Ferry Business - Autumn/Winter 2022

8 6 INTERV IEW This story starts in the 1970s when P&O Ferries signed up to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that committed it to a fixed crewing structure. On 17 March 2022, Peter Hebblethwaite was the latest in a long line of the company’s CEOs to be confronted by spiralling losses and business recovery options that were limited by an agreement made almost half a century ago. “The CBA compelled us to operate every ship with two crews in each of two watches, forever,” says Hebblethwaite. “Operationally, this extended to 4.8 crews per ship when holidays, sickness, training and other absences were accounted for. Most other operators manage their fleets with around half the number of seafarers that we were committed to employing. It simply wasn’t possible to operate competitively or profitably with the structure that I inherited.” Hebblethwaite’s predecessors all knew that breaking the agreement would invoke widespread wrath and so dodged Hobson’s choice. So why didn’t he follow the same well-trodden path too? “We had a number of options, but none were very palatable and most only reduced our losses or delayed us having to confront the issue,” he explains. “Only one gave us an opportunity to stem the losses and rebuild a sustainable business for the future. And then ultimately it came down to consult or not consult.” It was inevitable that skipping the consulting phase of the redundancy process would have unpleasant consequences, yet Hebblethwaite believes there was no viable alternative. “If we followed the usual redundancy framework then our most optimistic forecasts were that we’d see additional losses of £309 million ($373.3 million). We’ve been losing around £100 million ($121 million) annually for the past few years and didn’t have anything like this amount available to us. If there had been any other option, we would have taken it.” Hebblethwaite has been cast as the archvillain, yet he counters that he has also protected jobs that could otherwise have been lost too. “I do recognise that we did not consult, but within employment law if you fail to consult you are required to compensate for that, which we have done upfront and in full,” he says. “Furthermore, we have compensated people with the most generous redundancy package in P&O Ferries: a bruised national treasure The once-loved British brand has taken a beating this year. Jon Ingleton catches up with CEO Peter Hebblethwaite to ask how P&O Ferries fell out of favour and whether it can recover