Established on 24th January 1991, Unicom Management Services is a Cyprus-based management company devoted to providing a wide range of high quality technical, commercial, full operations and crew management. SCF Unicom is part of the Sovcomflot (SCF) Group and much of its work is managing its parent company’s fleet but, as an independently run business, also delivers services to a wide range of third party clients as well. Long-term affiliation with these clients over the last two decades has helped it gain a glowing reputation in the maritime industry.
Unicom emerged in 1991 as a joint venture between Sovcomflot and commercial ship manager Acomarit dedicated to commercial management of dry cargo and passenger vessels. Rapid success saw it reach further afield and begin to incorporate not only increasingly diverse types of vessels but new forms of management as well. Late 1994 OAO Sovcomflot acquired 30 per cent shares in Acomarit and in the beginning of 1995 Unicom took over its first tanker, marking the start of what has become its most important business.
Today Unicom manages 98 vessels: 95 of its own and a further three that have been brought into its fleet on time charter. As Russia’s largest shipping company, the SCF Group has got a fleet of 158 vessels and Unicom is responsible for 82 vessels of the group’s vessels. In total Unicom manages deadweight of over 7.7 million tons. The remaining 16 belong to a variety of third party clients that include oil and gas majors, traders, and logistics companies. “It is our philosophy to work only with blue chip companies,” says managing director Nikolay Spichenok. “Their requirements meet our high standards of quality in all aspects of shipping.”
The high calibre clients making up the list of Unicom’s high stake business partners is long. Namely oil majors including some of the most recognisable names in the energy industry that include but are not limited to Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Gazprom, Exxon Mobil, Lukoil, Rosneft, and Sakhalin Energy.
Managing a big fleet is not so different to managing a small fleet; the real challenge is in managing a large number of seafarers, especially considering the highly demanding trading routes it undertakes that require experienced, top quality crewmembers to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the fleet at all times. “We have 4300 personnel at sea and 240 ashore in ten offices throughout the world,” illustrates Nikolay, “including Singapore, Vladivostok, Novorossiysk, and St Petersburg as well as representative branches in Sakhalin, Murmansk and Manila. It’s sometimes challenging but we always succeed in co-ordinating all our management services across our company’s network and fleet.”
Unicom fully incorporated Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) based on the Balance Scorecard methodology in 2007. Unicom monitors and evaluates its performance constantly according to carefully selected KPIs and one of the most crucial elements is safety. SCF has trademarked the phrase ‘Safety Comes First’ to reflect the emphasis it puts on it. “We focus a lot on training requirements in our office and for our crew and we ensure all our people receive regular top quality training, have the best industry-recognised qualifications, and are committed to our priorities. To date we meet approximately 80 per cent of our KPI,” Nikolay explains.
As its range of customers suggests, the expanse of skill possessed by Unicom is wide and one that continues to grow. Whilst the fleet is currently made up largely of general oil and gas tankers, Unicom has made headway into the more specialised LNG sector. “At the moment we manage five gas carriers, three of which are for liquefied natural gas (LNG),” Nikolay elaborates. “We also have six more gas tankers on order: four LNG and two liquid petroleum gas (LPG). The four LNG vessels are 170,000 cubic metre membrane-type vessels with duel fuel diesel-electric propulsion engines. All four are being built by STX Heavy Industries, under supervision of Unicom’s site team and will be delivered between 2013 and 2014, and are state-of-the-art. They will be valid for many years to come. Gazprom Global Energy and Shell have already chartered two each making a long-term agreement.”
Another area Unicom started exploring is icebreaking supply vessels (ISBVs), as part of a major Russian shipping company. IBSVs are a logical step forward that began with the take-over of SCF SAKHALIN in June 2011. Furthermore the SCF Group signed two newbuilding contracts with the Aker yard in Helsinki for delivery in December 2012 and April 2013 respectively. Unicom has got a site team at the Aker yard supervising the construction of the new vessels.
The difficulty of being a third party manager within an unpredictable economy impacts across the entire sector and, whilst the maritime sector has partially recovered, the last 18 months haven’t been easy even for Unicom. The company benefits from being part of SCF hugely in this respect of course, with 82 per cent of its business kept in-house and therefore providing a reliable source of income. A high percentage of the fleet is under long-term time charters agreed back in 2006 / 2007 which have ensured steady income.
As the market continues to strengthen once more, Unicom already has formulated a strategy that will see it improve its existing services and expand into new areas. “Business improved during winter because of our fleet, 51 per cent is ice classed making them ideal for operation in the Russian water,” says Nikolay. “However, we believe that performance this summer is going to be the same as during 2012. Nonetheless, SCF has laid out a strategy for us up until 2017 that will see us keep our existing market share in conventional tankers whilst developing further in the gas and offshore markets.”
By 2017, SCF’s strategy is to have 40 per cent of its revenue coming in from conventional shipping areas including crude, product and chemical tankers and to reinforce its position as a leading conventional ice-classed fleet owner. Gas will comprise 20 per cent of revenue by 2017, with the company looking to become a leading carrier of Russian LNG as well as a world leader in carrying LNG through harsh environments. As previously mentioned, six new gas tankers are being brought into the fleet to help accomplish this.
The remaining 40 per cent is expected to come from offshore services, which will represent a significant growth for the company. Using the skills of its parent SCF in the offshore sector, Unicom will provide management not only to support vessels but to seismic exploration vessels and shuttle tankers as well. Two of the company’s next generation multifunctioning ISBVs will begin operating at the Sakhalin-1 Arkutun-Dagi offshore field in June 2013. Six more shuttle tankers have also been added to the fleet, making Unicom the third largest shuttle tanker operator in the world.
Looking forward, then, despite an unpredictable past few months, the future looks bright for Unicom. It has a strong vision of where it wants to be and, with a world-leading shipping company in the form of SCF supporting it, Unicom looks certain to achieve its goals. “In the future I believe that Unicom will be managing fewer tankers and greater numbers of gas carriers and offshore vessels,” concludes Nikolay. “We believe that with this we can become a world leading partner for the gas energy sector.”