The sale of Hamburg Süd to Maersk for $4bn does not mean the mighty Oetker family have rubbed their hands of shipping entirely. Far from it, in fact. In Alexander Oetker, the famous name in Hamburg maritime circles has a rising star. He founded AO Shipping in 2003 and since then the private dry bulk concern has forged its own path building up a fleet that today numbers seven ships.
Oetker is aware of the pressure that goes with his name among Hamburg’s shipping cognoscenti.
“I feel responsibility, to live up to the standards of my ancestors, while establishing my own position,” he says.
He formed AO, rather than building a career at Hamburg Süd, as he was keen to be independent and wanted to focus on dry bulk at a time where Hamburg Süd was scaling back in this field to focus more on the container trades.
“It was a calling from an early age,” Oetker says. And timing-wise, 2003, the start of last decade’s super cycle, was a propitious time to launch a dry bulk shipping line.
AO has carefully expanded the fleet over the years and has time charter coverage for all units in place.
Unlike many in today’s supersized shipping industry Oetker is not likely to pursue massive fleet growth any time soon – prudence appears a key watchword.
“For sure we would like to grow the fleet, however, size in itself is irrelevant to us,” Oetker says, pointing out how the average size of a Greek outfit is around five vessels. He is looking at Japanese built secondhand kamsarmaxes and supramaxes at the moment.
“We aim to hand over the firm to the next generation: debt free and intact,” says the man for whom shipping has been part of the family blood since the 1930s. “All vessels must be successful standalone, by building up cash, so that the unit can weather any future storms,” he stresses.
On the markets, Oetker remains cautious. “While the orderbook seems finally under control, the demand picture remains rather bleak, with much depending on China, coal and ore,” he says.
Oetker pleas for fellow bulker owners to hold off from ordering new ships in large numbers and to ensure older vessels are scrapped if supply/demand equilibrium is to be met.
“As it stands now, I am slightly optimistic, as the capacity on order is the same as all scrap potentials counted together,” Oetker says.
The lengthy downturn has seen a number of bankruptcies in dry bulk, but this is not something that aids the sector per se, Oetker argues.
“Bankruptcies in themselves don’t help anyone; rather, they push down prices, which drags out the recovery even further,” he observes.