TEN - The company to watch in 2010: A Conversation with
Nikolas P. Tsakos

It’s been said that the sea is in the blood of the Greek people. The romantic notion of the lonely seafarer, so immortalized in the country’s literature and poetry, has become embedded in the collective consciousness. Even the sight of Greece’s blue and white striped flag flapping in the wind bears a resemblance to the Aegean on a breezy day. Its flowing azure water and foamy waves are at once a symbol of quiet strength and restlessness. The iconic image stirs the emotions as much for its beauty as its truth: it’s the very depiction of the internal struggle of the human heart.

By Katerina Georgiou

With a cardiologist mother and sea captain father, Nikolas P. Tsakos seems to possess an innate sensitivity for connecting the nuances of life with the sea. His earliest memory involves sailing with his father. Though only three years old at the time, the vivid impressions of that trip remain lodged in his memory: the beaming sun, the boundless water, the peaceful silence. “It was a way to make you feel at home,” said Tsakos in a recent conversation by phone from Greece.

In Tsakos’ case, this sentiment is taken literally. Shipping has been the family business since the mid-1800’s. Before his Chios-born father, Panagiotis, became a ship owner in his own right, he rose the ranks of Greece’s merchant navy to become a captain. In 1970, he founded the private Tsakos Group. Dealing mainly in dry bulk goods, such as iron ore, the company has grown exponentially to operate a fleet of over 70 vessels.

But it was shortly after his father started his company and bought his first pleasure boat that the younger Tsakos received one of his most memorable lessons in shipowning. Only it came not from his father, but his paternal grandmother, Maria. “My grandmother looked at the boat, which was about a 120 foot yacht, and said to my father, ‘it looks really nice but what does it really carry’?” Tsakos said. “She could never imagine that someone would have a boat that wouldn’t carry some sort of goods and call it a pleasure boat.”
Few industries better reflect the country’s strong family and practical values than the traditional Greek shipping culture. It’s no wonder then, that despite its small size, Greece leads the world in maritime transportation. Consider this: ninety percent of whatever is moved around the world travels by sea—twenty-five percent of that is transported on Greek vessels. Although Greece produces little in terms of exports, it controls close to a quarter of the world’s commerce. “We’re the truck drivers of the seas,” joked Tsakos. “Shipping provides a huge service to the world economy and is a leading indicator of when things start turning around because it moves all the basic commodities and goods needed for growth.” For this reason, Tsakos is fond of referring to the industry as the “artery” of the world economy.

Tsakos officially began his career in ship management in 1981, but at his father’s insistence his formative training included hands-on experience at sea and an immersion in the maritime traditions preserved for generations by their ancestors.

But while his father often cites his own career at sea as a matter of destiny, the younger Tsakos never set out to enter the family business in the traditional way. He represents the new breed of shipping tycoons—armed with foreign degrees and Wall Street know-how—who are reshaping the industry to reflect a more global worldview than their predecessors. And so, while working at the family offices in downtown Manhattan, he attended Columbia University, graduating in 1985 with a dual degree in Economics and Political Science.

Despite the years he spent away from home, he remained a purist about some things. “I never crossed the Atlantic by plane,” he quipped.

Back then, the gritty streets of New York were a far cry from Athens. But his experience there helped inspire the “invention” of his own company, Tsakos Energy Navigation Ltd. (NYSE: TNP). He refined his dream as a graduate student at London’s City University, where he wrote a thesis on the role of publicly listed partnerships in real estate. Applying this knowledge to shipping struck him as a natural progression. He eventually took his company public in 1993 on the Oslo Stock Exchange and it received its quote on the NYSE in 2002, making it one of the first Greek companies to achieve such distinction.
Though his rise to the top may seem swift, Tsakos faced an uphill battle luring investors to an industry historically shrouded in secrecy. He had to rely on ingenuity as much as experience for guidance. “At that time, shipping was even less known to the public than it is today,” he said. “We were like the first Christians thrown to the lions in the Roman arenas. In terms of size, we had to compare ships to the Empire State Building so people would understand.”

Having to compete with the excitement of the dotcom boom did little to help matters. “From 1993 until 2003, for the first ten years until other companies followed, it was a lonely place out there,” he said. “Shipping was considered very uninteresting. Only after commodity and oil prices increased it started putting the old economy in perspective. Shipping now has a bit more respect and understanding on the street than it did when we started.”

His decision to blend the advantages of a public listing with the traditional strengths of a privately owned company proved good business sense. In addition to providing more transparency it was a lucrative move. The company has since paid back all the initial investment to shareholders in dividends and doubled the share price from the initial offering.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing shipping today is adapting to the increasing complexity and scale of demands on the sector. The last decade witnessed a boom spurred on by fast-growing economies, such as India and China—both of which saw a surging demand for oil. With the global recession oil prices took a steep dive but Tsakos says signs of recovery are already on the horizon, at least for the dry cargo and tanker side of the business. As for the third leg of the industry, the containers, (i.e. high-end luxury goods, like cars or refrigerators) the rebound will be slower but he expects things to turn around by mid-to late 2011.“There were a couple of strokes but I think we’re coming back,” he said referencing the artery metaphor. “The second and third quarter of 2009 were the low points in our business but since then we’ve seen slow but steady positive movements.”

Though he admits 2009 was a difficult year, it was a profitable one for his company and he remains bullish on the future. “We’re living in a world that is more interdependent,” he said. “Shipping is an efficient, economic and environmentally-friendly method of transportation, so I think long-term prospects are good.”

He has a similar optimistic attitude about the economic hurdles faced by his homeland, believing that the country’s entrepreneurial spirit will help navigate the road ahead. “Greece is not the only country in Europe going through a challenging time and as long as Greeks realize that, they will get out of the current problems like Ireland and Iceland are doing slowly,” he said. “The few times Greeks have worked together they are always very successful.”

This show of unity, he believes, extends to the Diaspora Greeks, and particularly the Greek-Americans whose mental know-how and high educational levels can go a long way in helping Greece with its present concerns. For his part, Tsakos and his family remain active in many organizations fostering closer ties between the worldwide Greek communities, such as Leadership 100, of which his entire family are members—including his wife Celia Kritharioti, a prominent fashion designer who has her own couture line, and their three children.

But the family’s largest and most personal project is the Maria Tsakos Foundation, a non-for-profit founded by Captain Tsakos in 1978 to spread Hellenism worldwide via its language, culture, history and values. Based in Uruguay, its influence has extended beyond South America to include West Africa and Asia. The foundation also works closely with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to sponsor environmental projects.

Through their business and charitable initiatives, the Tsakos family is bridging the gap between nations by forging a shared human spirit that encourages all to grow and prosper—a philosophy that lies at the very heart of the Hellenic tradition.


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