Lois Zabrocky, CEO of NYSE-listed tanker owner International Seaways (INSW), is on the cover of the latest issue of Maritime CEO magazine, which publishes today. Straight talking Zabrocky is not your typical shipping boss. It’s rare enough in this industry for a woman to be in charge. It’s rarer still for her to hail from a farm.
“I was the youngest of eight kids growing up on a dairy farm in Iowa, and we worked. We were running 150 milking cows with zero help,” she recalls in an interview with Maritime CEO at her company’s midtown Manhattan office.
Her brother, two years her senior, left the farm to attend the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point in New York. He urged her to follow him. She did. “I never looked back,” she says.
Zabrocky was one of 20 women in a class of 160. She describes Kings Point as “intense”, but never once considered dropping out, and came away with a deep belief in “how important it is to have strong people alongside you, who support one another”.
The academy’s requirement to serve aboard a US-flag vessel was a formative experience for her as a decision-maker. “At 22 years old, I was in charge of a tanker on the 4-8 [am] watch – and it matures you. When you’re on watch, you’re in charge of the ship, you’re making traffic decisions, and you’re in charge of the safety of the people onboard. There are situations where you have to make decisions that you don’t face naturally when you’re ashore, and I think that shapes you.
“I find that many, many people in the world, for whatever reason, do not want to make decisions,” she says. “But if you don’t make a decision, one will be made for you.”
After her time at sea, she took a job at Maritime Overseas Corporation, the predecessor to OSG. “I was the first women ever hired in the chartering department of the company,” she says.
Her years in chartering have proven extremely valuable. “Chartering is all about problem-solving.
When you’re doing chartering, you have to learn everything. You have full access to everybody in the company.”
In 2005, she was appointed head of OSG’s product tanker business unit, a promotion that added yet another facet to her management acumen. “It was like running a mini-company. With business units, you have P&L [profit and loss statements]. To manage P&L in shipping, mostly what you can do is control your costs, so you have an appreciation for operational expenses and what you are willing or not willing to do.”
Her combined experiences – of seafaring during her academy years, of negotiating ship charters as she rose through the ranks at OSG, and of managing costs as the head of a business unit – all came together in her role as CEO of International Seaways, which was spun off from OSG in December 2016 and currently owns 36 crude and products tankers.
On the markets Zabrocky is optimistic telling Maritime CEO: “I think in 2020, at a minimum, we’ll see increased refinery utilisation, and there’s a lot of refinery capacity coming online this year.”
A US-China trade détente would be another plus. “It would be better, because the Chinese had been steadily increasing how much they were buying. With the Chinese out of the equation, India is a big recipient, some is going to Korea, and some to Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. But some of the barrels are going shorter distances, on suezmaxes and afras.”
Summing up her management style, Zabrocky explains, “I’m a people person. This team we have here is super-dedicated and there’s mutual respect. And I think that if you’re going to be on a team, every player has to be ‘bringing it’ to have mutual respect. I also think knowing you don’t know everything is really important. You have to have the people on the team that can bring the horsepower and make your ideas happen.”
Zabrocky is one of many shipowners featured in the magazine, which is set for wide distribution at next month’s Singapore Maritime Week. Elsewhere in the magazine, we assess whether boxship sizes have plateaued, while SeaIntelligence Consulting’s Lars Jensen brilliantly pours cold water on IMO 2020.
The full magazine is available to read online for free by clicking here.