Family values an asset for CMA CGM development

Tanya Saadé Zeenny

CMA CGM’s executive officer, Tanya Saadé Zeenny, says the carrier is looking to digitalisation and ship technology to drive its future success. CMA CGM: 5078190

The lesson to “always look and think ahead” is one that was clearly ingrained in the Saadé children from an early age. Now, the offspring of CMA CGM founder Jacques Saadé are firmly focused on the opportunities and advantages that digitalisation can offer the world’s third-largest container line.

CMA CGM executive officer Tanya Saadé Zeenny, the sister of group chairman and chief executive officer Rodolphe Saadé, tells Fairplay that the French carrier’s “goal is to become the leader in digital shipping”.

Digitalisation, she says, is key because “we need to evolve. We need to offer new competitive services and digitisation will help us differentiate from our competitors”.

The group has been looking closely at digitalisation for several years. It was among the first companies in container shipping to back box-tracking technology company Traxens and last year it launched online freight quotes platform Freddie.

In January, CMA CGM established Ze box, a start-up incubator that will open in Marseilles, France, in June, where it will host a dozen start-ups from around the world to assess shipping solutions.

This digital drive is also underpinning much of its customer activity as the Marseilles-based group evolves its product offerings to “have a better understanding of their expectations and deliver an even better customer experience”, says Saadé Zeenny.

From supporting its clients with finance to expanding its businesses abroad as announced at TPM 18 under its ‘Caring beyond Shipping’ approach, to its Serenity scheme – which will guarantee a 30-day payout when cargoes are lost or damaged because of unforeseen events during transportation ­– the French group is widening the range of it services, targeting long-term relationships while working to ease its customers’ interactions with the carrier.

“Our digital agency allows 100% digital interactions between CMA CGM and its customers,” says Saadé Zeenny. “All these new products are aimed at serving them better and at facilitating their journey with us. Together with them, we want to build the shipping of tomorrow.”

The group’s desire to innovate – one of the five pillars of her brother’s ‘Shipping the Future’ strategy – is by no means focused solely on digitalisation. The carrier is also looking to lead in ship technology following its landmark decision to use liquefied natural gas (LNG)-fuelled engines for the nine 22,000 teu box ships it ordered in September 2017, a decision that Saadé Zeenny describes as “simply revolutionary because we are the first shipping company in the world [to do this]”.

She adds that the move was the result of several years of work within the group and it reiterates its commitment to innovation for the protection of the environment.

“With LNG, we are not only talking short term, we are looking ahead and thinking longer term. The use of LNG by large container ships is an emerging market aiming for significant growth and we are confident other shipping companies will follow our lead,” she tells Fairplay.

CMA CGM was founded nearly four decades ago and the Ocean Alliance member has grown into a global box line boasting a fleet of 504 vessels and a combined capacity of 2.53 million teu. However, its journey has not always been plain sailing and, like many in the container sector in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, the group faced significant financial challenges, “but we have continued on course because my father had confidence in his decisions and choices”, says Saadé Zeenny.

One of those choices involved the family-owned company bringing in additional financial muscle. In 2011, Turkish ports mogul Robert Yildirim invested USD500 million in CMA CGM convertible bonds for an initial 20% equity stake as part of a USD5 billion debt restructuring programme. A year later, his group injected a further USD100 million for a further 4% stake. There was talk of the Saadé family buying back his 24% stake in 2015 and in 2017 there was speculation that Yildirim would dispose of his CMA CGM holding to fund a ports purchase.

This stake in the company is now worth between USD2.5 billion and USD3 billion – the carrier claimed the best 2017 operating results in the sector – and it is understood that Yildirim is not yet ready to sell.

Crediting much of the group’s success to her father’s vision, she says, “My father has taught me and my brothers to always go ahead and think ahead”, pointing to the group’s agility as being one of its strengths and “what makes us able to face any situation while staying on track”.

A graduate of the American Business School in Paris, Saadé Zeenny started working in the family business in 1995, charged with setting up the group’s communications department at a time when CMA was starting its acquisitions process, including the 1996 purchase of French shipping company CGM. Other acquisitions include Australia National Line, Delmas, and Neptune Orient Line.

In April, the carrier announced plans to expand its logistics activities through the acquisition of a 25% stake in Dutch logistics group CEVA Logistics for up to CHF450 million (USD462.9 million).

In most cases, the group has allowed the legacy brand names of its acquisitions to continue, but has built unity and a corporate culture that is aligned with the “entrepreneurial spirit that is the trademark of the CMA CGM Group”. Given the size and scale of acquisitions, this has required consistency and hard work.

“Over the years, we have shown our capacity to adapt while never forgetting our values and principles. This ability is due to our culture, our organisation, and the expertise of our more than 30,000 employees,” says Saadé Zeenny.

“My father has always respected those he worked with and that is a lesson I have learned from him. Shipping is a people’s industry and you need to build trust with people in order to build a strong future,” she explains.

Saadé Zeenny has held several positions during her 23-year tenure at CMA CGM. In 2005, she was appointed vice-president of the CMA CGM Corporate Foundation and, from 2006–10, she was vice-chairman of the group’s advisory board. She has been a member of the CMA CGM Group’s board of directors since 2010, and in 2014 she was promoted to her current role, with responsibilities for corporate communications, real estate, institutional relations, the group’s academy, environment, and administration.

So what have been the most significant decisions in her time with the company?

“You know, every decision is important because whether you work in our agencies, on one of our ships, or in the head office, you engage the company and its image. More broadly, we encourage our employees to act as if it was their company. We ask them to maintain this entrepreneurial spirit that has been our trademark,” she tells Fairplay.

“You need to know how to make a decision and anticipate how you are going to answer the consequences of your decisions. There will be times when you do not make the right decision, but this is how you learn and improve because you always have to go ahead and think about what is next,” she adds.

Referencing the group’s impending 40th anniversary, Saadé Zeenny says it is not only a celebration of the past, but a celebration for the future, one that CMA CGM employees are shaping together to make “my father’s achievement live for many more years and decades. My brothers, Rodolphe and Jacques Junior, and I are dedicated to continue in his footsteps to build the group of tomorrow but above all [we want to] build the shipping of tomorrow.”  

Contact Nicola Good and follow her on Twitter: @nicgoodmaritime

Read Tanya’s Saadé Zeenny’s female leadership view in Fairplay’s supplement on accomplished women in maritime.