ECONOMY

First Financial Corp steals the shipping show

One of the moves that shook the waters of global shipping in 2004 undoubtedly belonged to the Greek Restis group. A few weeks ago the group’s First Financial Corp agreed with Malaysia International Shipping Corp (MISC) to purchase the latter’s entire bulker fleet. For these 32 vessels, First Financial is estimated to have paid some $800 million, in the process doubling its fleet to some 63 vessels. At least 20 groups and mutual capital managers had expressed an interest in the ships. «Our successful bid to MISC also comes down to the fact that we have a tradition of executing large and complex sales and purchases,» Victor Restis, head of First Financial Corp and heir of the group’s founder, Stamatis Restis, told Lloyd’s List a few days after the agreement was concluded. With this move the Restis group emerges as one of the most important players in the dry bulk market. This development is more significant as it was achieved just five years after the group’s decision to get involved in this market. It then purchased South Africa Marine Corp, through which 13 recently built vessels were bought. Since then the company’s fleet has expanded yet further through newbuildings, many of which are double hulled. This «armoring» has steadily enhanced the company’s competitiveness, thanks to the added safety it offers, which is appreciated when big companies charter ships. In the last three months bulker ship prices have shown an increase upwards of 20 percent. Analysts therefore note that MISC secured large gains from the sale of its ships. Nevertheless, the great interest in the fleet displayed by virtually all big companies in the market shows how significant the business benefits of this move by First Financial Corp will be. According to managers at the Greek company, all vessels had something to offer, for various reasons. For instance, the nine Panamaxes (in the 70-75,000-dwt category) are expected to fill the company’s void in this category, while the MISC handysize (from 36,000 to 40,000-dwt) are being added to the firm’s existing ones, making it the dominant force in the smaller ships category. First Financial is expected to start taking ownership of the vessels in the next few weeks. Just a few of the ships will be physically received, as most have time-chartering contracts in force (securing immediate revenue), while the vast majority of the ships will go directly into the spot market, ready for on-the-spot cargo chartering for short trips lasting from one to two weeks. The company will probably employ the new vessels either through its operating subsidiaries or through direct contracts with third parties.