For George Gabriel, director of Golden Union Shipping Co., it is not difficult to pinpoint the heart of the company's values: he points to a photograph of the company staff and simply says, "It is people who make up the company, and it is people that we invest in."
From humble beginnings in 1977 in a 50-square-metre office to today's impressive headquarters with hundreds of onshore staff and more than a thousand employees at sea in the near future, people remain the heart of this company, where traditional family values and old-fashioned ethics rule. The company will have by the end of 2010 a fleet of 26 bulk carriers with a total deadweight (DWT) in excess of 2.7 million.
Today, the young recruits have become executives and have grown with the company. They have been selected as a result of personal introductions, an HR practice that ensures that personal traits are in line with the company ethics and principles, ensuring also proper character, a positive attitude and a solid belief system. After this, the company examines qualifications.
"We convert old-fashioned standards into efficiency. That seems to work quite well," says Mr Gabriel. "In fact this approach is part of our Safety Management System and also applies to our ship-based personnel."
Golden Union obtains its onboard personnel from three main sources. One is in Greece, at the company's main office and office on the island of Chios. The second is at its office in the Philippines, the third is at its office in Russia. The company also recruits fitters and welders through a Agent from Poland.
In Russia, Golden Union's offices are fortuitously located in the same building as the Admiral Makarov State Maritime Academy (AMSMA), where the head of the electronics department is an advisor to Golden Union's office, providing the company with a superb pool of talent.
"In the Philippines," says Mr Gabriel, "we are several steps ahead of other operations since we have created our own processes within an established, quality operator. This set up allows us to audit the operations twice a year and we have achieved excellent results. Our crew retention rate, especially relating to officers, is approaching 96%."
In addition, the company maintains a quality processing procedure, has established familiarisation processes, has created and published its own familiarisation booklets that it uses, and has set up special training courses, carried out at academies that the company has selected and which it monitors.
Investments, not costs
In 2003, the company also started a programme to employ cadets from the Philippines Maritime Marine Academy (PMMA), the only State training academy in the country, which also produces officers for the country's coast guard.
"Golden Union has entered into a sponsorship programme with PMMA to ensure that we have access to the top trained officers in the country. This is a huge step forward for us and entails a considerable investment, since we underwrote the cost of the Academy's new barracks. Of course, we believe it very important step in order to continue providing a quality operation."
In order to ensure a future supply of well-trained officers, Golden Union has established a new position on board - that of Junior Officer - which allows an engineer, for example, to split his time between his normal duties in the engine room and the role of an watch keeping officer.
The environment - a zero tolerance policy
Golden Union has established its own zero tolerance policy regarding the implementation of the MARPOL accord.
"As with everything that has to do with safety," says Mr Gabriel, "our commitment starts at the top. In this regard, Golden Union has created its own familiarisation policy booklet that is used on every vessel by all seamen."
In practice, that means one simple thing: any part of the ship or piece of equipment related to safety or the environment is fast tracked - it is subject to a turbo process - and receives top priority. "As DPA but also as Director of the company," says Mr Gabriel, "I brief every master and engineer personally before they board a vessel on company policy so there are no misunderstandings. We have found that our internal standards meet and exceed those for ISO 14000, so we are in the process of being accredited to that standard now."
In addition, Golden Union is applying for Green Passports for all its newbuilds, even though this is in no way mandatory. Plus, a member of its management is a trained MARPOL auditor, allowing the company to self-audit using its own officers and ensure full compliance.
ISO 14000, TMSA compliance and regular consulting with Rightship of Australia, the maritime dry vetting specialists, ensure that Golden Union is well prepared to meet all challenges in respect of safety requirements. The company is confident that its Health, Safety, Security, Environment (HSSE) Handbook is well thought and most comprehensive and constantly updates seamen on new regulations.
The DNV difference
"It must be noted," says Mr Gabriel, "that a great deal of our progress has been achieved through the fine cooperation we have had with DNV over the past 30 years."
Mr Gabriel also reconfirmed Golden Union's pledge to continuously train its crew and personnel, try to maintain the best safety and environmental standards and, as he repeated, "demonstrate every day that commitment starts at the top."
Text: Raymond Matera