“Apart from us, the only people who are so consistently busy day and night are journalists in the media. The news never stops, and neither does shipping.”
Karel Maes began his work as a claims handler at NNPC during the coronavirus lockdown. It was a time of striking trends in the marine insurance world, he notes enthusiastically in this interview.
The leitmotiv running through Karel Maes’ career is that his work has taken him further and further north. Born and raised a Belgian, he started his career as a company lawyer in Antwerp with the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association and then Safmarine (now part of Maersk). He then crossed the Dutch border to work at Vroon in Breskens, until personal relationships later tempted him to move to Groningen, where he could start work at NNPC. As he puts it himself, “Further north isn’t possible any more, so this is as far as I can go.”
What is your role at NNPC?
“I started here as a claims handler after talking to Johan de Haan, who was the director of claims at that time. As it turned out, we already knew each other from my time at Safmarine and so we clicked right away. The job also felt natural: handling claims, giving legal advice, helping think things through commercially, maintaining customer contacts. It was an awkward moment for me to start, in the Covid period, so I was working from home. I didn’t find it difficult, though, because I already knew the ropes.”
So what does it involve?
“Shipowners take out insurance against risks: cargo damage, environmental pollution, fines and so forth. What’s special about NNPC is that we offer not only insurance but also a personalized claims service. We take over the claims served by our members completely, including direct contact with claimants such as claims agencies or governmental authorities. That’s only possible because we know our members and their vessels extremely well. It means we can step in and act quickly. And as for how that works, well, first of all we check with both our member and the claimant to see exactly what the claim is about. In many cases, the story is more nuanced than it might appear at first glance. Direct personal contact is crucial; we ring people more often than we send them e-mails. Our aim is to discover the story behind the story. Sometimes the claims are straightforward; sometimes you have more of a challenge. We also engage with the claimant – where do their interests lie and what exactly do they want? From there we find the solution, always in consultation with our members and with their commercial interests in mind.”
What makes NNPC different from other P&I clubs?
“Our company is a close-knit team with short lines of communication. I speak almost every day with the various members of the board and with the people from finance or underwriting. You are exposed to pretty much everything, so the work is really varied and you have a lot of responsibility. In the role of claims handler, for instance, you tackle everything: small claims and larger ones, legal assistance and so on. On top of that, we get a lot of freedom and have a big say in how we approach the work. The feedback we get from our members shows that we’re genuinely providing added value and that our work means a lot to them. Compare that against the larger P&I clubs and shipping companies, where you often work with fewer responsibilities anyway and where you’re only focused on your own tasks. NNPC’s more manageable scale is precisely what works to our advantage: it lets us handle every claim at the management level.”
Could you tell us about a few recent developments in claims?
“During the coronavirus period, say 2020 to 2022, there was a clear trend towards legal aid. Who pays the costs if the crew on board are in lockdown? And what about the costs of disinfecting the ship? It’s the same story for Russia because of the war in Ukraine: extra sanctions checks, can you still sail to the country, what about responsibilities and obligations between owners and charterers? This trend is now downwards again and we’re going back to ‘normal’ damages and P&I claims. What we are seeing is that absolutely everything is getting more expensive: surveyors, lawyers, reinsurance, you name it. There’s going to be more pressure on premiums. So we’re taking great care to stay cost-efficient so that we can keep things under control.”
What would you say is the key benefit of being an NNPC member?
“The personal approach and the good, fast service. Most of our members are programmed into the hotkeys in our phone system. We’re available 24/7. We regularly get messages in the evening and we respond to them straight away. Apart from us, the only people who are so consistently busy day and night are journalists in the media. The news never stops, and neither does shipping. That isn’t a sales pitch: we offer our members more service – and more constructive service – than if they were with a larger club. The ones with thousands of members, well, you can never build such a personal relationship with them. We’re very close to our members, so we know what’s going on.”
You sometimes give presentations at universities. What’s the thinking behind that?
“A while ago, I was at Erasmus University giving a presentation about our field of work to students in the Transport and Commercial Law programme. I’m shortly going to be doing the same at Delft University of Technology. We were asked to do that. It’s a way of sharing what we know about the subject of handling claims. We explain what a P&I club is and what it does. As well as creating a bit of name recognition, it also lets us take a first look at potential future employees. The same applies for the internships we offer.”
Finally, do you have a golden tip for the members?
“Yes: call us as much as possible. Signal any problems in advance as best you can, and call us right away – that’s quicker and better than writing. And, oh, above all: let us know how we’re doing. We greatly appreciate any feedback, both positive and negative. It all lets us improve the service we offer. That kind of contact is the most important thing.”
If you have a claim you could use help or advice with, our experienced staff, like Karel Maes, will be happy to help. Contact us directly here.