A 14,000-ton freighter, the Fulvia, lay in Rio de Janeiro, unloved and very much for sale. It was 1990 and the Brazilian economy was in one of its periodic messes. Surely the rotting dry-bulk carrier would find no buyer.
The sight of a young woman inspecting every aspect of the ship, from its wheelhouse to its engine room, must have seemed incongruous to the burly men in the shipyard. The woman was 25, and so obviously not the captain.
Who was she, what would she possibly know about ships and why would she want one in this economy?
The woman plunked down $1.5-million (U.S.) for the ship and, with it, began to build an enterprise that, by 2011, got her on Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s 50 most powerful businesswomen.
The Fulvia would spawn a shipping empire. The woman who walked the Fulvia’s decks in 1990 is Angeliki Frangou, founder, CEO and chairwoman of Navios Maritime Holdings Inc., one of the largest and fastest-growing Greek-controlled shipping companies. At last count, the Navios group of companies – three of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange – had 119 ships under its command, plus nearly 300 barges and small tankers that ply the Hidrovia river system between Paraguay and the Uruguayan coast.
In Greece, where control of shipping companies is considered a virtual birthright, she is the executive to watch; a potential Aristotle Onassis in the making, though adorned with pearl earrings and a necklace. Her family is from the Aegean island of Chios, near the Turkish coast. “The island has a long tradition in shipping,” she says. “Absolutely everyone was working in shipping there. The baker came from another island.”
The Fulvia is long gone, but it “was a great investment,” Ms. Frangou says. “I wanted to have my own business, so I took the challenge to reactivate the vessel. I supervised everything. Everything had been stolen. You opened the machinery and the parts were missing inside.”
The ship was ready to resume service within four months, by which time its value had doubled, she says. The overhauled Fulvia made its first voyage to the United States, a trip that made her a small fortune. She was hooked by the industry’s profit potential. She would abandon her career as a Wall Street analyst and become the fifth generation of Frangous to make their living off the high seas.
Navios’s base of Piraeus has been Athens’ port district since the fifth century BC. Today, it is Europe’s largest passenger port terminal, an expanse of towering white cruise ship hulls tethered to wharves. While the city bustles with activity, it has a grubby and run-down feel, and the millions of tourists who land here generally flee to Athens or to the Aegean islands.
The Navios headquarters, a nondescript seven-storey glass box, fits right into the shabby port atmosphere, hardly reflecting the status of Ms. Frangou’s company. Inside is a different story, though: a study in cool, open modernism, inspired by Ms. Frangou’s stint on Wall Street.
The decor in the reception area and meeting rooms consists of model ships and small gold-coloured axes in glass boxes. Each axe was used to christen a new Navios ship by cutting the tether fastened to the champagne bottle that smashes against the hull.
I realize that Ms. Frangou has amassed considerable wealth when I examine a grouping of curious clay figurines, all armless, displayed behind plexiglass. The arms of these clay characters from China’s Tang Dynasty, a three-century reign that ended in the year 907 AD, were made of wood and so didn’t survive the centuries. “I enjoy ancient Greek and Byzantine antiquities,” she says. “Ancient Chinese antiquities, I love.”
A divorced mother of one, Ms. Frangou is dressed in a dark, masculine-but-elegant pin-striped suit. Her silver-grey hair is short, almost punk-inspired; her eyebrows dark and thick. She offers a warm smile and speaks fluent, though heavily accented, English.