As someone who always dreamed of seeing the world, Sönke Stein hoped his future would take him to far-flung places, on adventures, and – hopefully – by the sea. He hasn’t been disappointed.
Sönke – who is originally from Germany – trained as a shipbroker before accepting an opportunity to join Oiltanking back in 1994. “Yes, I have been working with the company ever since,” he smiles, “slowly working my way through the ranks. I am currently based here in Malta – enjoying this gorgeous view of the Mediterranean Sea.”
This is Sönke’s second stint on the island, having been based here from 2001 to 2006, before he moved to the Middle East until September 2014. “I then returned to Malta, to find that a lot had changed both within the organisation and outside of it,” he says. “Malta had joined the European Union for starters, and circumstances were very different in the industry as a whole. While the people within the organisation hadn’t changed much at all, the surroundings had, so there was a lot to get used to all over again.”
Sönke was the youngest Managing Director of a storage terminal location ever appointed by Oiltanking, having taken on the role the first time at just 30. “Looking back, I guess I was jumping in at the deep end! Thankfully I had a very good team; without them I wouldn’t have managed,” he says.
He thinks of himself as the general caretaker of the organisation – overseeing the past, present and future. “It’s all about striking a balance between dealing with issues from the past, while preparing the organisation for what is to come,” he says. “I hope I am achieving that by knowing what is going on across the company, and by being available – and approachable – to all of our team, both at management level, as well as to those out there in the field. My door is very rarely closed; if it is, I encourage people to knock.”
Of course, there are challenges to overcome within the company, but Sönke says these mostly relate to ensuring the whole team is marching in the same direction and that all stakeholders are aligned. “Everyone needs to know where we’re going and why we’ve chosen that direction,” he says. “I spend most of my time going from department to department, checking in to see how things are going. I have my own little list of what I’d like to infuse there but I don’t expect people to come to me for updates and direction; I go to them. They are busy and it is my job to make sure they are busy with the right things. This business actively needs to move in the right direction and that isn’t always easy to achieve because every individual has different priorities.”
Sönke also deals with the daily challenges of the oil industry itself – a market that is renowned for being extremely volatile. “Everything has an effect on the oil industry,” he says. “Like Trump tweeting something one morning.”
“The biggest shift for the market in the short-to-long term will be to cleaner fuels, and our customers are adapting to this. We’re questioning: do we need to reinvent ourselves? What do we do with the tanks in 2030? So, 2019 will definitely signal changes in that direction, especially as ships will no longer be allowed to burn high sulphur fuels by 2020. Everyone is anticipating that milestone but also waiting to see what changes it will bring, so trade is relatively slow. The good news is that we can use our tanks to store and blend such cleaner fuels, so we’re ready.”
So, in line with that, Sönke is making sure the organisation is ready to face the future head-on. “My goal is to guarantee optimum communication between our departments, while also putting a succession plan in place for the employees that will inevitably leave us after over 25 years in the organisation. So shifts are definitely taking place – whether internally as we react to fluctuations within, or externally as we react to how the markets will adjust. It is exciting because this is the time to inject fresh energy and steam into our operation; we’re at the starting blocks and there will be a management change too. I expect big things for the company over the next five years.
“As for me, I plan to be able to facilitate that move and to contribute to the change. As someone that sits right between the two generations working here at the moment, my goal is to be here for the organisation of the past and to also guide the team for the future.”
MaltaChamber.org.mt is proud to be serialising MaltaCEOs 2019, a high-profile publication consisting of 50 in-depth interviews with leading CEOs in Malta. Celebrating the most influential business minds in the country, two different interviews will be featured on this business news portal week by week. MaltaCEOs was created by Content House Group in collaboration with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry.