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P&O boss Janette Bell talks Brexit, business women and lessons from Herald of Free Enterprise disaster

By Sam Lennon

Determination, co-operation and adaptation - these are the three ways that will get P&O Ferries though the feared turmoil of Brexit.

That’s the view of the company’s recently-appointed chief executive, Janette Bell.

She is confident her company will cope with the much-anticipated upheaval from Britain leaving the EU next March.

Janette Bell
Janette Bell

There have long been worries of miles of queues on the port-bound roads after next March if no proper customs checks are in place.

But P&O had half its fleet sunk in the Second World War and in recent decades survived the crushing competition of the Channel Tunnel.

She said: “We will ensure that we will take a determined, collaborative and flexible approach in the coming weeks and months.”

“We have huge uncertainty at present but it is the politicians who will make the decisions.

“We are determined to get through this as a business that trades between the UK and the Continent. We will navigate our way through, move forward and be adaptable to keep goods and people flowing.

“We have a good relationship with the Port of Dover and Port of Calais and we are working together on this.”

Mrs Bell said that the company was also working closely with government departments on both sides of the Channel and in the last 18 months P&O Ferries has been lobbying the British government

She said: “At this stage they are coming to the end of negotiations. Are we going to have another Christmas worrying about something that is out of our control?

A P&0 vessel outside Calais.
A P&0 vessel outside Calais.

“We survived two world wars so we should be able to get through this.”

Mrs Bell has previously said that despite the deeply unsettling feeling in the run-up to Brexit, common sense will prevail.

The main worry is increased customs checks at ports after Britain leaves the EU on March 29 if no proper alternative arrangement is made.

The pressure group EU-Thinking Dover and Deal said that a university study had found that there could be 20 miles of queues into Dover with one extra minute of checks per lorry and 40 miles for two.

P&O Ferries is still standing after competitors vanished with the arrival of the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s.

In 2002 it had completely swallowed up its once-main Dover rival Sealink, later Stena Line, in a buyout.

A French spin-off from Stena Line, SeaFrance, also came to an end in 2012. Even Hoverspeed, as a niche operator, lost its last cling to life by 2005. Only DFDS is the direct rival of P&O Ferries in Dover today.

“We survived two world wars so we should be able to get through this...” Janette Bell

P&O has forged ahead despite the additional pressure of competition from budget airlines.

It stood up to a whole summer of chaos in 2015 when there was constant disruption from migrants trying to get into Britain and strikes by workers in Calais.

She said: “It’s been a roller coaster but we have got a stable business in a strong position.

“We have a tireless determination to get things right and that is a great spur.

“Also, P&O is a brand with a long heritage. It was that brand that captivated me. We recognised that we are in a changing market. There is not just a service economy but an experience economy.

“We want people’s holidays to start as soon as they board our ships.”

P&O ferries at Dover Eastern Docks
P&O ferries at Dover Eastern Docks

P&O Ferries has been confident enough to bring in two new ferries, which will cost at least 150 million euros (£132 million) each.

They will be used on Dover to Calais routes in three years and are expected to last for 30.

Mrs Bell said: “They are still in the design phase and we scanned the world for a yard to build them. We are at a new stage of the journey with P&O. We have already seen the number of cars travelling on our ships rise by 6% this year.”

Mrs Bell was particularly keen to tell of what the company has to offer customers this Christmas, such as an on-board Santa on the Spirit of Britain from November 17.

She stressed the bargains of 50% off high street prices for shoppers and children’s accessories being 20% cheaper.

There is also now an offer of overnight day trips for visitors to Calais to give them more time in the French city.

Powerful women

Janette Bell, who took her post in January, has become the company’s second successive woman chief executive officer. And her daughter is now using her as a case study in research on women in business.

Mrs Bell wants her own success to encourage other women to rise up in their careers but believes it is more important that she got to the top by her own abilities and efforts.

