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Better placed than ever? Greek shipowners leading from the front

Greek owners labelled 'flexible' and 'brave' for their billion dollar newbuild commitments

At the vanguard of shipping since the days of Onassis and Niarchos, Greeks have once again been heavily reinvesting in shipping and are as well equipped as anyone to meet the challenges of decarbonising the industry 

“IN a world of dramatic changes and crises, shipping remains the unshakeable constant,” Union of Greek Shipowners’ president Melina Travlos told the organisation’s members gathered at this year’s annual general meeting in Athens.

While that statement has become more incontrovertible since the Covid pandemic, it probably rings truer in Greece than anywhere.

Indeed, shipping has been important to Greece and Greeks have been mainstays of world maritime trade for as long as anyone can remember.

The AGM took place at the Onassis ‘Stegi’, a shimmering modern arts and culture centre on upper Syngrou Avenue, the main thoroughfare linking the sea with the heart of the city.

A few weeks later, Travlos was one of the key speakers at the Our Ocean Conference 2024, a US initiative begun in 2014 and this year co-hosted by the Greek government and the Sustainable Ocean Alliance.

“The sea is our identity. We Greeks breathe, live and flourish from the sea,” she said.

“We are proud to be leaders in an industry that secures the welfare of humanity by making global trade possible,” she told the international gathering.

The event was held at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC), which sprawls over a huge, landscaped plot near the bottom of Syngrou Avenue.

Among its facilities, the SNFCC houses the National Library of Greece, while the Our Ocean Conference took place in the auditorium that provides the home of the Greek National Opera.

The Onassis and Niarchos cultural palaces are among the contemporary jewels in the crown of the Greek capital and give tangible expression to how thoroughly shipping and the capital derived from the industry have blended with the fabric of Greek life.

As monuments to perhaps the two most famous names among the generation of so-called ‘Golden Greeks’ who dominated shipping in the immediate boom after the Second World War, they are also reminders of how long the nation has been at the vanguard of global shipping — however improbable that feat may seem, given the size of the country.

“Athens is the Silicon Valley of shipping,” UGS vice-president Andonis Lemos told Lloyd’s List at the recent Delphi Economic Forum.

“We are strong, we have access to capital, we have patience — and above all we are here, not in New York or London,” he said.

“We are in our country; we compete with each other and inspire each other to move forwards. It gives you that knowledge base — and that’s a very dynamic environment.

“It’s a great source of pride that we have done it with no subsidies or governmental help on a very level playing field globally,” he says.

“Obviously, we have a benign tax environment, but so does the whole world — so the only way to compete is on an equal footing.”

According to data cited by the industry, the Greek-controlled fleet weighs in at more than 5,500 vessels and represents 20.2% of world cargo capacity.

The country’s shipowners have long leaned towards bigger oceangoing ships. The same data shows them controlling 30% of the world crude oil tanker fleet; 15% of chemical and product tankers; and 25% of world dry bulk capacity.

In recent decades, they have diversified activities greatly, moving into trades once considered “foreign”, such as gas shipping and containers.

The extent of this is evident from figures showing Greeks now own 23% of the world fleet of liquefied natural gas carriers and 13% of liquefied petroleum gas carriers.

Their share of world container shipping — ;which has recently seen a trend of liner operators placing huge orders for ships of their own — stands at a more modest 8.5%.

Yet even there, Greeks have become a more prominent factor in the market, recently taking over from German owners as having the largest boxships-for-charter fleet.

However, it is against a background of European shipping that the numbers become almost ridiculously impressive.

Greeks are currently estimated to control 61% of the EU-owned merchant fleet, including 82% of the EU’s LNG carriers, 80% of the bulk carriers and 75% of the oil tankers.

In recent years, the UGS has become much more engaged with European legislators than used to be the case — and this has helped understanding of the industry in Brussels, although observers attest that there remains hard work to be done.

