How does one make millions/billions on transoceanic shipping? (Like all the others have)

I’ve heard more than one ‘how he became a billionaire’ story, one of them including I think Aristotle Onassis, and some others, usually they seem to be Greek and they start shipping transoceanic stuff, especially oil I guess, and then they become super wealthy types

How do they do this? Shouldn’t the transoceanic ocean bound shipping industry have been maxed out long ago, so that it would be difficult for anyone to corner so much of the market?

How can us poor straight dopers make our fortune while wearing a greek fisherman’s hat, like the billionaires?

It’s not that hard really.

You simply need to have or borrow millions of dollars to buy a fleet of tankers, hire crews and operations folks to manage them, and move “raw materials” from point A to point B. Rinse, lather and repeat. It’s just another business like trucking or an airline cargo carrier. How do they succeed?

In short it takes a lot of capital, good timing, and the ability to deliver services reliably and at a low enough cost to generate good margins.

  1. Have a father who is moderately successful in the business.
  2. Leverage his experience, contacts, and money to start your own company (or take over after his untimely death).
  3. Get away with actions of questionable legality to grow your business (or have really good luck; e.g. bring a vital resource to market just as a war breaks out).
  4. Use money from step 3 to buy out competitors or otherwise corner the market and expand.
  5. Profit!

This plan works for shipping, banking, investing, and other human endeavors.

After WWII the US government had a lot of ships that were no longer needed. Aristotle Onassis managed to pick up some of the ships for pennies on the dollar. Libertys, Victorys, T-2s, and such. He switched flags to advoid inspection and higher wages.

Now almost everything goes via container ships. Some are so large they can’t fit through the Panama Canal so they have to take the long way around S. America. They are expanding the canal for these new super ships. Only stuff that does not go in containers is bulk cargo like wood chips, coal, oil, etc.

Mostly they are just involved in a business with a vast amount of money at stake and if they are astute and/or luck out, they will be able to rake off a tiny proportion of the money involved which is nonetheless a large amount of money. If they pull this off, you may hear of them. If they don’t, you won’t. Your perception is therefore heavily biased.

For every Onassis there is a Captain [Cough] who gets into the business and goes bust. I’ve had a number of people like Captain [Cough] as clients over the years. He was a London Indian. When I was working for him he owned a few ships, was always looking to trade up and was doing pretty well. I lost contact with him a few years ago but then heard from my old employer that he had lost everything that he owned. Then there was Captain [Achoo], a Greek owner who started out in ferries. We did a lot of work for him, not least of all because of his fleet of four ships, three were under arrest to creditors and the third was, umm, well it was in a pretty sad situation so singular that I won’t mention the details because they might be identifiable. Then there was [Ahem] a Pakistani guy, and his son. They were relatively wealthy upper class professionals who decided they were going to put their life savings and retirement money into buying some seriously old tonnage. They managed to pick up a couple of voyage charters and get through them (somewhat miraculously) without anything going majorly wrong. They had won the lottery. They went from (relatively) smalltime chancers who had gone into a risky venture to swaggering millionaires almost overnight. Then on the next voyage the wheels fell off and they lost it all.

I have a few more examples but you get the picture.

The critical thing about the famous shipping guys was they made their fortunes right after WWII. During a period of vast expansion such that even with competitors, the available market share was expanding faster than they were. Sorta like the Google guys have done recently.

So to answer the OP’s question about how to repeat Onassis’ results:

Find a market which is about to expand so fast nobody can keep up. Ideally one with few incumbents. Get well positioned in the industry, with plenty of capital & good managers. Go from rich to super-rich. Easy as can be.