Women in Maritime: Sara Hextall – Director, OceanWeb Limited

Following a BA (hons) degree in Humanities from the University of Hertfordshire and a Master’s Degree in HR Management from Newcastle University, Sara spent the first part of her career in maritime personnel, followed by a period in electronic engineering. In 1997 Sara and husband Ben founded OceanWeb Limited, the marine IT and Communications company based in Port Erin, Isle of Man. 

You clearly have a strong academic background – did you ever anticipate building a marine technology business or was there a turning point in your career that took you down this entrepreneurial path? 

was never strategic about my career, I just always took the next logical step.  When I look backI can see how all my past experience has set me in good stead for what I am doing now.  The pivotal point for me happened when I was on maternity leave from my job.  Ben had been working on his own for somtime.  He is an amazing salesman but was really struggling with other aspects of the business.  So I thought ‘What can I do to help?’ 

My time in academia gave me the self-confidence to teach myself new skills – at the beginning this was accounting and the associated VAT rules; more recently it has been Marketing. 

As a small business owner, you can never say ‘that’s not my job/responsibility’.  If there is a gap in knowledge and skills in the business, it is not always possible to fill that gap by recruiting; you have to be a jack of all trades, roll your sleeves up and learn how to fill that gap! 

My time as a HR Manager of a new up and coming manufacturing firm gave me the people skills to be a good employer.  We employed a diverse range of people from electronic engineers working in R&D, designing cuttingedge new technologies, to manufacturing staff working on the assembly line. The HR practices that I had to put in place there taught me a great deal about how to ensure that all staff feel fulfilled and motivated. 

Tell us a bit more about your experiences whilst building OceanWeb with Ben over the last 23 years – you must have had some great highs as well as some serious challenges during that time?  

When we started out, our office was in our attic.  We had to climb a ladder each morning to go to work! After we took on our first employee, we decided that an actual flight of stairs was probably more appropriate and had some renovations done.

The early years were the really tough years, when we worked so hard for little return. However, we did have two small children who were a great distraction from all the worries. Eventually by maintaining a sense of humour and sheer perseverance, things started to improve.

After much research and soul-searching, we moved back to the Isle of Man in 2006, bringing the business with us. At this point we made the decision to move the business into premises rather than working from home. We have always grown the business organically waiting for the right time to make a move rather than pushing for investment and developments before the time is right.

We recruited our IT Manager and a part time Administrator and as a small team of 4 made great headway (but not without a great deal of challenges!). I remember Ben and our IT Manager had to spend 10 days in Seattle refitting a new build; with 8 hours’ time difference, it was very difficult to talk to them about the problems any of our other clients were experiencing during office hours, so it was up to me to provide the proactive IT Support as best I could!  

By 2014 there were six of us squeezed into office space that was unfit for purpose so Ben and I started to look around for our own premises. We had decided that we wanted to stay based in the South of the Island so our choice of business properties was limited. Eventually we found The Old Sunday School, had the plans drawn up and started the renovations. It was very exciting watching our new premises take shape, knowing that we had designed them with OceanWeb’s needs at heart – there would be no compromises! It was also an extremely stressful time trying to manage such an important project and do our day job.  

Eventually we moved into our new offices on 1st July 2016.  This was a truly great high….. until we plugged in the last computer and shorted all the power in the whole building!    

What has been the most rewarding part of building OceanWeb to date? 

The recruitment of high quality IT staff here on the Island has always been one of my challenges for OceanWeb. There isn’t a pool of engineers familiar with VSAT equipment for me to tap into which is why on the job training has always been a strong element of our induction process.  

In 2017, I made the decision to recruit two Trainee Technical Support Engineers. In January 2018, these new recruits commenced employment and were very successful as they embarked on a steep learning curve to improve their technical knowledge and get to grips with the oddities of the marine IT and communication industry. The Trainees themselves were extremely enthusiastic and keen to learn, which fostered a learning culture throughout the rest of the team!

Personal development is key focus at OceanWeb. For me personally, watching our young Engineers become experts in their specialisms, grow in professionalism and bond into a strong and supportive team, has been the most rewarding part of building OceanWeb to date. 

Lots of people dream of building their own business so what advice would you give to anyone thinking of following in your footsteps? 

The moment you decide to build your own business, you put yourself and your family onto the most scary and exhilarating rollercoaster you can imagine and there is no way to stop the rollercoaster to get off!  The business takes precedence over everything else so whatever is going on in our family, gets put on hold if a business problem presents itself.  I would advise that you have to be ready for that but neither Ben nor I were – we have learned and grown along the way!  

You must have a sense of humour to carry you through, perseverance and the ability to adapt to any situation with optimism and good nature. Most importantly is the need for strong relationships within the family group, so we have to be flexible with our time to ensure that when we are able to give family members 100% attention, we do! 

Our business has disrupted many family celebrations and many family holidays but it has also given Ben and I a great deal of job satisfaction, pride and excitement. It has instilled in our children, an understanding of the effort required if you want to make a success of anything you do! 

The coronavirus pandemic has affected us all to different degrees. How are you and your team at OceanWeb dealing with the current situation and what are your plans for the future? 

The coronavirus pandemic has affected our clients dramatically as all vessels are currently locked down in ports or shipyards.  This in turn has had a direct effect on OceanWeb.  Our Engineers are currently unable to travel out to work onboard any of our vessels.  However, remote IT support is our USP and has been for the last 20 years.  The team at OceanWeb has risen to the challenge with their usual good nature and we are all working from home very effectively so the normal activities of OceanWeb have continued uninterrupted.  We are also looking at innovative ways to be able to deliver a number of our other services remotely.  Last month we successfully managed to commission a VSAT antenna remotely! 

As lockdown is lifted slowly throughout Europe and our clients are starting to make plans to be able to leave port we are excited to be able to find new ways to be able to support them and continue to deliver a first class service.   

The ability to adapt to new situations is going to be key for our future. 

Travel and business development are such important elements of building a successful business, how do you see the current pandemic affecting business travel over the next few years? 

Throughout our time building OceanWebBen has spent a significant portion of his life travelling throughout Europe and the US developing those all important business relationships.  It is widely acknowledged that it is so much more effective doing this in a face to face situation rather than using email and telephone. However, the world has now changed and with the use of technologies such as video conferencing, we have proved to ourselves that there are other ways of ‘putting a face to a name!’ 

I believe that whilst travel is so unsafe, we will all be relying on these technologies in a greater way so that in the future, the need to travel for business development reasons might cease to exist. 

Finally, as a successful woman working within the Island’s maritime sector, what should the Island’s maritime community be doing to attract more women to join the sector? 

After completing University, I returned to the Island and worked as a Personnel Officer for a shipping company. At this time all the management positions in the business were held by men who had come ashore after holding sea-going positions. 

Women in senior positions were very rare as they generally had not been to sea. At this time, I found the lack of a role model very demotivating and decided to leave the industry to explore other avenues. The more women that there are in senior positions, the more young women will not feel that their development will be curtailed.   

Obviously I returned to the maritime sector and have found that I have had to fight for my position throughout my career. In my 20 years working in the superyacht industry, I have never dealt with a female Captain.  

Perception throughout the industry needs to change, with stronger marketing using strong images of women. Working practices and hours also need to be flexible to attract and retain women. I have often wondered whether the current pandemic might help the Womens cause, as we have all proven that it is possible to work very effectively from home, despite children also being there!