CYPRUS SHIPPING 2023: SUSTAINABLE EXCELLENCE
Mrs. Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou
CO-FOUNDER & CEO at TOTOTHEO MARITIME
& President at WISTA International
Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou is Chief Executive Officer of Tototheo Maritime, the world’s leading global supplier of equipment and services for satellite communications as well as bridge navigation systems, automated applications and operational efficiency solutions.
Since August 2021 she is the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Electricity Authority of Cyprus.
Despina is President of WISTA International and board member of various highly influential organizations like the Cyprus Shipping Chamber and the Cyprus Employers and Industrialists Federation.
Leading international shipping publication Lloyd’s List has selected Despina as one of the Top 100 Most Influential people in Shipping for 5 consecutive years since 2017, listing her also among the Top 10 Women in Shipping internationally.
Despina has been also appointed as the “International Personality of the Year” at the Lloyd’s List Greek Shipping Awards, award given every year to the individual who has stood out in terms of contribution to the International Maritime Industry. Despina was also selected as Woman Leader in International Shipping at the WHO IS WHO International Awards in Athens.
In June 2022, she was appointed as an Ambassador of the Global Maritime Club representing Cyprus.
Despina is President of Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) since October 2017. She has been instrumental to WISTA’s success in receiving consultative status at the International Maritime Organization (IMO)
Despina is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cyprus Shipping Chamber. She also sits on the Board of Directors of the Cyprus Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEB), the Board of Directors of Invest Cyprus, on the Board of Governors of the Cyprus Maritime Academy, and on the Strategic Committee of Crans Montana – Club of Ports.
She holds degrees from the National and Capodistrian University of Athens, the Copenhagen Business School and the University of Oxford Said Business School.
«There is no question any longer of whether shipping will embrace new technologies.
Adopting new ways to operate is mandated by the demands of the business,
the crew, the regulators, and the socioeconomic environment in general.
Where does a company start in order to transition
its processes efficiently and sustainably?»
.The Heart of The Ocean.
Being received by Despina for an interview gives you the magical mix between feeling the warm hospitality of coming home after a very long trip, with the delight of enjoying the brilliant insights sparkling from a brain sharp like a sword, that manages her ideas with impeccable discernment and applies her strategy Leading from the Heart.
You can almost hear the whispers of her fine intuition talking to her as she speaks. She exudes the charisma of those who operate from supreme integrity at both personal and professional level.
It is the sublime combination of her virtues, her leadership skills and her instinct, that has propelled her to become one of the most relevant personalities in Cyprus and one of the most influential and best valued leaders in the Shipping Sector at international level.
Despina has brought the topics of diversity, inclusion and sustainability to the top of the global shipping industry’s agenda, by leveraging open and transparent communication, technological advancement and the general evolution of the maritime industry’s ecosystem,embracing change for sustainable growth.
During our interview, we speak about Tototheo Maritime: its origins, its achievements, its main objectives and goals for the future, and how the company is
Successfully Navigating the New World…
Full Steam Ahead
Let’s start with a descriptive introduction about Tototheo Maritime, from where you keep building international business from Cyprus
Tototheo Maritime is a group of companies specialized in maritime technologies and services that started as a maritime services company about 35 years ago, so we do have quite a long history.
We started providing communications, navigation acquitments, bridge acquitments and services to the maritime industry. As years went by, we started expanding from the original company, becoming a group and providing also satellite communication services.
In the last few years, we saw how the shipping industry was shifting into technology, so we started diversifying a little bit using our knowledge and know-how on communications, while heavily investing in research and development, so we started building and providing also built in house digital solutions for the maritime industry in general, and specifically for vessels’ safe, efficient and environmentally friendly navigation/operation, which is nowadays our main focus, to optimize vessel and fleet performance.
Our services include innovative, efficient and functional solutions in the fields of satellite communication, navigation systems and digitalization services, offering our products and services through direct and indirect channels to ship operators within merchant shipping, the offshore, yachting as well as the fishing industries. We also cater for government and land communication users with mobile and fixed solutions.
Tototheo Maritime is headquartered in Cyprus, but with a very clear vocation towards international presence
Absolutely. Tototheo is a Cypriot company, I come from a Cypriot family and I grew up in an environment that was in shipping because my father, my godfather, my family was in the shipping industry.
