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Bertram Rickmers: a life that mirrored the trajectory of German shipping

Death of German shipowner at the age of 71 announced, after fatal accident at wife’s birthday party

Before the financial crisis, Rickmers was unquestionably one of the industry’s leading figures, with a fleet of 130 ships. A decade later, he remained a legend, but no longer an important player

AS THE American industrialist J Paul Getty famously quipped, if you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100m, that’s the bank’s problem. On that yardstick, Bertram Rickmers was the bank’s problem, sixteen times over.

Rickmers, who has died in Hamburg aged 71, emblematised an entire generation of German shipowners who built substantial boxship empires on the back of that country’s KG model of ship finance.

The system worked by providing generous tax breaks for affluent middle-class investors — stereotypically depicted as retired dentists — to pump their savings pots into single-ship companies, which could be leveraged with bank loans.

In the boom of the opening years of the 21st century, big profits rolled in with owners stumping little money up front, pensions were nicely augmented, and everybody went home happy.

When things came unstuck — as they did in the industry downturn that followed the global financial crisis, the carnage was spectacular — the perennial search for funds was forced into other directions.

Rickmers’ problems were apparent as early as 2013, when his master company Rickmers Holding launched a $275m high-yield debt issue, with a coupon fractionally under 9%.

This is what is less politely known as a junk bond, a tactic that had previously been shunned by reputable shipowners since shipping disastrous foray into this expedient in the 1990s.

With shipping a loss-making activity, that interest rate was unsustainable. The issue went through a restructuring that saw bondholders including banks take a haircut tantamount to a wipeout.

Rickmers Holding collapsed in 2017, after more than a year of turmoil that saw its Singapore arm go under after a bond default, and multipurpose division Rickmers-Linie disposed of for a negative price.

Lloyd’s List obtained a copy of a document circulated at a subsequent creditors’ meeting in Hamburg. By the time HSH Nordbank decided to turn off life support, the group’s debts ran to a cool $1.6bn.

Bertram Rickmers had already launched his plan B, in 2015 registering Asian Spirit Steamship Company as the sole partner in five KG partnerships.

ASSC has since made new and secondhand purchases. But it remains a smaller owner, with a fleet of feedermax containerships and a platform supply vessel.

Most of the ruins of Rickmers Holding were picked up cheaply by business ally Kurt Zech, owner of Bremen-based construction outfit Zech Group, who also bought many shipping interests from Bertram Rickmers’ brother Erck Rickmers.

It was widely conjectured that this was a place-holding operation, with Bertram Rickmers slated to be back in control after a publicly acceptable period of contrition.

But if this was indeed a fallback project, it was spectacularly unsuccessful. By 2020, most of Zech’s shipping ventures had either gone bust, or were being discreetly hawked around Hamburg.

Bertram Rickmer Clasen Rickmers was a fifth-generation shipowner, who could trace his family’s maritime roots back to a shipyard started in Bremerhaven in 1834.

But by the early 1980s, the family’s enterprises were in bad shape. The shipyard was insolvent, and the Rickmers-Linie liner service had been sold.

Rickmers chose to set up shop in his own right, establishing a shipbroking business in 1982, and becoming a shipowner three years later.

By 1991, he was able to buy Nedlloyd Bulkchem from Royal Nedlloyd, the biggest Dutch shipping company of the time.

The following year, he joined forces with Erck to launch Nordcapital as a KG “emissions house”, as such entities were known.

But the siblings appear to have undergone some sort of rift, which later became durable. They rapidly parted company, leaving Bertram to establish another KG house on his own account.

By 2000, he bought Rickmers-Linie back from Hapag-Lloyd, which must have been gratifying. Under Bertram’s direction, it went on to establish a major presence in heavylift.

In 2007, there was diversification in the Far East, with the launch of Rickmers Maritime Trust in Singapore, in which Rickmers Holding had a one-third stake.

By this point, Rickmers stood tall as one of the world’s leading shipowners, with a fleet of 130 ships, employing over 1,700 seafarers and over 400 shore staff.

Then came the financial crisis. A decade later, he remained a legend. But he could no longer be classed as a major player.

His spectacular rise, and equally spectacular fall, serves well as a metaphor for the trajectory of the German shipping industry in our lifetimes.

Rickmers was one of the few big-name German owners who spoke directly to the press in decades past, and several Lloyd’s List journalists got to know him personally.

They recall him as a personable individual, although he could be prickly when faced with unfavourable questions, which inevitably happened more frequently as things started turning sour. His opinions were certainly forceful and his prognoses often over-optimistic.

According to local media reports, he died of injuries sustained after falling down the stairs at his home during the 60th birthday party of his wife Franziska, who survives him.

Rickmers had two daughters, Anna Sophie and Lara, and a son, Rickmer Clasen, who is involved with ASSC. There are five grandchildren.

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