She said: “As a woman I would like to think I got here by merit. Shipping is still quite a male-orientated industry but we now have our second ever woman captain who is a fantastic role model.

Corporate vision. CEO Janette Bell views the bustling harbour with P&O vessels from her boardroom
Corporate vision. CEO Janette Bell views the bustling harbour with P&O vessels from her boardroom

“We want to be a diverse organisation. We have also just appointed our first two women apprentices after 176 applications. Women in business is a debate that is alive and well in my house.

“My daughter is studying business and politics and and looking into women CEOs. She is using me as a case study.”

Mrs Bell, 54, joined P&O six years ago as a commercial director and replaced Helen Deeble as CEO.

She started her career on the graduate trainee scheme at Tesco.

Then she worked for the professional services network Coopers & Lybrand, now PwC, and commercial roles at British Gas and property company Hammerson.

She is a biochemist by training and has a husband Peter, a son, Edward, 21, and her daughter is Constance, 17.

Mrs Bell lives near Stansted Airport in Essex and does a 90-minute commute every day to Channel House.

She explained: “I go the opposite way to the heavy traffic to London. Living near an airport also means that I can easily fly out to meet potential freight customers in Poland or Romania.

“The best part of my job is meeting customers, particularly on board ship or on the port.”

Nerve centre - P&0's UK headquarters at Channel View Road, Dover
Nerve centre - P&0's UK headquarters at Channel View Road, Dover

P&O’s second female master, Jenny Evans, was promoted to the rank on the Spirit of France last January.

She is responsible for up to 200 crew members and and 2,000 passengers.

Just five months later she won the Young Person of the Year award from the maritime publication Seatrade. P&O’s first female captain, Louise Sara, was appointed in 2015.

Herald of Free Enterprise

P&O Ferries is today a zero harm organisation after its darkest day, the Herald tragedy, Mrs Bell stresses.

She said: “We have become a zero harm organisation and safety is at the very top of our list. Lessons from the Herald have been learned.

“You do not want to lose life in any business.”

The capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise, at Zeebrugge harbour on March 6, 1987, led to 193 deaths.

The inner and outer bow doors were left fully open, allowing sea water to rush in.

KMG Photographer Jim Rantell on a boat in the English Channel with the upturned hull of the Herald of Free Enterprise behind him. The picture was provided by now-late Mr Rantellr.
KMG Photographer Jim Rantell on a boat in the English Channel with the upturned hull of the Herald of Free Enterprise behind him. The picture was provided by now-late Mr Rantellr.

It was the greatest civil maritime tragedy for a British ship in European waters since the Second World War.

A public inquiry concluded the sinking was partly caused or contributed to by serious negligence by staff and that the company had been “infected with a disease of sloppiness”.

A jury at an inquest at Dover Town Hall in October 1987 gave verdicts of unlawful killing for 187 of the victims. A direct result of the disaster was a new era in ferry safety, and technology that ensured captains could see if the bow doors were closed from the bridge.

The Dover-registered Herald had been sailing under the Townsend Thoresen brand and the operating company was then P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd.

It had got the Townsend ferries by taking over its owners, the ailing European Ferries Group, in December 1986.

The company history book, P&O 180- the History of P&O Ferries, said: “P&O lost little time in distancing itself from the manner in which the fleet had been operated. The company has evolved with P&O merging with Stena Line and buying it out by 2002 to create P&O Ferries as it is today.

P&O began as the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company in 1837.

It began by delivering mail from Falmouth in Cornwall to Spanish and Portugese ports. Two-thirds of its fleet was commandeered by the British Army during the First World War.

All its ships were likewise taken during the Second World War and half of them were sunk. The P&O Ferries headquarters, at Channel View Road, Dover, is also the nerve centre for the company’s routes between Hull and Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, Liverpool and Dublin, and Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It operates a fleet of six ships on the cross-Channel route with 23 daily sailings.

The firm has a turnover of £974 million and over 4,000 staff. It is privately owned by the investment company Dubai World.

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