An Old Boys’ Club in Shipping Lost Its Top-Ranking Woman

The Maersk's Triple-E giant container ship Maersk Majestic, one of the world's largest container ships, is seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai, China, September 24, 2016. Picture taken September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song

The shipping industry is known as something of a rugged establishment in which mostly male executives climb to the top of a mostly male ladder.

In Denmark, A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S broke that mold earlier this year when it brought Carolina Dybeck Happe on board as its chief financial officer. The 47-year-old Swede — a former Assa Abloy finance chief — would bring a breath of fresh air to the old boys’ club that Maersk’s upper echelons were known to be.

On Monday, Dybeck Happe announced her resignation. Her decision to leave Maersk for a role as CFO at General Electric Co. once again leaves the Danish shipping giant with an all-male executive board.

MP Pension, a Maersk shareholder that manages about $20 billion in assets, is now urging the company to find a qualified woman to replace Dybeck Happe.

“Looking at it from the outside, one has to ask if there’s still something in Maersk’s culture that makes it difficult to retain top female management talent,” Anders Schelde, the investment chief at MP Pension, said in an emailed reply to questions.

It’s the third high-profile departure from Maersk’s top ranks this year. It also represents a setback for the 115-year-old firm, which is struggling to adapt to a global trade war that’s hurting Maersk’s clients. On Tuesday, markets were trying to decide whether the latest signals from China and the U.S. offer some glimmer of hope that the stalemate might be broken.

Against that backdrop, Dybeck Happe’s exit is “a pity for Maersk because it leaves the company with yet another task on its to-do list,” Frans Hoyer, an analyst at Handelsbanken, said by phone. “It also puts the company in another transition period where a new CFO needs to be brought up to speed.”

Maersk has a history of grooming its leaders from a base of young men who have tended to ascend via its trainee program. Across the whole industry, women hold just 3% of executive jobs, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence report from last year. That indicates the sector is likely to underperform when it comes to attracting capital from investors who are growing increasingly vocal on gender diversity.

Schelde at MP Pension said the smaller talent pool of female leaders in the shipping industry to an extent excuses Maersk. But as Denmark’s biggest company, Maersk has “a special obligation” to lead the way in fighting gender inequality, he said.

“It’s my impression that they’re aware of this obligation,” he said. “But this is also about recognizing the value of having a diverse leadership, so that needs also to be considered when they choose a candidate.”

Maersk shareholders watched the company dip about $400 million in value shortly after Dybeck Happe’s departure was announced, as the stock fell about 1.5%.

But there may be more at stake for Maersk. It stands to lose out on long-term operational benefits at a time when the industry is trying to tackle numerous challenges, including stricter environmental requirements for fuel. Maersk Chairman Jim Hagemann Snabe said last year he believes an organization with better diversity and more women produces better results.

Maersk’s board will now consists of three men: Chief Executive Officer Soren Skou and Executive Vice President Morten Engelstoft, who both joined Maersk as teenagers. Vincent Clerc, the chief commercial officer, has been with the firm for more than 20 years.

According to a Maersk spokesman, Dybeck Happe will stay on until November 2020 unless the company finds a replacement sooner. Maersk declined to comment specifically on what the departure will mean for the company and referred to a statement by CEO Skou:

“Over the past year, A.P. Moller – Maersk has progressed well financially, illustrated by the latest earnings upgrade in October 2019. With a reinforced financial foundation, we are well positioned for future growth. I would like to thank Carolina for her short, but productive time at A.P. Moller – Maersk. She is committed to building on the progress that has been made and ensuring a smooth and orderly handover. She will leave in 12 months at the latest.” –CEO Soren Skou

Maersk also lost Dybeck Happe’s predecessor, Jakob Stausholm, to a larger company. Since 2018 he’s been the CFO of mining giant Rio Tinto Group.

“There have been many departures, but the silver lining is perhaps that most have left because they were able to land even bigger jobs,” said Hoyer at Handelsbanken.

[bloomberg]

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