This being a port town, the kitchen staff, clad in nautical white, give us the full seafood lunch treatment in the vast Navios boardroom overlooking the harbour: Plump shrimp to start, followed by pan-fried Mediterranean red snapper as thick and meaty as a Texas T-bone (two big helpings for me), served with asparagus, baby potatoes and steamed carrots. The meal is paired with a crisp Greek white. Simple and delicious.
Ms. Frangou barely touches her meal or the wine, not because she isn’t hungry, but because her enthusiasm about shipping and the companies she has built compels her to keep talking. “I’m not a workaholic, but one of my hobbies is work,” she explains.
She speaks frankly about politics, especially about the dead hand of the Greek state and why shipping companies, Greek or foreign, should remain shielded from taxes because their earnings are made on the stateless high seas.
Ms. Frangou acknowledges the help she received in getting started, explaining that her father, Nicolas Frangos, provided the funds she needed to buy the Fulvia. She calls her father “captain.” At 86, he still runs a few ships. At one point, he had about 50 vessels. Nicolas’s father and the father of Athina Livanos, Aristotle Onassis’s first wife, were partners in the shipping industry.
As a teenager, Ms. Frangou would cross the Atlantic on one of her father’s vessels, but needed time to be convinced that a shipping career was for her. She was more interested in mechanical engineering and so studied the subject at New Jersey’s Farleigh Dickinson University, and then completed a master’s degree, also in mechanical engineering. She decided to bolster her career prospects with an MBA from New York University, but never graduated because she took a job as an analyst on the trading floor of Republic National Bank, where she worked from 1987 to 1989.
The bank job changed Ms. Frangou’s life because it exposed her to the world of financial engineering. She worked with credit default insurance, which taught her how to judge risk and how to hedge, as well as the dangers of excessive leverage in a highly cyclical business. Indeed, applying the principles of high finance to the more down-to-earth business of filling cargo holds with soya, wheat and oil products gave her an edge in an industry that has suffered greatly since the financial crash of 2008.
After the Fulvia success, Ms. Frangou went to ship auctions in Brazil to buy and restore orphaned vessels. In 2004, she zeroed in on special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, as a vehicle that could bring her business to the next level. These entities, also known as “blank cheque” companies, traded over the counter in the American market, had no income and were designed to make acquisitions.
Ms. Frangou launched a SPAC with $200-million (U.S.) in investor funds and used the vehicle to buy International Shipping Enterprises, which United States Steel Corp. established in the mid-1950s to transport iron ore from Venezuela to Canada and the United States.
The new company, renamed Navios, became one of the very first dry-bulk shipping companies to list on a stock exchange. Traditionally, Greek shipping magnates had cherished their privacy. “A SPAC can take you public very quickly,” she says. “I totally changed this market, which became a $10-billion business.”
Suddenly, Ms. Frangou was an international shipping player and had access to public capital. She floated two more companies on the NYSE. The first, Navios Maritime Partners, a company that lured investors though its high-dividend yield, and Navios Maritime Acquisition, which runs a tanker fleet. The trio of public companies has a combined market value of about $1.8-billion (U.S.). A fourth company, Navios South American Logistics, runs a barge and port business in Uruguay and Paraguay. Ms. Frangou said she plans to take the South American unit public also.