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Flying the flag for women leaders in shipping

While many women might have been daunted at trying to break the glass ceiling in the shipping sector, which is still perceived as a male-dominated industry, Ms Hall says she relishes the challenge.
While many women might have been daunted at trying to break the glass ceiling in the shipping sector, which is still perceived as a male-dominated industry, Ms Hall says she relishes the challenge.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

The general manager of Shell Chemicals is one of the few female execs in the industry

The global downturn has hit the shipping industry hard - South Korea's Hanjin Shipping being the latest victim - but Shell executive Catherine Hall sees a silver lining amid the dark clouds.

Indeed, the downturn plays to her advantage because her company sources vessels to carry chemicals, and freight rates have become much cheaper.

Ms Hall, 42, who is responsible for global shipping of Shell's chemical products, tells The Straits Times: "Different parts of the shipping business are in different places. Downstream is producing most of the profits at the moment, and Shell Chemicals is part of that.

"But our Shell parent is experiencing some layoffs, and that does filter down to my team and makes us more focused on reducing costs," says Ms Hall, who manages about 40 people.

Before joining Shell, the London native was with BP for 15 years, chartering ships for oil, gas and chemicals around north-west European markets before moving to Singapore in 2008 to manage the oil giant's fleet of oil tankers in the region and all chartering activity.

WOMEN AT THE HELM

My plan is to stay in shipping. We need female leaders in senior roles across shipping companies and big shipping industry bodies.

SHELL EXECUTIVE CATHERINE HALL , on defying gender stereotypes

The job brought Ms Hall her share of adventures, including dealing with pirate attacks.

"One of the vessels I was responsible for was chased and attacked by Somalian pirates in the Arabian Gulf. Fortunately, that was fended off by the ship's seafarers, who used big high-pressure water hoses to keep the pirates from boarding. And we got them safely to Singapore where they were headed."

Although her team later wanted to send the ship back to Rotterdam via the Arabian Gulf as it was the most commercially viable option, they decided that the crew's wellbeing trumped financial opportunity.

"Clearly, the seafarers weren't happy about going back to where they were just attacked. In the end, we sent another ship on the voyage and we took that ship down to Australia."

An Oxford graduate, Ms Hall said she knew she wanted to work in Asia after having spent time in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia when she was 18. "The chartering manager role in London was a key stepping stone. After 21/2 years of that, I was offered the job as chartering manager of Asia," she says.

Fortunately, her then fiance agreed to move out to Singapore with her, and her two children were born here in 2010 and 2011.

While at BP, Ms Hall developed a strong interest in employee communications management and has helped develop this across the businesses she has worked in, including at Shell, which she joined in November 2012.

Ms Hall helped create i-Mindset, a culture change movement she believes makes a difference in the way business is done.

"I learnt about how to engage people rather than just tell them things, how to inspire them to do more than what they thought possible. It starts with painting a picture of what 'Great' looks like for our organisation, what kind of values and behaviour are important to delivering that."

Being one of the few female executives in the shipping industry has certainly given her a rare perspective on the industry.

While many might have been daunted at trying to break the glass ceiling in the sector, which is still perceived as a male-dominated industry, Ms Hall relishes the challenge.

"My plan is to stay in shipping. We need female leaders in senior roles across shipping companies and big shipping industry bodies."

But shattering stereotypes isn't easy.

In 2001, she was told by a roomful of men when she showed up for a meeting about running ships that she was at the "wrong" meeting.

In 2013, shortly after taking her role at Shell, she was told by a male peer that she "doesn't look" like a general manager of Shell Chemicals because she was "female, blonde and young".

"That's why I continue to fly the flag for women in the industry," says Ms Hall, who has done the Spartan race in Singapore and was an avid motor racing driver in London.

"Shipping and motor racing are similar in that they are full of men, and, more often than not, I would be the only woman.

"Motor racing is a hazardous activity. You have to understand the risks you are taking and be confident you've taken measures to mitigate risks and keep yourself safe. Shipping is also about taking risks and mitigating risks, how to make our activity safer, and how to keep our people on ships safe."

In the same vein, Ms Hall maintains that it is important that management be prepared to take risks on women and give them fast promotions at certain points in their career if they are capable.

"Women's careers may not be typically linear like that of their male counterparts, because they typically tend to also take on caregiving roles."

Despite having taken out 20 months for her two pregnancies, Ms Hall was hired to a higher-level job by Shell for her shipping and leadership skills and potential.

"Hiring someone after maternity leave can be quite risky, but Shell recognised the skills I have, and my potential, and approached me," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2016, with the headline 'Flying the flag for women leaders in shipping People'. Print Edition | Subscribe