We also have an offices in Greece, partner offices in Singapore and Dubai, and we also have teams in other countries like the United States and Sweden. From our origins as a small and I would say regional company, in the last few years we have expanded a lot and become a major international player.
We now have a group of companies that work around the world. We have customers and business partners around the world, but our headquarters is still in Cyprus, because this country has given us the support to grow. Cyprus is a country that can provide many opportunities to people that seek them, the Cypriot environment for business promotes success, the legal framework in Cyprus, based on Common Law, really supports business, and the business community in Cyprus support each other. It’s a real community, and that is a key factor.
We do have a very wide international vision, which comes with the industry as well, because we provide satellite communications to vessels anywhere in the world, so this thinking that we have been working for many years applies more practically now, with our expansion to other territories.
The Cyprus tonnage tax regime is well known as an important growth driver for the shipping industry here.
Indeed, and of course, it tonnage tax regime has been very important in attracting businesses to Cyprus, but it’s not the only factor that can keep a company here, because one can find good tax regimes in other countries as well. We have a maritime center in Limassol predominantly, but we also have shipping companies in other cities as well. There is a strong shipping community across Cyprus that provides key support, and there is a shipping chamber that is very on top of things and supportive. The chamber helps shipping companies coming to Cyprus with the information they need. I think that is a really big factor in actually keeping these companies in Cyprus.
There is also the character of our shipping industry. There are many companies that may have started from people coming from other countries, but they have been on the island for 30 or 40 years. So there is a long history for our shipping industry, and it is rooted here. I think, as an industry, we can safely say that shipping companies are here, because they find an environment that allows them to grow.
This diversification not only of markets but of products happened almost spontaneously, right? You became aware of the needs of the market and therefore you developed new options and solutions as services? As co-CEO of Tototheo Maritime, you have promoted the importance of embracing evolution and change as success factors. Whether we talk about technological advancement, business model variations, skillset diversification or diversity in the workplace, you have played a key role in setting the spotlight on these vital issues, as drivers towards shaping a sustainable shipping industry.
Yes, and over the past years I have witnessed a mindset shift in our industry, and it is a privilege to have been able to contribute to this change.
Actually, we realized that quite a few years back, maybe around a decade ago, which was very early if we consider that the big changes in technology in the maritime industry happened only in the last five years. We started realizing these needs just by talking to our customers.
Tototheo has been active for 38 years, and many of our customers are partners that have been with us for decades. Despite our growth, we keep very much in place our values as a family company, so communication with our customers and our partners is very important for us.
We saw where it was all going because they were rising their concerns about how could they be more cost-efficient, so we started thinking of new solutions so we could help. The lack of technology can be very limiting, but in the last few years we had a lot of advances in connectivity for the maritime industry, so while in the past connectivity at sea was very behind from connectivity on land, now it can already be comparable, despite it’s still not the same.
Connectivity introduced the shipping industry to new technologies, so we started working on different applications based on what was available to us in terms of connectivity back then, and with the advances in connectivity we could also improve our solutions, and they have improved a lot, and I think technology is the way forward for shipping and as a maritime services company we are going into that direction.
Today, I think the shipping companies are realizing also that technology can provide them some important solutions and tools to get where they want to go.
I feel that it is our background as a maritime services company and our knowledge what is helping us understand what are the needs of our customers and our partners, and to create our proposition of value based on that.
Here again we see the importance of values as a family company…
Yes, the company was founded by my father in law, who is still in the company today, and together with my husband we are Co-CEO’s running the company for the last few years. I am more on the strategy-business side and my husband is more on the technology side, so as a family company our values are indeed very important to us, because our name is attached to the name of the company, and so it is also for our people.
A company is nothing without its people, and for us it is very important that our people also subscribe to our values. Actually, I would say that the people who work with us not only subscribe and believe in our values, but they are actually the ones carrying them forward, and this is very important, because in the past we were a much smaller company with fewer people, but now, along with our expansion and having now so many people as part of our team, for us is very important that we are all on board with those values.
We want to be partners with our customers, we are always willing to listen to them, to offer them help and advice. Transparency is also very important to us, the fact that we work without prejudice is another very important aspect to us, and that goes not only for the people on our offices but also for our associates and the people we work with. Diversity is another very important topic within our company, especially in the last few years, and something that we are promoting actively, and of course, as a family company with so many years in the maritime industry we want to see a sustainable future for our industry going forward, so that is something that we also believe in very deeply, and we try to promote with every opportunity.
