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Johan Sperling

Vice President, Jensen Maritime

Jensen Maritime has grown over the past 52 years to become a recognized leader in vessel design and marine engineering. Twelve years ago, Johan Sperling joined the company as a naval architect. Today, he oversees a dynamic company that thrives on the team-oriented approach of its parent, Crowley Maritime Corporation.

What brought you to America?

I played tennis while serving in the Swedish army and was subsequently recruited to play tennis in the U.S. on scholarship. It was always a dream for me to come here. When I got out of the army I came over and got my degree. I decided I liked everything about America, so I stayed. 

How did you get interested in naval architecture?
I grew up around the Baltic Sea in Sweden, and I saw ships pass by every day where we lived. I was always intrigued by ships but never thought about having a profession in the marine industry despite the fact that my family worked in the shipbuilding industry. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked at Kockums in Sweden. I guess it's in the DNA.

When I was at the University of New Orleans I was told I had to choose a career in order to obtain a scholarship. So I did a lot of research and decided their best program was naval architecture. I am an extremely competitive individual, and I always have to pick the best opportunity available. It's just how I am. It seemed intriguing and I was good at math, so engineering seemed a natural path. 

How did you get started at Jensen?
After six years in the South, I was looking to move. Since I didn't have family anywhere in the U.S., I decided to find a new port city somewhere where I could get a new job. I sent out résumés to a lot of companies. At the time, Sue Williams was President and majority owner of Jensen, and she decided to fly down to interview me in New Orleans. For me, that tipped the scales because it made me feel like they really wanted me. I felt like Jensen was a new family I could join, so it was very exciting. 



What changes have you seen at Jensen since you started in 2001?
When I joined Jensen, we were 12 employees. There was no team management approach to projects because of such a small staff. Today, with over 60 employees, we have a very sophisticated team management plan. We truly offer every kind of service you would expect from a full-service naval architecture and engineering company, and then some.  We can take a project from the concept phase through delivery and sea trials.  We were acquired by Crowley in 2008, and even though Crowley is a very large company Tom Crowley always makes us feel like part of the family. We've only lost three staff since Crowley purchased us: Two retired and the other went back to school. So we haven't lost anyone to any competitors, which I think is tremendous.

Was it always your career plan to advance in the company?

I don't really have a career plan. I live for today and my only goal is to do better today than I did yesterday. I think that came as I moved away from my family in Sweden. I'm extremely competitive. I hate losing more than I love winning, and running Jensen gave me the opportunity to truly compete again like I did when I played sports. I've been lucky enough that opportunities have opened, challenges have come my way, and I've taken them on and somehow succeeded. I don't know where the end goal is. 



What is it like overseeing so many areas of both Jensen and Crowley Maritime?
The responsibility is quite wide but it's natural because of who Jensen and Crowley are. We have our traditional naval architecture here at Jensen, which includes everything from concept design to the detailed shop drawings given to the shipyards. What makes my job unique is that, on top of managing that, I have the responsibility to deliver all new construction vessels to our business units within Crowley. The other unusual aspect of what Jensen does is to provide engineering and project management assistance to Titan Salvage, our sister company.  When you add it all up, it sure makes the days go by fast.  I’m just the supervisor. My team does all the work. It's challenging but it's also a lot of fun. We have managed to take Crowley's 120 years of experience, add our people at Jensen, and marry all the skill sets together. It's very exciting.




What do you like most about your job?

I love the marine industry. It's unique because it's very small and built on relationships. You know almost everyone and they know you. Your successes and failures are visible to all. What's most exciting for me is putting a plan together and seeing our team fulfill it. We strategize. We brainstorm. We put the plan together, and then I back off and watch the team deliver. You get this kind of high because you do all the planning and you see them accomplish it. It's the most exciting part of my job.



Who are some of your biggest customers?
Our customer base is pretty diverse and includes a multitude of workboat owner-operators, all the major oil companies and some of their affiliates, plus the fishermen in the Northwest who are Jensen's bread and butter. That's how we got started 52 years ago, and we still have those fishing industry clients. We haven't lost a single one. Crowley is about 20 percent of our business – not necessarily Crowley equipment but Crowley-affiliated work.

