The seeds of the shipping giant A.P. Moller Maersk began on a Danish island at the turn of the 20th century. Starting as a tanker operation transporting crude oil, Maersk expanded its ocean shipping operations over the decades to meet broadening global demands from shippers looking for the best way to get their products into the hands of consumers.
In recent years, Maersk has established itself as a leader in the ocean freight industry, striving toward greater collaboration with supply chain technology partners like Vizion and the increased use of API connectivity for supply chain visibility. The company also has an eye toward supply chain sustainability and ESG initiatives, recently unveiling the first ocean vessel powered by the alternative fuel green methane.
Maersk’s Growth Mirrors a Rise in Ocean Shipping Activity
When Arnold Peter Moller followed his father into the ocean shipping industry in a spot-market tramp shipping operation, he quickly knew he wanted something bigger. The history of Maersk is a story of A.P. Moller’s drive to grow a shipping empire serving customers around the world.
A Global Shipping Giant is Born
Maersk, the ocean carrier, officially began in 1904 when A.P. Maersk built on Peter Maersk Moller’s modest success in the industry by founding a single steamship company emulating his father’s business, Steamship Company Laura. The elder Maersk had been growing his ocean shipping company since 1886, enlisting A.P. and his brothers as helping hands. This early exposure to shipping stayed with A.P., and after he founded his own company, he quickly set his sights on expansion as world events created a new demand for his services. According to the company’s official timeline:
“The golden circumstances of trade and shipping which emerged during the First World War helped to establish A.P. Moller-Maersk as a leading shipping company in Denmark.”
Not even a decade after founding the shipping line, Maersk put a stake in the brokerage world, with shipbuilding operations soon to follow in 1918 with the establishment of the Odense Steel Shipyard.
In 1917, A.P. had sketched out a grand shipbuilding plan in a letter to his father, explaining that while the First World War had been an immensely profitable time for the carrier, he wanted to use that excess to help the company create a ship-manufacturing hub. If those profits were lost during such an endeavor, that would be fine “as long as some good comes of it.”
Ocean Liner Expansion Leads to New Opportunities
As the fleet grew and Maersk began building ships, the company remained committed to a single route servicing ports in America, Japan, and the Philippines. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, route expansions to China, Hong Kong, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia were developed.
By the time the Second World War came to Denmark in 1940, Maersk commanded 46 shipping vessels. The Germans and their allies requisitioned the vast majority of those ships, and by the end of the war, only 21 ships remained. It took A.P. three years to surpass his pre-war fleet.
Through all this growth, Maersk was simply a tanker operation, but when Malcolm McLean’s new shipping container took hold, Maersk expanded its business model. The shipping company inaugurated its shipping container services in 1975 with the Panama Line. That first ship set sail from Port Elizabeth laden with 385 shipping containers, only two decades removed from McLean’s initial shipping experiment. (Modern Maersk vessels can carry 18,000 containers.)
By 1990, Maersk shipping services touched 40 countries. At the turn of the century, the company was shipping to more than 100 countries. During this rampant growth, coupled with the occasional downturn in global trade, Maersk continued as one entity. In 2016, the company split into two divisions covering transport and energy, a move to increase support for the two key aspects of Maersk’s business.
Supply Chain Sustainability Comes Into Focus
As the world began focusing more on the impact of vessel emissions and supply chain sustainability, Maersk started looking inward to see where emissions could be reduced. As a reaction to growing government regulations from the European Union and other bodies, as well as general consumer demand for cleaner shipping, carriers throughout the world have been using emissions-reduction strategies. Shippers have flocked to emissions tracking while Maersk was hard at work proving the viability of alternative fuels. The company has 25 green menthol vessels on order.
Maersk first pledged to have carbon-neutral operations by 2050, recently lowering the target to 2040 and committing to help the broader shipping industry eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
Maersk’s Services and Specializations
Maersk has grown into one of the major ocean shipping players worldwide, offering a host of services to shippers. Though Maersk began as a means to transport crude oil, the company has now become a conglomerate that can provide end-to-end services to shippers covering their entire freight journey.
Container Shipping and Terminals
Focusing on shipping, Maersk currently offers shippers domestic and global transportation services, including air and expedited ground services. On the water, Maersk offers container and less-than-container load shipping to 190 countries, including ocean breakbulk services with port-to-port, terminal-to-terminal, or door-to-door options. Maersk can also handle all documentation and Customs clearance as needed. Shippers needing faster service can utilize Maersk’s Sea-Air offering.
Diversified Logistics Solutions
Maersk has grown to provide a range of contract logistics products along with multi-client warehousing in strategic North American locations and forward staging. According to Maersk, forward staging enables shippers “to stock your inventory in multiple locations, near its final destination and without the added hassle of managing your own warehouse space. Our global footprint includes more than 80 North American locations and a worldwide network encompassing hundreds of thousands of square feet of storage.” Maersk has indeed become much more than a shipping line.
Maersk’s Container Tracking Mechanisms
Maersk provides numerous integrations for shippers and their technology providers to easily access ocean shipping data. With EDI connections, shippers receive reliable but limited information directly from the carriers, allowing them to track goods with each asynchronous EDI update. Cloud-based API messages give shippers a much more comprehensive array of information, allowing for bidirectional communication (EDI is only one-way communication) in real time. Instead of receiving batch data through an EDI message, API communications can handle individual transaction requests.
Looking at a typical ocean booking and delivery contrasts the differences between EDI and API connectivity. During the planning phase, EDI messaging will only transmit acknowledgment and confirmation of shipping routes, while APIs can transmit deadlines, schedules, and locations for individual vessels. While shippers can receive booking information through both EDI and API messages, only APIs can transmit SPOT rates.
In container tracking, API really separates itself from EDI, giving shippers both predictive ETA and verified gross mass of the ships. APIs are also useful in sorting out detention and demurrage information after ships arrive at port.
Maersk: The Second-Biggest Ocean Carrier Worldwide
Maersk is one of the world’s top three ocean shipping companies, according to Marine Insight, bookended by MSC in the top spot and CMA CGM. The company had been in the top spot, measured by TEU, since 1996. MSC took the pole position by adding 100 vessels in 2023, for a total of 800 ships, and carrying 5.6 million TEU globally. Maersk has around 125 fewer ships than MSC and can hold 4.1 million TEU. Considering the rest of the top 5 – CMA-CGM, COSCO, and Hapag-Lloyd – CMA might be best positioned to challenge Maersk’s position. CMA has 624 ships with a capacity to carry 3.6 million TEU.
Strategic Alliances and Partnerships
Rankings aren’t everything. While MSC and Maersk compete for the top two spots in global ocean shipping rankings, they are also currently partners. Under the 2M Alliance, Maersk and MSC collaborate to share the costs and risks that go with running a global shipping giant, increasing customer service abilities at the same time. Since the partnership began, Maersk and MSC have developed different paths for the future. While the symbiotic relationship has been a boon to both businesses, they will dissolve their alliance in 2025.
Whatever the future holds for Maersk, the company will continue to grow, fueled by a dedication to customer service and by providing innovations to push the industry forward. To increase customer service, partnerships with innovative supply chain technology companies like Vizion will remain increasingly important. The two companies allow shippers to build resilient supply chains and keep their goods flowing worldwide, no matter the logistics disruption.