maersk activities’ strategy and structure have always undergone changes. And these changes will continue in order to stay agile. While we are rooted in shipping and energy, we must never become static in a dynamic world,” she added.
In the first phase of the break-up, Maersk’s businesses will be divided into two units: one focusing on transport and logistics; the other energy.
The transport group — centred on Maersk Line, the world’s largest container shipping company that transports 15 per cent of seaborne freight — will be the new core of Maersk. It will also consist of APM Terminals, an operator of ports, as well as various other shipping and freight businesses. Maersk will seek “solutions” — joint ventures, mergers or listings — for the businesses placed in the energy unit, including Maersk Oil, rig operator Maersk Drilling, and its oil tankers.
The division ensures Maersk will remain a conglomerate in line with family wishes, albeit a more firmly focused one. As Ms Uggla said in a rare interview in 2013: “We are a group of companies. It has served us for 100 years, and we believe in it. We will also, in the future, have several legs to stand on.”
The break-up also restores shipping as the cornerstone of Maersk after an attempt by Mr Andersen to boost the other parts of the conglomerate. “The history of the family is in shipping,” explains an insider. “It’s in their DNA; it’s the heart and soul of the company.”
It comes at a time when the container industry is in crisis with even Maersk Line, the industry’s most profitable participant, losing money in the second quarter. Freight rates have slid to record lows, causing the industry’s biggest ever collapse judged by capacity.
Last month, Hanjin Shipping, South Korea’s biggest container shipping line and the world’s seventh largest, filed for bankruptcy after lenders withdrew support. Its failure underscored the impact of the sector’s longest downturn in six decades, which is increasingly leading to consolidation that Maersk has now indicated it would like to take part in.
But anybody fearing that Maersk’s strategy review is a response to short-term pressures such as the slump in oil prices and freight rates would be wrong, executives claim.
Lars-Erik Brenoe knows the family better than almost anybody having served as Mr Moller’s personal assistant for nearly 20 years until his death. “There is no doubt that the family are preparing for the next 100 years — that is the perspective the family have,” he says.
It is a mantra one hears from the Maersk management, too, from chief executive Mr Skou to the family foundation’s Ms Uggla. She said in 2013: “Of course, 10, 15, 20 years is a long time to look ahead for a company but in the foundation it is not very long. I like to look 100 years ahead: that is the long-term goal, which is most important for the foundation.”
Seen in that light, Thursday’s strategy review is also a chance for the newer generations to step out of Maersk McKinney Moller’s shadow. “What Maersk has to learn is that Mr Moller was a unique individual. And what you have here is a bit of a new generation,” says a fourth senior Maersk executive.
Both of Ms Uggla’s sons are active in Maersk. Johan, the elder brother, is head of APM Terminals’ port in Aarhus, Denmark’s largest, while Robert was chief executive of Svitzer, Maersk’s towing and salvage company, until last month.
Now it is Robert’s role to act as an “engaged owner” in the words of one insider. “I think you’re seeing a real generational shift in the family,” says another of the Maersk managers.
The restructuring comes at a tough time. All of Maersk’s businesses are under pressure, with profits this year forecast to be “significantly below” those from 2015. One of the managers says: “It cannot be fun to be in the Ugglas’ shoes at this time.”
Throughout all this, however, they have the example of Moller and his father, the group’s founder, to guide them. Maersk’s controlling foundation must use its shareholder votes to ensure the company is managed in the “spirit” of the founder. Insiders say the family feels the weight of history on them all the time.
As Mr Brenoe says about Maersk today: “Mr Moller is still present. But the company is changing every day.”