Along with high value, Tototheo Maritime’s performance demonstrates also a very open and proactive mentality, always ready not only to adapt but actually too anticipate to the needs of the customers and the markets…
I think that is one of the things that has allowed us to evolve and grow so much as a company, especially in the last few years, the ability to see where the industry is going and the agility willing to adapt and readjust.
It’s not easy, and we fully understand how difficult this constant readjustment is for some shipping companies, it is not easier for us even as a technology company, because we try to remain always cutting-edge while at the same time we have a business to maintain, so of course it is always challenging to change strategies, but that is why this open minded approach needs to be maintained, because the world nowadays changes at a very fast pace, not only the shipping industry but all industries, so it is very important to remain open minded, flexible, adaptable and also agile on the willingness to adapt and readjust.
Your success in business has been complemented by your championing of women’s rights as President of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA). You totally embody the Divine Feminine principle as a concept of Leadership, in which the natural feminine qualities prove to get the best business performance and results: leading from the heart, being constantly open and willing to listen sincerely, to observe attentively, to lead people and talent from inclusive care and kindness, and to encourage, promote and nourish team work and united vision. How do you feel about it?
Oh…this is a very sensible and important topic for me, that I feel very passionate about. As President of WISTA International, I have seen a lot of change in the industry, especially in the last two years, since I have been heading this organization investing great efforts in pushing Diversity ahead.
Diversity is something we still don’t talk about enough in current times, something many sectors still don’t want to deal with nowadays, when in fact, investors in companies are increasingly asking what is your diversity program or what’s your take on diversity, and that is already a huge leap, a very positive step forward, but I feel there is still a lot to do be done.
I think that the fact that the IMO dedicated its World Maritime day theme on Empowering Women in the maritime industry has also helped a lot pushing this agenda, and we have seen a lot of research from various companies and organizations promoting and encouraging that all these qualities that you mentioned, really help a lot many companies with their bottom line.
Diversity, and all these elements that women bring to the business at international level, helps with creative thinking, with innovation, with negotiation, with operations optimization, so I think that diversity, and of course not only gender diversity but also in the broadest sense of the word, is and will be increasingly beneficial to companies going into the future needing to be agile, flexible, adaptable and open minded. I think Diversity is and will be a major factor to that.
WISTA is committed to creating change in the industry and leading by example. It is important for us to focus towards the breadth of potential solutions and answers that diversity can bring us.
I look back and see the work we have achieved within WISTA International and the amount of work and energy put by national WISTA associations around the world. We should all be proud of what we have achieved over the years, and In the coming years we must make sure we continue to encourage, help and create opportunities. The goal of diversity is to create a level playing field of opportunity for all.
So we somehow live in kind of “the Darwin’s Law for business”: it is not about who is bigger or heavier anymore as a company, but about who is more adaptable, flexible and agile…
Exactly, and women bring that perfectly to the table, and that is why is so important not only to have women working for companies but also have women on leadership positions, where they can bring and successfully implement those elements of adaptability, flexibility, and intuition as well.
I read a report recently, that women also balances men’s natural appetite for risk, so this is the balance that we should be aiming for, it is not about not wanting men and only women or the other way around, but about having a balance between the that will benefit any company in any industry, and in the end, on the higher level, any country’s economy.
WISTA has really been an eye opener for me, because growing up in Cyprus, we certainly had our problems with diversity and inclusion. But I realised that, in some sense, we have also been very lucky. Because we are a small place, and we need to use all the talent that we have. We have always known this. I’m seeing that in other countries, even European countries, this can be such a big problem.
And WISTA has grown a lot since you took over the presidency back in 2017.
Now we are 54 national associations around the world in all continents.
I think what we have been concentrating on, at least since I took over is to promote the benefits of diversity and inclusion in our industry. And the fact that we received consultative status at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has helped a lot with progress and promoting our message.
Diversity benefits businesses, countries, economies and the global economy in general. So if we want to keep working towards the sustainability goals that we all have for 2030 and 2050, then including all talent and all people that are interested in that effort, that should be our goal.