Tell us about the new office in New Orleans.
Jensen has always done work with shipyards and clients in the Gulf area, but it was a limited amount of work because we were too far away. It's not always easy to fly somebody from Seattle to New Orleans for a meeting and then go home the day after. Not only do you have to plan far in advance, it also costs a lot of money, so we never really quite could maximize our assistance to customers in the Gulf. My boss, Todd Busch, and I travelled around in the Gulf and quickly realized that there was a big need for a Jensen office down there, so we put a plan together. We're not done building. We're in the middle of hiring and finding the right folks for the team. We think we're going to be able to enter into the offshore market more than we have before. And we're getting good feedback, so we're excited.



What are the major industry challenges?

When I joined the industry most of the shipyards had large engineering departments. Naval architecture firms like Jensen would do a lot of concept engineering or contract design, as we used to call it, and then we'd turn it over to the shipyards and they'd create production drawings and build a boat. Today, there are very few shipyards left that can afford to keep full engineering staff in-house. Instead, they're turning to groups like Jensen to help them with a lot of detailed engineering. And that means whenever we start with a concept, we have to carry it all the way through the shipbuilding process. I think that's the biggest challenge today: For naval architects, shipyards and operators to work together to produce vessels that are easy to construct, meet the requirements of the operators, and are affordable to build.

Why do you think Jensen has enjoyed such longevity?
I think the main reason is because we really care about our customers. They become part of our family. Sometimes we go too far and we don't make money on something. And that's hard, especially for me, when you're the guy driving the business. But we really believe in giving our customers what they want, and I think that's what has really contributed to our longevity.



What do you do in your spare time?

I'm a sports fanatic still. I play tennis. I play golf. Unfortunately, work comes home with me a lot but I just enjoy life in general. My wife and I also love to travel. We also attend a lot of sports-related team events like football and baseball. I love watching teams succeed and the whole psychology behind people coming together and doing something. I read a lot, too. I've read books about human behavior and people at work. I think the mind is fascinating. Being Swedish, I love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I also love adventure/thriller books and have read a lot of Tom Clancy.



What can you tell us about working with former President and part-owner, Sue Williams, who recently retired?

That is a great question. I'm impressed you dug out the fact that Sue has retired and you were curious about what she may have meant to me in my career. When I started as a naval architect, I managed projects but didn't feel comfortable in that role. I communicated that to Sue, and she gave me new challenges. I became more involved with client relationships and also started looking at our finances and marketing. That really opened my eyes to the fact that I'm more of a jack-of-all-trades. Eventually, I moved into management. Without Sue, none of this would have been possible. My mom says Sue is like my U.S.A. mom. Sue gave me the confidence to know that no matter what was thrown at me, I would succeed. She means a tremendous amount to me, and I still stay in touch with her. She’s so inspirational, too. Not only has she succeeded despite stereotypical issues, but she’s not a naval architect. Nothing stopped her.

What accounts for the many awards Jensen receives in vessel design?

I'm not much for awards, but the fact that whatever you put on paper gets built and to get that kind of recognition just means we're doing things right, and that's very good for the team. The team is committed to producing new vessels that are beautifully designed, efficient to build, and extraordinary to operate. 

Tell us about Jensen's mission to help revolutionize the shipbuilding industry.
We believe we can help revolutionize shipbuilding in the U.S. by changing the way people approach the design and construction of vessels. We also believe in designing vessels that are buildable and meet and exceed the operational requirements of the customer.  We hire maritime academy graduates so that we get the influence of the operators. We also work closely with Crowley's operators. Their insights play a huge role in giving us a competitive advantage. We’ve also realized there’s often a technical language barrier between scholarly architects and the shipyards, so we’ve hired former shipyard managers and pipefitters and trained them on what we do. I believe the cost for man-hours in the U.S. is always going to be more than China or India, but if we can design in such a way that we can cut the man-hours down, then we can become more competitive in that marketplace. 



Where do you see Jensen headed in the next decade?

Growing and getting better. I don't know where the end goal is. Todd Busch and I have a similar approach: Let's just keep improving. The bigger, better, more successful we can be, let's go do that. There are no specific milestones or goals that we need to reach in the next decade. If we continue on the path we're on, we're going to be happy and successful. 



Any final words for our readers?

We come from a workboat type of background with Jensen. Whether we’re designing fishing vessels, tugboats or passenger vessels, they are all just work platforms, so it's easy for us to step into new environments. That doesn't mean it doesn't take time to learn how to become an expert on the various vessels because they're all different, but the transition is easier. We’re doing a lot of research into LNG vessels and Arctic vessels as well. We're blessed to be owned by a company like Crowley because they have relationships with customers in almost every sector, so it's easy for us to go out and create new relationships and learn new things.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.