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Greece 2022: First among equals — UGS president Melina Travlos

The newly appointed Ms Travlos, despite a busy workload, has set her sights on enhancing the Greek flag’s reach, building on its status as the second-largest register in the EU

Europe’s decarbonisation agenda, coupled with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, on top of an already heavy workload have ensured Melina Travlos has had her hands full in her first months as president of the Union of Greek Shipowners. Speaking to Lloyd’s List, she explains how she sees her mission

UNITY and consensus are among the most cherished principles at the Union of Greek Shipping’s headquarters in Piraeus.

“Our belief is that united we stand and progress. This is the principle that we follow and safeguard,” says Melina Travlos, who, in February this year, became the first woman elected president in the history of the UGS.

“We are one of the few traditional maritime nations that has managed to adapt and to maintain our prominence in the global shipping industry today,” she points out.

“Working for a common interest is a key principle for our union in order to find paths to accommodate the interests of all of our members, with both smaller and larger fleets.”

Ms Travlos, an owner of car carriers and latterly dry bulk carriers, can speak not only with the authority of the presidency, but from the experience of her 15 years on the board of the UGS.

For half of that period, she has also been on the executive committee. She says there can be different points of views among the 30-person board — but the organisation always finds a way to reach a consensus.

“In the end, the union comes out with a single voice, which enhances our views — and that is something that I am determined to maintain.”

Shipping in Greece is still mainly a family affair, with many shipowners coming from a seagoing career. 

“Greek shipowners are hands-on in operation and have huge know-how and expertise. We all see eye-to-eye on policy issues,” says Ms Travlos.

Not all the UGS’s counterparts in other countries have the same broad membership and involvement in all segments of shipping.

“Differences among various shipping segments may also bring about divergent views and standpoints on certain matters,” she says.

“There are times when consensus among different national associations may be difficult to be achieved — and I think that’s mainly because we represent different sectoral approaches.”

Few placid periods

The UGS was created in 1916, in time of war, and there have been few truly placid periods in its history, spanning more than a century.

Ms Travlos took over the reins of the UGS from Theodore Veniamis, the longest-serving president of the UGS for half a century.

His 13-year reign reflected one of the toughest periods for the industry — at least since the Second World War — primarily due to the global financial crisis and Greece’s economic meltdown.

With Europe seemingly emerging from the grip of the coronavirus, and several shipping sectors enjoying a spell of market health, a new president taking the reins could reasonably have hoped for a smoother transition.

Ms Travlos singles out the EU emissions trading scheme as a particularly “worrying” piece in the overall decarbonisation puzzle confronting shipping.

“Shipping is fully committed to the decarbonisation of the sector and the UGS is a frontrunner in this process, with concrete and feasible proposals,” she says.

“However, I believe that the strategic importance of EU shipping is not clearly understood.

“Sometimes legislators do not take into consideration the special characteristics of the shipping sector and the practical implications of the legislative proposals for ship operation.

“The EU ETS and other new regulations are examples of this.

“It also does not help that our industry — and its significance for the world economy, trade and its impact on the function of the global ecosystem — is largely invisible.

“The UGS has opposed the EU ETS as a regional measure but also one that is incompatible with the nature of bulk or tramp shipping, where the role of commercial operators is decisive for the carbon footprint of ships.

“It also argues that it is particularly problematic for smaller and medium-sized operators, who will struggle to finance allowances and cope with the administrative burdens the scheme entails.

“We believe that the shipping sector, as a global industry, should be regulated by the International Maritime Organization. EU regional measures threaten the competitiveness and sustainability of EU shipping,” Ms Travlos says.

“Competition is not on an intra-European basis. European shipping must maintain its global competitiveness. If this is not understood, Europe will risk losing its shipping industry, just as it has previously lost the shipbuilding and shiprepair industries.

“Shipping’s decarbonisation is a critical issue and we are faced with a new era. We all support the decarbonisation of the sector. However, the only way to achieve this is through the adoption of ambitious but workable global measures.

“The UGS has expressed its concerns about this and continuously contributes to the debate at all levels with its expertise.”

While a staunch believer in UGS traditional policies, Ms Travlos also has her own vision as president.

“We are not only a leading sector of the Greek economy and society, but also especially important for the EU and the world at large, offering indispensable quality maritime services.

“We need to start being more outgoing. We need to explain what we offer as an industry, and how vital our impact is,” she says.

“We are called to inform people about what shipping is and does. This is something that we collectively need to work on — and I intend to consistently support this aim.”

Greek shipping represents 59% of the EU fleet and about 70% of the EU oil tanker fleet.

“European shipping is, in its largest share, Greek shipping — and this is a fact that needs to be acknowledged,” Ms Travlos says.

