The Norwegian steamship company Wilhelmsen Lines will move its North American headquarters out of Baltimore later this year as part of a merger announced yesterday with its Swedish competitor, Wallenius Lines.
The two companies will merge to form the largest operator of automobile-carrying and "roll-on/roll-off" cargo ships in the world, and combine their U.S. headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
Each line brings more than 100 ships to the port of Baltimore annually, ranking them among the port's largest customers.
Company officials say the merged shipping line, to be called Wallenius-Wilhelmsen Line, will continue the same services in Baltimore, and the city will continue to be the line's largest port of call in North America.
"For the port of Baltimore, I really can't see any negative consequences," said Bjorn Tonsberg, president and chief executive officer of Wilhelmsen Lines (USA) Inc.
Wilhelmsen Lines' corporate offices in Baltimore's World Trade Center will be closed and likely moved to New Jersey in stages, Tonsberg said.
Some of the 100 employees could be offered jobs there, but "obviously, there is going to be some redundancy," he said.
Wilhelmsen Lines, based in Oslo, and Wallenius Lines, based in Stockholm, are among the world's largest ocean carriers shipping automobiles and roll-on/roll-off cargo, such as farm and construction equipment. Automobile and "ro-ro" cargo have emerged as one of the port of Baltimore's strengths in the last several years. The safest way to move those items is by ship, and Baltimore's inland location means the cargo spends less time on trains and trucks.
The port moved more than 500,000 tons of ro-ro cargo in 1998, ranking it the largest handler in the United States. The city also exports more automobiles than any other port in the country.
Both Wallenius Lines and Wilhelmsen Lines have increased business at the port of Baltimore in recent years. While the companies would not provide specific figures, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration said Wallenius Lines increased cargo shipments through Baltimore 25 percent in 1998, and Wilhelmsen Lines increased service 43 percent.
The Wallenius-Wilhelmsen merger is to take effect July 1 after regulatory approval from several countries. The combined company will operate more than 70 ships in trade lanes in most parts of the world.
Mergers have become the norm in the maritime trade, with ocean carriers struggling to maintain profitability as rates have dropped.
With too many ships sailing the globe, several steamship lines have merged to share space and reduce costs.
The effect of the Wallenius-Wilhelmsen merger on shipping schedules will be announced later. Tonsberg said employees in Baltimore will be given details of the office's closure by May.
Besides Wilhelmsen's corporate offices, both lines have operations offices near the marine terminals. They, too, will likely be consolidated, Tonsberg said. The new corporation will maintain world headquarters in both Oslo and Stockholm.
Pub Date: 3/26/99