By Mark Cardwell

Louis Martel was a teenager who dreamed of designing sailboats when then-future Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Laurence Pathy bought Canada Steamships Lines with a vision to expand its operations beyond the Great Lakes into ocean shipping.

Now Martel, 52, is steering the fortunes of the iconic Canadian company, a leading provider of marine dry bulk cargo and the world’s largest owner and operator of self-unloading vessels.

“If you had told me back then what I’d be doing now, I would have said you were crazy,” said Martel, who took over as President and CEO of CSL Group in April.  “I’m very honoured and privileged to hold this position.”

Martel takes the helm at a crucial moment in CSL’s long and storied history. After years of dynamic growth and decentralized expansion in cargo delivery services for customers throughout the Americas, Australia, Europe and Asia in the construction, steel, energy and agri-food sectors, the Montreal-based company has been focused much of the past decade on increasing efficiencies and shoring up its competitiveness as a niche operator in a tighter global market marked by lower prices and falling demand for hard commodity staples like coal and iron ore.

“You have to take up the slack when growth slows (and) prepare for when things pick up again,” said Martel.  He said the company has done that in two ways. 

One has been to cut operating and administration costs. “But in a smart way,” said Martel.  “Not cut across the board and destroy the company’s values and experience. That makes it hard to rebuild when the economy improves.”

He said the company has instead been working to improve the efficiency of its ships and operations through the introduction of management systems like fleet and ship performance monitoring, and condition-based maintenance, which have long been used in air transportation industries.

In January, the company realigned its organizational structure to gain efficiencies and create greater synergies in the operation of the 45 dry-bulk carriers it owns and operates (17 of which are Canadian-flagged) and the other 12 vessels it manages commercially.

The CSL Group fleet carries and delivers nearly 80 million tonnes of cargo a year around the world. The pride of the fleet is the four Trillium Class self-unloaders CSL has introduced since 2012 as part of its newbuild program. In addition to these award-winning ships, which Martel helped to develop at the design stage and which are considered the most advanced of their kind in terms of operational and environmental performance, energy efficiency and reliability, CSL also put two new leading-edge gearless bulkers into service in 2015.  In all, the company introduced eleven new ships under the Trillium program.

“It’s an exciting time because we’re modernizing our fleet and modernizing our operations by increased training of our people and increasing our reliance on information to make better-informed decisions,” said Martel.  “We’re adapting to changes in business.”

One remaining constant, he added, is the decentralized approach to commercial operations that have enabled CSL’s half-dozen divisions to become major players in markets like Australia, where the company operates a dozen vessels and is the largest bulk carrier in Australian trades. “That means if you’re an Australian customer you’re still dealing with an Australian within CSL,” said Martel.

A Quebec City native who holds degrees in naval architecture from both Institut Maritime du Québec in Rimouski and England’s Newcastle University, Martel brings a solid background in both the technical and management sides of the marine transportation industry to his new job. 

After working briefly in the production department at Davie Shipyard in Lévis, followed by eight years with Lloyd’s Register as a ship surveyor, Martel joined CSL in 1997 as Director of naval architecture and asset management.  He led CSL’s then-innovative forebody program to rebuild its ageing lakers before moving in 2003 to Boston, where he spent several years working under outgoing CSL Group President Rod Jones.

Martel returned to Montreal in 2012 to take over as President of CSL from Gerry Carter.  He was then named President of CSL International in 2015, and was tapped last fall to become Jones’ successor.

“Over the course of his 20-year career at CSL, Mr. Martel has played a pivotal role in driving innovation and positioning CSL and its customers ahead of the rapid pace of change in the shipping industry,” Paul Martin, now Chair of CSL Group’s Board of Directors, said in a statement when Martel took over as Group President. “We are confident he will provide the strategic vision and drive to lead CSL into the future.”

For Martel, that future will continue to include the geographic diversification and acquisitions that have marked CSL’s history for the past 35 years, most notably during the economically robust 2000-2008 period, when the Canadian shipping industry experienced one of its biggest booms in history. He said his tenure will also be focused on the company’s core businesses and its major clients. He pointed to the recent introduction of MV Ferbec, a rebaptized geared bulk carrier from Australia, which is now the largest conventional geared bulk carrier in CSL’s Canadian domestic fleet, and operates in the Havre St-Pierre to Sorel corridor for long time-customer Rio Tinto, as an example of that focus.

“A typical company with a trading mentality would do a lot of spot transactions. That’s not the DNA of CSL.” said Martel. “We are more of a transportation department for companies. We are a world-class shipping company that is focused on adding value to better serve our customers and operate as safely and as responsibly as we can.”