At home, the key question is the competitiveness of the Greek flag, although it remains the second-largest register in the EU.

Ms Travlos has set her sights on trying to enhance the flag’s status.

“It is my wish to see the Greek flag on Greece-owned ships sailing around the world,” she says.

“We are working constructively with the state to try to address outstanding issues that will enhance the attractiveness of the Greek registry.”

Maritime education is a priority at both European and national levels, in her view.

“A core part of my mission as UGS president is to revitalise Greek seamanship, which is widely respected. To this end, we need, in close co-operation with the state, to enrich the Greek maritime education framework.

“The UGS has already taken important steps to modernise and upgrade the national maritime academies. My dream is to see the Greek young generation back on board our ships.

“We need to start communicating to them that shipping is a profession full of prospects, providing many job opportunities.”

Years of experience

Although it hardly seems to compute, Ms Travlos has close to 40 years of experience in the industry herself.

She was born in Athens but feels part of the strong island tradition that has seeded Greece’s maritime activities. Her grandparents on her father’s side came from the Ionian shipping island of Cephalonia and from the eastern Aegean island of Mytilene. Her maternal grandparents were Greeks from Asia Minor.

Her father Nikos Travlos established Neptune Ship Agencies in Piraeus and encouraged his daughter’s involvement from the age of 15.

“At that time, it was a man’s world,” she says. “I was something exotic, especially down in the port, where I spent most of my time at the beginning, rather than in the office.”

 “My father gave me all the liberty to make my own choices and my own mistakes. It really helped me to learn, to evolve and to believe in myself, as well as convincing me of the power of collective action and teamwork.

“We have to respect and encourage our teams, our people. We worked very constructively together and he was a mentor for me,” she says.

As the first woman elected UGS president, does she feel any extra pressure to succeed?

“The only pressure is solely the importance of the work and to honour the trust of my colleagues,” she replies. 

“It’s a great responsibility because defending the achievements of Greek shipping is a national task — and, given the importance of the Greece-owned fleet, I would say a European and global goal too.”

Notwithstanding this, she would like to encourage more women to be involved at all levels in the shipping industry.

“Women have what it takes to help accelerate progress in the workplace but also in the shipping industry’s connections to the wider social environment,” she says.

In addition to being president of the UGS, Ms Travlos is also president of the Greek Shipowners’ Social Welfare Company, “Syn-Enosis”. She has been a leading light of the organisation since it was established by the UGS in 2016 to provide a more collective conduit for the shipping community’s social sensibilities.

The initiative has raised and deployed more than 80m in donations.  Much of this has gone on programmes for food aid, health and education in support of vulnerable parts of Greek society but Syn-Enosis has also responded to emergency needs, such as those of wildfire victims and equipment for the national health system during the coronavirus outbreak.

 “Syn-Enosis can unite all members of the shipping community in a common vision for a better world,” she says. “I am committed to further developing it as a world-class humanitarian organisation.”

Bulk and liner trades

So much attention has been given to the milestone of being elected as the first woman president of the UGS that another characteristic of Ms Travlos has generally been overlooked. Unusually for a Greek owner, she is engaged in both bulk and liner trades.

Today, Neptune Lines operates a fleet of 20 pure car and truck carriers, with capacities ranging from 1,500 to 4,600 cars.

Until the recent invasion of Ukraine, the company ran about eight regular services covering the inter-Mediterranean, Black Sea, Atlantic and Far East vehicle trades.

In 2017, Ms Travlos launched a sibling dry bulk company, Neptune Dry Management, which has a young fleet of five Japanese-built supramaxes and ultramaxes.

The move into dry bulk was well-timed and has also given her a much sharper appreciation of the differences between the two types of shipping.

This experience has enhanced her understanding of all segments of the shipping industry, she says.

In early March, Neptune Lines had to suspend its regular calls in Ukraine and Russia.

The company employs many Ukrainian seafarers and publicly expressed its support to them. “We are by their side,” it said. Neptune has created a dedicated care programme for officers and crews, including, where necessary, organising safe passage to Greece for their immediate families, providing accommodation, medical screening and psychological support.

“Collectively and as individuals we are all standing by our seafarers and their families who are affected by this terrible situation. They are our extended families.

“Our association traditionally does not meddle in geopolitics. We are committed through our business activities to promote and serve global co-operation, serving the cause of peace, security and stability and building global bridges,” she says.

Ms Travlos comes back to the theme of Greek shipping’s unrivalled practical experience and its importance to owners as well as to policy matters. She shares a quote of Aristophanes: “Before you take the helm, first ply the oar”.

“I strongly believe it encapsulates a great truth, especially about the essence of one’s involvement with our industry.”

This article is part of Lloyd’s List’s 'Greece 2022' special report

Click here to access or download a PDF copy of the report

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