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How magnates are made

What are the hallmarks of a great shipowner? Our special correspondent asks if the current global crisis offers an opportunity for the next generation

It’s Posidonia time! Well, it was supposed to be. The biennial shipping jamboree has of course been shuffled back in the shipping calendar to October. Hopefully by then some degree of normality will have returned to the world and Posidonia can finally take place in what is already looking like a packed autumn for maritime events. Even outside its traditional June date, Posidonia will still be the big event on the maritime calendar for one simple reason – Greece. Home to the shipowners who control the world’s largest merchant fleet, Greece is in many respects the spiritual home of the modern shipping industry. But what makes a great shipowner and could the stories of the founding of some of the great shipping dynasties be repeated today?

One characteristic that you find in most of the great shipowners is their experience of adversity

Greece by no means has a monopoly on great shipowners, but it is probably the country where successful shipowners are most revered and respected. A maritime tradition stretching back millennia and the prestige of the shipowning community means that shipping is embedded in the Greek psyche. That means you have a much bigger pool of talent who want to get involved in the industry and hence a much better chance of some real talent emerging. It’s seen as a prestigious career path and every day Greeks are reminded of the success of their shipowners through the hospitals, museums and other public buildings they have bequeathed to their homeland. Let’s be realistic, you are unlikely to hear anyone in a Silicon Valley coffee shop suggesting that they see owning bulk carriers as an alternative career choice.

The days of ships’ captains coming ashore and starting their own fleet are probably in the past, but there are still quite a few shipowners whose principal is addressed by the prefix ‘Captain’. If the old practice of the ship’s crew being offered a share in the success of a voyage still existed, or a generous owner offered his loyal master a share in the actual ship, perhaps there would still be more shipowners with a seafaring background. Seeing International Seaways recently deliver a record set of quarterly earnings with a CEO who started her career in the merchant marine might be the inspiration needed.

A recent Maritime CEO poll asked what is the most important characteristic of a successful shipping magnate. Over a fifth of respondents stated that technical ability was the most important, so a seafaring background is clearly seen as an advantage. Other respondents saw ruthlessness and rage as defining characteristics. Surely not? The ability to build, nurture and sustain relationships through good times and bad must be a key characteristic of any great shipowner, something unlikely to be found in someone with anger management issues.

Hardly surprisingly, ‘vision’ was deemed as the most important characteristic needed to succeed. Sir Y.K. Pao’s (pictured) vision to dispose of much of his fleet before the mid-80s shipping recession is often quoted as a truly visionary move, but more important was his vision of the powerhouse China would become, a vision shared by other Hong Kong shipping tycoons who had left China as refugees just a few decades earlier and subsequently became significant investors as the country opened up.

One characteristic that you find in most of the great shipowners is their experience of adversity. Whether it be the rebuilding of the Greek merchant marine after the ravages of war, the refugees who made Hong Kong home after fleeing China or the tales of other self-made tycoons from humble backgrounds who built their empires from scratch, few of the great shipowners had it easy. With the world now teetering on the brink of the biggest downturn since the Great Depression, is this the moment for the next generation of real shipowners to step forward?

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