Splash Extra

How to build a shipowner

Modern day mergers and acquisitions might not have the same drama as the adventures of a nineteenth century shipowner, but it’s the way forward to grow a company-and still makes a great story, writes our special correspondent

A television series based on a shipping company, comprising over 90 episodes running over nine seasons? Such a pitch is unlikely to have much chance of being commissioned in the modern era, even from the mighty Netflix, but 50 years ago The Onedin Line provided compelling Sunday night viewing for millions of Britons. The long running drama followed the fortunes of a swashbuckling and ambitious Liverpool shipowner, Captain James Onedin and his eponymous company in a tale set in 19th century Liverpool as the age of sail gave way to the advent of the steam engine. 

It’s interesting to note that the writer, former seafarer Cyril Abraham, had originally wanted to set the story in a modern shipping company, but he quickly saw that contemporary shipping companies were run by ‘boards of anonymous executives’. Abraham felt there were much better stories to be found in the 19th century roots of these companies, when they were originally established by shrewd and far-sighted individuals who built their shipping lines from nothing. 

Splash Extra, along with its sister publications, have for years been profiling and chronicling the major players in the modern maritime world and there is clearly no shortage of personalities and far-sighted individuals in our industry today. Regulation and compliance have thankfully reduced many of the sharp practices of Captain Onedin’s time although lack of capital, or access to it, has stunted the ambition of many a would-be shipping magnate.          

In a world where a shipping stock trading at above NAV is a rarity, it’s hardly surprising that growth through corporate acquisition is a more attractive proposition than purchasing what in comparison are over-priced individual assets

That does not mean there have not been plenty of opportunities for growth. Enlarging a fleet through selective forays into the secondhand market or the occasional (and often regretted) newbuilding contract are now eclipsed by mergers and acquisitions, sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly, but once the deal gets done, all sides talk of the benefits of consolidation. 

The recent rebuttal by product tanker specialist Ardmore Shipping of Hafnia’s proposed takeover in an all-share transaction is just the latest move by one of shipping’s master consolidators, BW Group. In a world where a shipping stock trading at above NAV is a rarity, it’s hardly surprising that growth through corporate acquisition is a more attractive proposition than purchasing what in comparison are over-priced individual assets, and BW most definitely has form in this. It is only a mere 12 months since BW set about its product tanker consolidation, adding to its existing fleet by growing its 7.2% stake in Hafnia to 43.5%. Whilst the recent bid to expand further has, so far, been declined, you can bet that is just the opening salvo.    

BW was born out of the Sohmen-Pao family’s 2003 acquisition of Norwegian shipping royalty Bergesen, a move which stirred strong emotions in the Norwegian shipping community at the time, but the consolidation of the Bergesen and World-Wide Shipping fleets was subsequently proven to be highly astute. That had been preceded by the 1998 acquisition of historic Swedish owner Nordstrom & Thulin. That’s a pretty impressive set of acquisitions, perhaps matched only by the corporate appetite of John Fredriksen, whose 1996 acquisition of another Swedish shipowner, Frontline, was pivotal in the development of his own shipping empire.     

These headline deals are not the work of ‘boards of anonymous executives’ but of companies with inspirational leadership who have moved with the times, always kept a commitment to shipping and kept a clear vision of the future. Five decades before BW was born, its predecessor World-Wide Shipping was founded with the purchase of a single coal-fired bulker and in just 20 years grew to be the world’s largest shipping company. The fictional James Onedin ‘only’ ever owned 21 ships. When it comes to shipping, fact is always so much better than fiction.              

Back to top button