It took 50 years – but now Gianluigi Aponte, the secret shipping tycoon, is about to reach the top.
The Italian businessman’s Mediterranean Shipping Company, which he founded half a century ago, is set to become the world’s largest container group, overtaking AP Moller-Maersk.
After poaching one of the senior executives of its Danish rival and allowing an outsider to assume a leadership role for the first time, the family group is seeking to consolidate its position at the heart of global supply chains.
“I think this is a perfect opportunity to bring together the best of both worlds,” Soren Toft, who joined the privately-held company as chief executive in December, told the Financial Times.
“It’s about taking my experiences, ideas and foresight and combining them with the great attributes of MSC. . . we are private property, we have the long goal.
Toft may have come at the right time to develop the Italian-Swiss group, which has embarked on an aggressive expansion as it capitalizes on the pandemic which has generated record profits for shipping companies thanks to soaring rates. freight largely caused by the boom in online shopping.
The profitable race for shipping lines follows more than a decade of overcapacity that has forced consolidation and capacity-sharing alliances.
Although Toft insists “we’re not bothered by size,” the company has bought around 60 second-hand ships since August and 43 new ships on order, according to consulting firm Alphaliner, in a demonstration of its opportunism.
MSC is top secret, but the group’s annual revenue likely exceeded $ 25 billion before the pandemic, as it is expected to outstrip rival Maersk in capacity with the biggest new tonnage order book.
Toft, described as ambitious, rational and impatient by those close to him, will have to balance his desire to stand out and move forward with the billionaire owner and his family.
The Apontes retained tight control over decision-making and corporate culture for decades as it expanded beyond freight transportation to cruises, terminals, domestic logistics, security and other areas.
The founder and former Neapolitan ferry captain also maintained a maritime family atmosphere within the group, earning fierce loyalty from his more than 100,000 employees, even sending personalized letters to staff inviting them to ship christening ceremonies, say people familiar with the business.
Another key feature of the company is its extremely short chain of command, with Aponte being intimately involved in operational business decisions.
Line managers, accustomed to direct access to owners, meet him and senior family members on Saturday mornings – and now Toft, who shares the ninth floor of MSC’s Geneva headquarters with three family members.
Toft can use his experience at Maersk to help balance family and business interests.
Nearly 30 years ago, Danish shipping magnate Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller gradually retired from operational involvement as his business became more transparent and transactional. “He’s been on a somewhat similar trip before,” said Lars Jensen, shipping analyst at Vespucci Maritime.
In particular, Toft will likely try to differentiate itself by placing more emphasis on optimizing the global network, rather than focusing primarily on improving each of its 215 trade routes. This helps ensure that goods arrive on time and that customer needs are met, while ships are as full as possible.
He’s also trying to make the secret business, which has avoided public attention in the past, more communicative, especially on social media.
This decision partly reflects the focus on shipping due to delays and price increases induced by the pandemic and its impact on the climate.
Freight forwarders, who plan and coordinate freight shipping routes, and analysts say MSC has a reputation for poor service, despite improving in recent years.
They add that a key priority for the new boss will be updating his outdated IT systems to improve these services and information for customers, which will likely involve heavy investments.
Digitization is a particular challenge for the company as it opens up the shipping industry to new competitive pressures from freight forwarders using digital technologies and even from Amazon and Alibaba.
“The whole uberization of the supply chain is a threat. If someone else provides the space on your ships, then you have to pay the price, ”said Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. “They don’t want to be vulnerable to a high tech company.”
Another challenge for Toft is how to reduce carbon emissions. The group was the sixth largest polluter in Europe in 2020, only coal-fired power stations emitting more CO2, according to the NGO Transport & Environment.
The Director-General is taking a more proactive public stance on this, recently warning against EU climate measures on maritime transport which he says could have the opposite effect of their intention by increasing emissions.
He supports in principle a global carbon tax, but believes the industry lacks visibility on when low-carbon fuels will be available on a large scale.
The group also faced unwanted attention when it emerged that MSC was the largest debtor to Credit Suisse’s main $ 6.8 billion fund linked to Greensill, the collapsed supply chain financial group. .
MSC said there was no material impact of the $ 321 million related to the frozen fund. “It’s a thing of the past, we’ve got everything we need to fix,” Toft said.
Besides Greensill, analysts and bankers are speculating on the company’s cruise division, the world’s fourth-largest, and its impact on the group at large, as the industry suffered during the pandemic.
However, windfall profits for containers this year could make its cruise line the force to be reckoned with, while there are few signs that this is limiting the group’s overall ambitions.
“We see a number of areas where we still have a lot of track ahead of us,” Toft said.