Not long ago, the country’s owners were cautious about placing orders for new vessels when so many questions swirled about the kind of ships that will be required as the industry steadily transitions to a decarbonised future.

Since last year, however, many owners have returned to the shipyards, in some cases flush with cash from a protracted tanker boom, or merely emboldened by an increasingly sparse orderbook for Greek’s bread-and-butter tanker and dry bulk markets.

There have been prodigious investment commitments running into billions of dollars by some of the country’s most prominent entrepreneurs.

George Prokopiou has continually extended a newbuilding programme across the LNG carrier, tanker and dry bulk sectors that now runs to 80 vessels.

Not far behind, George Economou has ordered about 50 vessels across the same sectors for his TMS group. He was also among the first owners worldwide to order the new very large ammonia carriers — four of them contracted from Samsung Heavy Industries.

Both Prokopiou and Economou have opted largely for conventionally fuelled tonnage and exhaust gas-cleaning systems, or scrubbers.

Evangelos Marinakis, however, has focused on building a fleet geared to his vision of the industry’s energy transition. His Capital Gas arm was the first company worldwide to order large CO2 carriers, for delivery between late 2025 and November 2026.

Marinakis has also ordered very large ammonia carriers, midsize LPG carriers and has doubled down on LNG carriers and LNG dual-fuelled tankers.

Also poised to invest heavily in the energy transition is Peter Livanos, another of the country’s leading owners of LNG carriers.

His company GasLog — in which BlackRock and the Onassis Foundation are also invested — is planning to build and operate liquid hydrogen vessels as part of an LH2 supply chain.

The project follows Livanos-backed affiliate EcoLog’s plans for a huge fleet of CO2 carriers, as well as terminals. Although that project was announced back in 2022, it is now expected to order the first vessels in early 2025.

More conventionally, Greek owners also continue reinvesting heavily in shipping through the secondhand market.

According to Allied QuantumSea, the research division of Athens-based Allied Shipbroking, Greek owners easily top the league table for acquiring existing tonnage.

Its data shows Greek owners have acquired 271 ships, including 183 bulkers and 60 tankers, over the past 12 months, ahead of the 191 purchased by Chinese owners, ranked second.

Heading sales list

This bears witness to a fleet renewal process, as Greeks also head the list for sales — 263 of them over the same period.

According to Allied, Greek owners have also been the leading investors in newbuildings over the past year, with 197 orders, of which 97 are tankers.

In the 1950s, when the world’s press first became entranced by the exploits of Onassis and Niarchos, Time magazine’s writers were so impressed by the dominance of Greek shipowners that one article giddily ascribed the term “the Greeks” to “the independent shipowners of whatever nationality who have sailed on the crest of the post-war shipping boom”.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Greek shipping companies tend to be more international than they used to be, which equips them better for a host of modern challenges, in the view of Andonis Lemos —who, together with brother Filippos, runs the Enesel Group.

Chief among these is the energy transition, but Lemos is confident that Greek owners are on track to transform their carbon footprint and meet all regulations in the future.

“We have the newest fleet of tankers, the fleet with the most scrubbers; we have the biggest take-up of dual-fuel engines, the most e-type engines, derated engines. We are right in the forefront,” he emphasises.

“If we can’t meet the new regulations, I believe that no one can.”

Greek owners have been “very flexible, very brave” in ordering new vessels, he says.

“We are better placed probably than we have ever been,” says Lemos, whose group credits their ancestors with starting the family shipping business as far back as 1848.

He emphasises “the great variety” of Greek shipowners in terms of their size, their different methods of financing and their identity as being either specialised or diversified across more than one sector of shipping.

“Going forward, things are going to be very different,” he says.

However, as the incumbents in the maritime sector, Greeks have an inbuilt advantage in an industry that is liable to get tougher.

“Among us, there are definitely people who are going to survive and lead the future of shipping,” he says.

This article is part of Lloyd’s List’s ‘Greece 2024’ special report, which will be distributed at Posidonia in June and can also be viewed and downloaded by subscribers


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