‘Safety first’ for Shell’s shipping VP Henderson

Grahaeme Henderson

Grahaeme Henderson. Credit: Shell

For Shell’s vice-president for shipping and maritime, Grahaeme Henderson, there is no compromise when it comes to safety.

It is at the “front and centre” of all he does at Shell, it influences his decisions about the individuals and companies he works with, and is even central his parenting style.

Safety must come before operations, he tells Fairplay, and the Shell lifer is determined to take the lead on getting the shipping industry to follow his example.

As the president of the UK Chamber of Shipping for a second term, Henderson is adamant that maritime casualties need more attention and that the industry needs to sit up and start questioning why lives are lost in shipping.

“We need to give a greater profile to accidents, why they have happened, and what we can do to prevent them happening again,” he says.

Referring to the loss of the 32 seafarers on the Iranian Suezmax tanker Sanchi, which sank off the South China Sea in January, as well as other casualties that have not commanded headlines, he says shipping should not wait for these incidents to happen. Rather, the industry should play its part in working to ensure these things stop happening.

Henderson, who believes that the number of people who lose their lives in shipping casualties is underreported because most statistics do not include incidents involving fishing vessels, is determined to elevate safety in shipping and Shell “intends to make a significant move in safety to bring the shipping industry together”, he says.

“I have seen very graphically the impact of safety incidents. They not necessarily incidents involving Shell, but when you see mothers and children who have lost a partner and father – it’s powerful. It has an impact on you. I just wonder how many of the leaders of shipping companies have experienced this. For those who have lost people and have had to go and visit the family, it has a profound impact.

“We can play our part in shipping to collectively work together to ensure these things don’t keep happening. That’s what drives me forward. Every safety incident generally results in fatalities – ships are large objects and cause of lot of damage. They are on the water so they are not easy to get to or get away [from]. Emergency services are close by but people can’t always survive in water for long,” he explains.

With some 3,000 Shell employees working on the water and more than 2,000 floating assets, Henderson tells Fairplay that one of the key aspects of his role is looking after his people and this requires strong leadership both internally and within the wider shipping industry.

“I am a strong believer in the leader and leadership involvement always makes a big difference. People look up to their leaders. The leader sets the vision and sets the direction. Everyone listens to what the leader says and as a leader you have to make sure that you get that right because they hang onto your every word. As leaders we need to be aware of the impact we are having,” he tells Fairplay.

Henderson has strong views about those leaders who don’t prioritise safety. “If a leader says that they don’t have time for safety, [I ask] ‘what are you doing all day?’ The families of the people that you employ are entrusting you with their wellbeing. This is a major accountability. You have to take this seriously and make it a top priority.”

Firmly believing that “good safety is good business”, Henderson has been improving safety standards at Shell since he took his current role in 2011 with the company’s Maritime Partners in Safety scheme that involves about 500 of its business partners.

With four focus areas to the programme – ship visits, drill compliance, new ways of learning, and building resilience – annual meetings in either London, Rotterdam, or Houston, Texas, involves Shell and its partners sharing honest feedback about each other’s practices and processes.

For Shell, its partners’ attitude to safety determines whether the company is prepared to continue to do business with them.

“If a company demonstrates that safety is not its top priority, then we don’t want to do business with it,” he explains. “There are companies that we no longer do business with because it became clear that safety is not their priority.”

According to Henderson, Shell, which moves 20% of the globes liquefied natural gas, has been striving to improve its safety performance and has been achieving results. In 2011 it recorded an actual or potentially serious incident every seven days. This figure has now dropped to once every 25 days, he says, and even though Shell “is pleased with this result, it is still not good enough for us”.

A father of three, Henderson tells Fairplay that safety governs every decision he makes at work and in his personal life.

“I look at everything from the perspective of what if that was my child being put into that position. What would I like done and what would I expect others to do. Safety has to be a way of life – whether it is making your kids put their mobiles in the glove compartment when they drive so they are not distracted to shipboard operations. If safety is right, everything is right,” he explains.

Henderson joined Shell as a graduate trainee after a brief spell lecturing at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, where he completed his doctorate in the mathematics of sea waves following engineering studies. After a year working in the North Sea, he moved up the ranks with roles the Netherlands, Nigeria, Syria, and Brunei.

He is currently active on a variety of shipping bodies including the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, where is chairman, and UK Shipping Defence Advisory Committee, also as chairman. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Oceans.

A Londoner – born in leafy Chiswick and schooled in Isleworth – Henderson readily admits that, even though he is at the helm of the oil major’s shipping business, he has not got a seagoing background of any sort, although his work and academic studies “have always been on water”.

This has not been a disadvantage, he tells Fairplay, as he is able to work alongside and learn from expert sea captains and chief engineers and he has a fair amount of experience from time spent on offshore platforms in earlier Shell positions.

For him, the attraction of his current role was the brief that shipping is extremely important to Shell and would become more important and that he would have “a bit of a free remit” to “put together a new strategy to put shipping into a more central role in the company and that is what we have done”.

Contact Nicola Good and follow her on Twitter: @nicgoodmaritime

See also: Shell to ‘make a significant move in safety’ to bring shipping industry together