FACE TO FACE: Jens Madsen – Berth Controller

The control room at Ports of Auckland HQ is impressively high tech; banks of screens detail every aspect of port activity – but managing director Jens Madsen isn’t happy. NZ Management’s visit has coincided with shift changeover and the scene below is bit static – more straddle carrier park than bustling port.
This is the nerve centre of an operation that connects New Zealand businesses with 164 international ports in 64 countries and Madsen is keen to demonstrate how it conducts the finely orchestrated dance of machinery designed to boost port productivity. Screens show how real-time movements are measured down to minutes and metres. The name of the game is optimisation.
“A key issue for us is that the fewer number of times we have to touch the container the better,” explains Madsen. “For the customer [the shipping lines], it’s all about our ability to turn the ship around as fast as possible. To assist that, we need to make sure the straddles out there are interacting optimally with the cranes. From the containers arriving outside the gate until they’re alongside the ship – all is tracked and measured from here.”
If you can eliminate truck queues, cut metres from each straddle journey, minimise container movements – it’s all money saved. Madsen does sample sum.
“If you’re handling say 600,000 containers year and you can cut just $1 off each container, that’s $600,000 year saved. If you can cut $10 off then that’s $6 million – that’s lot of money. This is the main focus for the new team we have in place…”
That’s why screen tracking real-time productivity has pride of place in the reception area. It’s all part of keeping the operation competitive – something even more vital as recession slows the tides of world trade.
Port profits no doubt will be impacted in response to the reduction of both inward and outward traffic across the wharves – imported vehicles dropped by nearly 24 percent in the last half of 2008. Shipping lines, struggling to pay for the vessel upgrades ordered in more buoyant times but coming on-stream now, are carefully scrutinising their own costs. Ports of Auckland has to remain an attractive option for the newer, bigger ships now plying the main trade routes, says Madsen.
“Today we are getting reasonably large ships into our ports. In future, unless we as country prepare ourselves properly, then we might find that the larger ships come only as far as Australia before turning back to Asia and we would get smaller ships feeding cargoes into New Zealand. That would be unfortunate – importers and exporters would be suffering from that because we would then become very dependent on what is happening in Australia. I think it would be better if we can remain master of our own destiny.
“That is major concern to us. The other is that we as business entity stay on top of cost management. We really need to be thinking in terms of innovation, in terms of product development. How do we trim the cost we create at the port? How do we ensure we can offer solutions where the fat has been cut out so we have lean supply chain that provides as high as possible value proposition and lean as possible costs.”
Madsen’s enthusiasm starts playing havoc with his syntax – that and the slight formality in his accented speech betray his European origins. But at 50, he’s now spent big chunk of life away from his Danish homeland – in places as diverse as the United States, Japan, Ireland and the Ukraine.
“I’ve always found it very exciting to get to new places – even the Ukraine, which was very tough environment. It was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union so personal safety was an issue.”
That turns out to be something of an understatement, but Madsen doesn’t want to dramatise. He’s also been guest of the North Korean government – arriving via China on “cold winter’s day” back in 1987.
“The North still had hope then of hosting some events in the [1988] Olympics Games that were being held in South Korea so they had built this massive 2000-bed hotel. I found out quite quickly that apart from myself there was only one other guest – diplomat from Afghanistan. During lunchtime we were taken to this restaurant the size of football field. He was placed in one distant corner and I was in the other – I think they didn’t want us to team up and spy against North Korea.”
Dry humour and natural curiosity have probably served Madsen well in the very different cultures he’s experienced during his working life. Born and brought up on the outskirts of Copenhagen, he emerged from college with “a strange mixture of maths and economics” to join local shipping line Maersk in 1977. The company put him through three-year traineeship before dispatching him to San Francisco – the first of several overseas postings. His next proved to be more pivotal.
“My first groundbreaking experience was the eight years I spent in Japan. Initially I went to spend 18 months on this management programme and as part of that I was stationed at major Japanese trading house. I met my wife-to-be there working in one of the departments. So, I ended up getting married there – my children were born there. It felt like big part of my life.”
He stayed with Maersk and as the company’s Asian shipping interests were run from its Japanese HQ, travelled fairly widely throughout the region. He was the first company representative to visit Vietnam (then still recovering from the war) and later established branch office there. Being able to start business from scratch was exciting work, says Madsen, though similar project in the Ukraine had its challenges. There the environment was neither safe nor healthy (the fallout zone from Chernobyl’s atomic power plant explosion was bit close for comfort) for his pregnant wife who returned to Japan. He proved luckier in his next posting – Ireland.
“It was like coming back from hell to heaven. We spent three years in Dublin – that was really enjoyable time.”
Then came the offer of role in New Zealand – again establishing new branch. It wasn’t an easy call. His young family was happy and settled in Ireland but in the end, they decided to make the move and it was during his four years here in the late 1990s that Madsen got to know then Ports of Auckland head, Geoff Vazey. That relationship was also pivotal – though he didn’t realise it at the time.
Meantime, he and his family were back in Denmark for the first time in 20 or so years.
“In hindsight, that was good because on personal note my father was not in good health and I was happy about being given the chance to spend time with my parents.”
They were there for five years – long enough to decide to sell the house they’d bought in Mission Bay. That happened in 2004 – and six months later, he got the call. Did he want to come back to New Zealand – to job with Ports of Auckland? Absolutely.
“We had always missed New Zealand – and had wanted to stay on. Then this call – out of the blue. That is my career in nutshell, always things seem to happen out of the blue.”
When he looks back, it is often the “small and innocent events” that turn out to be watersheds.
“When in 1984 the director of HR asked me if I would be interested in this stipend to study in Japan I initially politely declined. Then I thought why not – it’s only 18 months. Now 25 years on, I look back on what seems small event and realise it was decisive in my career and in my life.
“I think coming back here to the Ports of Auckland – most definitely dream job – is again something out of the blue.”
He was originally hired as chief operating officer in early 2006 with the understanding that if things went to plan he would take over the organisational helm when Geoff Vazey stepped down – which he did in August 2007. It’s challenge – heading 140-year-old but dynamic organisation sitting in the middle of large city “with probably 1.4 million Aucklander

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