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The king is dead, long live the king! Well, not quite, but nearly in the case of yesterday’s announcement from Mediterranean Shipping Co that heir to the throne Diego Aponte appears to have undergone his coronation after being named president and chief executive of the world’s second-largest shipping line.

Much of shipping remains a dynastic business – think of the Greek and Norwegian shipowners and their kin that dominate the tanker markets. Container shipping has never had quite the same feel, with a more diversified market and plenty of lines that are publicly listed.

There are exceptions however, with Hamburg Sud and CMA CGM still family-owned business, although the latter has seen the Saade family relinquish some control in return from cash injections from Turkish port and engineering magnate Robert Yildirim, as well as the French state in the form of its sovereign wealth fund.

In the case of MSC however, it has remained firmly in the hands of the Aponte family, and in particular its legendary founder Gianluigi Aponte, father of Diego and, in a move somewhat reminiscent of the opening scenes of King Lear, has now been named group executive chairman and will “continue to oversee all group related activities as well as supporting Diego in shaping the future of MSC”, according to a statement from the company.

Gianluigi Aponte

Gianluigi Aponte


That said, the way Mr Aponte Snr has built a carrier from a one-ship operation in the 1970s to the behemoth that it is today is little short of staggering. And according to recent Alphaliner research, with two recent orders for a series of 19,000teu ships, the company will overtake Maersk to become the largest box carrier by the end of 2016, with a total capacity of 3m teu.

There is 610,000teu of slot capacity under construction to which it is linked – many of MSC’s vessels are on long-term charter with agreements signed prior to the owner placing the order with the shipyard – including 17 units in the 16,000-19,000teu ultra large container vessel category, and 35 8,800-9,400teu wide-beam neo-Panamax units that will serve the north-south trades.

In an industry which has for the most part been reluctant to engage with the wider world or even its own trade media, MSC has set itself apart for its near complete silence in public. Many of its executives are well known throughout the industry and have huge knowledge and experience, as well as a not inconsiderable amount of charm, but the number of public interviews given can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

And given the success of MSC it is hard to argue that this approach has not been successful, but with the extreme challenges of recent years in liner shipping, a change is detectable. The formation of first the P3 and then the 2M alliances have necessitated some public pronouncements, and it is instructive that they were made by Mr Aponte Jnr, who is said to have been one of the chief architects of the new alliance.

It is far too early to say whether the change at the top will herald a step change in the way it communicates with the wider world. This correspondent was fortunate to meet Mr Aponte Jnr a few years ago when the company opened its flagship UK headquarters in Ipswich and found his conversation fascinating. At the time the recession had begun to bite and rumours were circling about carriers heading towards bankruptcy.

Did he think such businesses made viable acquisition targets, I asked.

He shook his head. “What’s there to buy? Some vessels and a bit of goodwill? The vessels will become available anyway, and likely at a lower price, and goodwill is too intangible.”

Liner shipping, he said, “was only about market share, nothing else”.

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