Despite being just days away from departing Fred Olsen, after more than 30 years, outgoing managing director Mike Rodwell still has one job left to complete.
His speech for tonight’s company leaving dinner.
“Oh no, I haven’t started that yet,” he smiles, as I enquire as to its status. “All I know is, it’s going to be brief.”
It is this down-to-earth nature that seems to have typified Rodwell’s time at the company, which within his three decades, has steadily grown from a single-ship operation to a five-strong fleet across the oceans and rivers.
He has been at the helm for about half of that time, but by Rodwell’s own admission, he has never really courted the limelight.
“I don’t particular like that attention,” he tells me, sitting in his office at Fred Olsen’s Ipswich headquarters. “I’m not one of these bosses who likes to be front and centre all the time.”
Ironically, for a man whose career has been focused on ships, it was trains (and their unreliability) that fatefully brought him to Fred Olsen.
In 1988, living in Clacton-on-Sea and working as an accountant and later a financial analyst for British Telecom in London, Rodwell grew tired of the commute.
When a number of companies belonging to the Fred Olsen group, including Black Prince Management Ltd, a forerunner to Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, moved to Ipswich, Rodwell took the opportunity for a career change.
“I knew nothing about cruising but I found the role interesting and I liked the people,” he recalls.
“Back when I joined, cruising was looked at as a bit of a snobby thing to do – it was definitely a niche product.”
As divisional accountant, he oversaw the running of the company’s sole vessel, the 440-passenger Black Prince.
“It wasn’t exactly small for that period in the cruise industry but would just feel like a tender compared to some of the big ships now,” Rodwell remembers fondly.
In his 30-year career, Rodwell estimates to have sailed onboard Fred Olsen’s fleet “well over 100 times”.
Although he says his most memorable journey was his first – onboard Black Prince – sailing from Izmir to Venice during which he turned 29 and cruised through the physics-defying Corinth Canal.
But which ship in the fleet is his favourite?
“It would be wrong of me to choose a ship,” he chuckles. “It’s like choosing your favourite child – I couldn’t possibly say.
“My own kids, who are in their 20s, love Balmoral and Braemar. Despite not being our demographic of passenger, they always ask every year ‘when are we going cruising then?’. They love it.”
A series of financial and commercial roles over the next seven years followed, with Rodwell named commercial director in 1995 before taking the top job in May 2004.
The company’s growth during his time there is Rodwell’s proudest career takeaway, he tells me.
It formally became Fred Olsen Cruise Lines in 1996, with the acquisition of Black Watch, a deal followed up in 2001 by adding Braemar to its ranks.
Along came Boudicca in 2006 and Balmoral joined the fleet in 2008.
“We start with Black Prince at about 440 passengers and grew to around 3,800 with the fleet now. We also have a team of more than 200. To begin with, I was part of about half a dozen and some shared resources in Norway, so it really is quite a change.”
“When you acquire vessels it’s a huge buzz – each time it’s a big step up for the business to fill the ship – that is a great part of working for a cruise line,” Rodwell says passionately.
Given his imminent departure, talk turns to might-have-been scenarios for the line during Rodwell’s time – including one particular trip he took to Hong Kong in 2004 to inspect a ship to potentially purchase.
“The vessel itself shall remain nameless as we didn’t end up buying it,” he smiles ruefully. “It would have been a lovely ship for us though.”
The unrealised deal prompts me to ask Rodwell if he has any regrets from his time with the company.
One of the “very, very few” he says is not being able to see a Fred Olsen new-build ship come into service during his tenure.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t go far enough down the road with the new-build process early enough – we could have started the process sooner.”
“We are at a design and concept stage now so reasonably early but the board are in favour of a new-build,” he explains.
“They haven’t made the decision on that yet, but there is a feeling we need to seriously pursue it – and we are.
“We are going down that road and it will be one for Pete [Deer, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ commercial director] to take forward.”
Revealed as the new managing director earlier this month, Deer will take over on 2 September after his own extensive history with the company.
As conversation turns to his successor, Rodwell’s office phone rings.
As luck would have it, Deer is on the line. I wonder if his ears have been burning.
“I’ve known him a long time, and he will do a fantastic job,” says Rodwell.
“He’s ready for the job and knows it as well as anyone could. We had to go through the right processes for recruitment, but Pete was head and shoulders above anyone else in the market we could find.”
It is a ringing endorsement and one you feel will leave Fred Olsen’s staff and business partners confident for the future.
And when Deer does take the helm, how will Rodwell feel?
“The company has been a big part of my life, but I’m very lucky to have been able to make the decision to retire at 60,” he says stoically.
“Ever since I was 21 that was the plan – I’m moving into a different part of life and looking forward to it."
Rodwell says despite his plans to learn French, undertake copious amounts of DIY and compete in over-60s water polo at the World Aquatics Championships in 2021 in Japan, he will still take a keen interest in the state of the cruise industry.
“I’m sure I’ll keep an eye on things – I still love the sector very much and have so many friends in the company. I wish them all the success going forward.”
And how about cruising? Has Rodwell pencilled in a few sailings to keep the children happy?
“I dare say I’ll get onboard Fred again,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I might know a few people around here who can get me a great deal.”