“It has to be more about evolution, not revolution”

Tom Hewitson, Head of Chartering and Freight Solutions
Tom Hewitson has built a career amid the hustle and bustle of shipping’s trading desks. As he takes up the reins at Maersk Tankers’ chartering and freight solutions arm, Hewitson discusses how ship managers today must both drive up owners’ earnings and cut emissions by deploying vessels efficiently.

Hewitson is immediately sympathetic. He is a man who is known for his sharp intellect, ability to squeeze out earnings from vessels as they criss-cross the oceans and for being a collaborator. His passion for maritime life – “I love being in, on or next to the sea,” he says – has guided him through a more than two-decade career in commercial shipping, on the trading floors of bp to Morgan Stanley and Castleton Commodities International.

He is wearing a white shirt, dark blue blazer and light trousers, striking a balance between the business and casual look. He comes across as collected and has the welcome habit of pausing for a few seconds of thought before answering a question.

It is Hewitson’s third working day as Head of Chartering and Freight Solutions at Maersk Tankers, a position he accepted after a call which, he admits, gave him “butterflies in the stomach”. He has long known the company, “since the first day I walked on to the bp trading floor 22 years ago”.

We make our way through the top floor of Maersk Tankers’ Copenhagen headquarters, passing models of ships, a table tennis table with young people playing to win, and modern office spaces and meeting rooms, before we sit down to talk.

We return to his passion for the sea, which, he tells me, has its roots in centuries old maritime life, when every voyage was an adventure into the unknown. 

The unknown remains a big part of maritime life – vessels are loaded with cargo before setting out for a destination that is either unknown or can change on the customers’ demand. He explains: “There is so much optionality embedded within a ship when it is at sea and that, to me, is fascinating.” 

Hewitson adds that optionality also comes with tanker shipping being a global industry that has to react to natural disasters or geopolitical storms such as the Russia-Ukraine war, which has led to a worldwide energy crisis. Regardless of disruption, vessels still have to get energy products to their destinations to fuel the world’s need for energy.

His priority at Maersk Tankers will be to strengthen the company’s commercial and freight solutions performance. Indeed, he notes, he and his teams of 40 will be judged on the financial returns they deliver to shipowners. Hewitson knows that this will involve “a lot of hard work” and require a collaborative approach where, experience tells him, “It has to be more about evolution, not revolution.” 

He grew up in a small fishing village on the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. He remembers it as a safe place with plenty of opportunities to live an outdoor life. 

His dad was an entrepreneur who had his own building company; his mum ran the accounting side of the business. His brother went into the family business, and it seemed natural that Tom would follow. But he took a different path, attracted by the idea of “designing things that float and at a massive scale”, and studied Naval Architecture and Shipbuilding at Newcastle University.

Hewitson has enjoyed a long marriage and describes his wife, who is a climate change officer in local government, as “strong minded” as himself. It is a family with a shared love of the sea: Tom and his wife sail competitively, and their two daughters are keen surfers and sailors. 

He describes himself as a “true family man”, a role he is constantly seeking to balance with the non-stop demands of shipping’s trading desks, where people are constantly on the phone, navigating real-time data on vessels’ positions, while calculating prices and earnings for voyages.

Inevitably, the interview turns to decarbonisation – the number one topic in shipping today. The world’s demand for energy, for some time to come, will have to be met by a mix of fossil fuels and alternative energy sources, and “we need ships to transport it”. But, says Hewitson, “We live in a world that has to decarbonise and oil’s place in that world will change.”

Next-generation shipping, he continues, will require a “blend of technical and commercial expertise to come up with solutions”. He emphasises the need for physical changes to vessels, such as propeller and hull optimisation, as well as deploying the fleet more efficiently. And, he adds, the demand will “come sooner than expected because of new regulations”. 

As the interview is coming to an end, Hewitson tells me he is eagerly waiting to open a new chapter in his career. He has left me in little doubt that he is ready. As an all or nothing man, “I don’t do things half-heartedly. I am in or out,” he says, breaking into a smile.