Please give us a current overview of the shipping sector, considering the unbelievable, almost surreal changes and challenges that the world experienced during and post the global pandemic. How has this affected you in terms of strategy, business consciousness, priorities, and how do you envision the role of Tototheo Maritime in the coming years, especially considering that technology has become more important than ever?
From my point of view as a Maritime Technology Company, obviously we foresee a lot of changes when it comes to technology, but I think those are pushed by many other different elements like, first of all, that the shipping industry has been enduring crisis for many years, so technology has been indeed a fundamental tool to fight it, to deal with it, but also the fact that 2020 brought a lot of new regulations coming in, and technology allows to looking at things in a different way, helping companies to reach those goals that we, as industry, have set for ourselves, especially because environmental regulations and sustainability are and will be very relevant topics for the next years.
The shipping industry has also a big decarbonization agenda that will need to be reached and fulfilled until 2050, and it will drive the decisions of the shipping companies and also the companies around the shipping industry, like ours.
So technology will be a big thing, and we see many alternative solutions and new ways and alternatives in the shipping industry showing up, like we are already talking about autonomous vessels with increasingly higher degrees of autonomy as years go by, which brings us to another point of great importance in our industry, which is what will happen with our seafarers and with our people ashore, and this is an issue of great importance that we will be discussing more prominently, because we need to find a solution to it.
Personally, and even coming from the technology side, I don’t believe that we won’t be needing seafarers anymore, as this is a worry of a portion of the shipping industry nowadays. I think people will remain the most important and the most prominent element of the shipping industry.
We are going to have more autonomous ships, more automated processes, yes, and I think we should be looking at it as a good thing, because as I said before, technology is just a tool to help companies and people, and with technology they will have more tools to conduct their jobs and their tasks more efficiently.
Another topic that I see coming with force is how society is affecting the shipping industry, how the sector will have more visibility in the years to come, and this will be because we have a new generation of people now that are interested in how the products they use are sourced, how they are transported, they care about the environment, so they ask a lot of questions… and those questions will need to be answered, so I see that society and society’s opinion will be playing an increasing role on how we conduct our business, and I believe this is also a good thing, because as an industry, we need to move with the times.
This is not saying that the shipping industry was not concerned about the environment in the past, we have always been concerned, because the oceans are what we work with, and nobody can be more concerned about the health of the oceans as we are, but perhaps this concern was not so visible before, and I think that now, the way the world and society is evolving, will move us towards being more visible, more collaborative, more transparent, and I think this is great because it means that the shipping industry is evolving with the times, becoming the modern industry we all want for the future, if we want the shipping industry to attract the young generations to it.
And that has to do with seafarers but also with people working ashore, so as soon as we start promoting our industry as the modern industry that we are becoming, with a vision towards sustainability, as we are doing right now, we will start attracting the new generations towards the industry also, easier.
It is a serious goal and intention, especially considering the enormous importance, relevance and weight that the shipping industry has in the economy at a worldwide level
Oh yes, it is serious indeed. You asked before how I would like to envision the industry at its best: well, I am optimistic, because I talk to many people all around the world, and I see their concerns about the future of the sector, about the environment, about the future of the people in the industry, and there are such concerns because people care, and I think this is a very clear message that we should send out to the world and to the people who are not in the shipping industry, that we, shipping people, do care about this things, we care very much, so what I would like for the future, for the shipping industry, is for us to be able to work in a more collaborative environment.
I see this happening more frequently now, and I believe the big shipping companies are pushing this agenda forward by being more open with their successes, with their problems, with their procedures, and when the big shipping companies start doing this, the rest will follow.
If we look at the history of shipping, we have always been in a state of constant change. What is different now is the speed of the change: in the past, the industry had some decades to adjust, nowadays, we are forced to adapt to changes fast, in short periods of time. This is what people finds more difficult to manage, and that’s where again adaptability comes in and why it’s so important.
And so it is so important to accept the changes from a positive perspective, keeping in mind at all times that technology is here to help the people, as you very well said before…
Absolutely. You know, I am a captain’s daughter, so even though I am on the technology part of things, I could never imagine a shipping industry without seafarers.
