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Steering through a turbulent time

This month, Paul Jennings, chief executive at Newcastle-based marine insurer North P&I, steps down as chairman of the International Group of P&I Clubs, after four years in the role. Here, he looks back at a time of unprecedented challenge and great progress at the organisation.


The headline figures alone are pretty daunting.

The International Group of P&I Clubs is an association of 13 of the world’s largest marine insurers, which between them provide protection and indemnity (P&I) cover for nine out of every ten ocean-going vessel across the globe.

With 95 per cent of all international trade being transported by sea, that represents a hugely important part of the global economy, because without P&I cover – insurance for vessels – everything from small trading vessels to giant container ships cannot operate.

And then there’s the history.

The International Group has been in operation since 1899, when it was formed to help P&I clubs share liabilities, particularly for larger claims.

It’s a role the International Group continues to play today, with members sharing risks and liabilities for large and complex claims.

So how did it feel for Paul Jennings, chief executive of the only North East-based P&I club in the International Group, to start as chair of the organisation in November 2018?

“It was quite a challenge because you have 13 different views around the table from organisations which are normally in competition with each other,” he admits.

With three Scandinavian clubs, one in Japan, one in New York and seven in London, along with North in Newcastle, the different commercial challenges facing each club magnifies the complexity of achieving consensus on important issues such as decarbonisation, sustainability and safety at sea.

Paul says: “When I became chairman of the International Group, I did think my biggest challenge would be building consensus for an appropriate agenda on the common issues all P&I clubs face, as well as ensuring that the group remained relevant.

“Over 100 years of history is great, but you have to be prepared to change and adapt if you are going to stay relevant – and change is not easy to achieve, particularly when you have 13 different organisations with their own view on the world.

“However, by that time I had been involved with the International Group at a senior level for about 20 years, serving on several of the 40 committees which the group operates, including chairing the Reinsurance Committee since 2015, so had a good understanding of how the International Group worked.”

Looking back over his tenure, it was the unprecedented challenge from an unexpected quarter which fundamentally shaped Paul’s time as chair.

He says: “I remember being in a conference in Singapore in December 2019, and there were vague rumours about a spreading infection, but no-one thought something was coming that effectively meant we would not be travelling for the next two years.

“COVID-19 presented countless challenges for members of the International Group and, of course, shipowners and operators around the world, who were faced with a constantly shifting series of restrictions as they attempted to keep food, medicines and manufactured goods moving in a locked-down world.”

The global pandemic did, however, help to bring out the co-operative spirit among International Group members, who quickly took to technology to try and ease the situation for shipowners through greater insight and understanding of how the virus was spreading.

Paul says: “We moved to a virtual working environment very quickly in response to the lockdowns.

“As restrictions meant no one could travel internationally, people were able to virtually attend more International Group meetings than they would normally have been able to, and we were able to quickly build a consensus around how we could collectively help shipowners get through the pandemic.

“The pandemic helped to underline that as individual P&I clubs, we have more in common than in competition.

“A good example of this comes from here at North, where we developed a fantastic digital technology-based monitoring system, which gave shipowners and operators real-time updates on the situation regarding COVID-19 restrictions in all ports around the world.

“We made this freely available to all members of the International Group because it was the right thing to do for the common good, and we got a great reaction to that.

“I talked to other P&I club chief executives at the time, and there was a real feeling of togetherness about facing the challenges of COVID-19 – it was real co-operation, so maybe the adversity of the situation helped bring us closer together as a group.

“The phrase ‘collectively stronger’ is the motto of the International Group, and we have certainly seen that over the past four years, which is probably the one thing I am most proud of about my time as chair.”

This spirit of collective endeavour continues today with a fascinating project which the International Group is embarking on with Newcastle University’s National Innovation Centre for Data.

All 13 members of the International Group have agreed to share their marine safety and loss prevention data with the innovation hub, heralding the prospect of finding ways to improve safety and reduce risk at sea.

Paul says: “I’m absolutely delighted we have agreement on this – and really pleased it is being co-ordinated here in the North East.”

While Paul will be stepping down as chair of the International Group in November, handing over to Andrew Cutler of Britannia P&I Club, he will still be involved, albeit in a slightly different guise after February next year.

On February 20, 2023, North P&I Club is set to merge with London-based Standard Club to form NorthStandard, where Paul will be joint chief executive alongside Standard Club’s Jeremy Grose.

The new club, one of the largest marine insurers in the world, will see the Newcastle office remain as the registered headquarters, alongside a global network of offices.

Paul adds: “There is a lot of work going on in preparation, but it’s hugely exciting.

“The merger of two such influential P&I clubs is an important chapter in the long and illustrious maritime history of Newcastle and the North East.

“With Standard Club originally established in Sunderland, the merger brings together a good part of the North East’s maritime heritage, but with our attention looking forward and outwards, rather than to the past.

“It’s incredibly exciting and we are all looking forward to it.”