Ferry operators bracing for deals

The Greek coastal shipping industry will see important developments over the next 12 months, according to a recently published annual report by XRTC, which advises French bank Natexis Banques Populaires on shipping issues. The report sees developments being spurred by the need for the renewal of the fleet and facilitated by the renewed interest of banks in the sector, for two reasons. First, the ferry operators listed on the Athens bourse have improved their financial position and, second, they have managed to reduce their total debt, from 2.1 billion euros in 2002 to 1.69 billion last year. Industry sources take the view that recent changes on the board of governors at Minoan Lines are accelerating developments, while its main competitors, Hellenic Seaways (HSW), chaired by Panos Laskaridis, and Attica Enterprises, chaired by Pericles Panagopoulos, are busy planning their next moves. HSW is majority-owned by Minoan. Sources in Piraeus tell Kathimerini that representatives of the two groups and sometimes the two men themselves «are in continuous discussion and consultations.» Panagopoulos, the strong man of coastal shipping, appears to be the key figure in the expected deals, as his Attica Group owns 11.5 percent of Minoan Lines, 48 percent of Blue Star Ferries and 100 percent of Superfast Ferries. His position is further strengthened after the recent purchase of three ships from Blue Star Ferries. Smaller operators The sources argue that the smaller players are also making strategic moves, trying to at least retain their positions in the Aegean market. NEL Lines is trying to have its high-speed ferry Aeolos Kenteris, which is undergoing repairs in Palermo, back into service by July 27. The company’s two other high-speed ferries, Aeolos I and Aeolos Express II, will remain out of service. NEL has filed a suit against French company SEMT Pielstick, asking for 90 million euros in compensation because it equipped its Aeolos vessels with experimental engines. The other smaller players are adopting rather defensive positions, eagerly waiting for Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis to approve the enforcement in Greece of the Stockholm Convention which extends the service life of aging vessels. Without such an extension, about 30 ferries will have to be withdrawn from service in two years, affecting mostly the smaller operators. One of them, Fotis Manousis, seems to be an exception. His business is expanding dynamically with the recent acquisition of 36.8 percent of listed recreation services company Nikos Gallis. Reports suggest that Gallis may be converted into a holding company and is considered certain to absorb the 10 vessels Manousis’s SAOS company now operates. Yiannis Vardinoyiannis seems to be gaining full control of Minoan Lines’ main competitor on the Cretan routes, ANEK Lines. He is said to be working toward the absorption of two smaller Cretan operators, LANE and ANEN, and planning the issue of a 140-million-euro convertible bond to service ANEK’s debt and purchase two more vessels.