My father came ashore when I was born but he remained in the industry until he retired a few years ago, my Godfather was a captain who was working for the government in Cyprus when he came ashore. Most of our people, friends and family, were in the shipping industry, so for me the Shipping sector is a relationship industry, you work with this people but you also become family, because the industry has its challenges but it is an industry of passion, so family and professional lives are very intertwined, you cannot separate them in the shipping industry.
So yes, we already see some unmanned vessels currently, or vessels that are being built now and will be scheduled to be unmanned soon, but they are mainly ships for coastal areas, for niche markets, maybe for the military. I don’t foresee anytime soon having unmanned vessels in the deep seas, and that is because we need the intuition of the people on board, we need their knowledge, we need their experience…and these are the people that will eventually tell us if all these solutions we are building will work or not, so maybe we will have fewer people on board, yes, but that does not mean we will stop needing people completely, definitely not.
With your mentality and leadership capacities, are you putting these qualities at work for the industry beyond Tototheo Maritime and WISTA International currently, taking a leadership position in order to help other companies and organizations in the sector?
I am involved in several companies, institutions, being on their board and trying to help, like the Cyprus Shipping Chamber, the Cyprus Maritime Academy and some other organizations, but WISTA really has been my main focus in the last few years because I feel that is my way of giving back to the industry.
I’ve started having leadership and managing positions from a very young age, and as a young woman in the industry, I haven’t really faced a lot of issues in my career in regards to my gender, but I have faced some issues in regards to my age. Fortunately, it is not the case anymore, for with the current level of change, with all this technology and new ideas, it is now easier for younger people to reach leadership positions in the industry, but it was not like that ten years ago.
So WISTA has been and it is my passion trying to promote how women are beneficial to this industry and how they need to be increasingly included in management and leadership positions, we just need to have an open mind and promote more diversity in our industry.
Going from competitiveness to competition now, if your sector is already fiercely competitive, in your segment of activity even more…
Oh yes, in my segment, not only we have to adapt, we must actually anticipate, because if we were only adapting, it would mean someone else is already doing it, or has done it before us, which would make it more difficult for us to compete.
Our goal as a company is not to create a new solution and then try to enforce or convince people that our product is useful for them, but the other way around: to create products and services out of the feedback we get from our customers and partners, about their concerns and about their needs. I think that is what puts us up front, and why we have been growing so much. You know, a customer that may not know you so well may be tempted to try something different, and when that happens we always say to ourselves: “It’s fine, let them try..” and usually they come back, because our offer is not only about the product, it is also about our values, and as I mentioned before values are very important for us and often the main ingredient for building long lasting relationships. In the world we live in today, we all need to keep ourselves and each other grounded.
About potential alliances, are you open and receptive to allow possible investments, or joint ventures, or to joining forces with other companies in the world?
In current times, it would be naïve to answer no to this question. As a mindset, but also as a strategy for our company, we always choose to be collaborative, so that is something we are already doing. We have collaboration requests from all over the world, we have some subsidiaries that we are already collaborating with, along with other organizations, and for us it’s very important to do that, so that our company can remain relevant in the industry, and always alert to foresee everything that is happening elsewhere.
The exchange of information and know-how is always enriching and beneficial, especially considering that nowadays the end user has so many choices.
And the final question is, of course, about Cyprus: What do our readers should know, and retain, about Cyprus?
Ahhhh….I love my country and I am so very proud of it. I travel a lot, and I consider myself a citizen of the world, wherever you put me, I am good, but the more I travel, the more I love my country.
Cyprus is a fantastic country that not only allows me to run an international business, but it is also a place where I can raise my family in a very safe and really very nice environment: we are at the office and five minutes away to the beach, what best can we ask for?
In Cyprus, the quality of life is amazing, and despite it is a small country, it provides so much to the people living here. I was born and raised in Limassol, a wonderful city that offers an outstanding combination of quality of life with the flavor of a very international business community, which is extremely important because you don’t feel confined into the boundaries of a small country, you feel you are fully part of Europe and the whole world.
We Cypriots are persistent, passionate about what we do, and very resilient, and that is a testimony of how far we have come. We are also very open and welcoming towards the people that comes to our country, and also willing to travel to other countries, appreciative of their culture and of everything they have to offer.
So yes, Cyprus is a fantastic place to live and also to do business, it provides a very good combination.
«Mediterranean Leaders: Cyprus»
National Geographic Magazine China, Digital Edition 2023