From Shipping Channels to Fashion Runways: A Greek couple in shipping and haute couture shows how the debt-ridden country is getting back on its feet
Nikolas Tsakos looked at a digital map in the operations room of his glass and concrete shipping headquarters overlooking the Greek capital’s azure coastline one recent morning and broke into a smile. “Thank God all our tankers are employed at very good rates,” he said.
Across town, at a century-old neoclassical fashion house at the foot of the Acropolis, Celia Kritharioti, Mr. Tsakos’s wife, undertook a final fitting of a wedding dress adorned with handmade lace and precious stones for a beaming young bride. “When the zipper goes up, so does my confidence,” she said.
The markets for high fashion and supertankers could hardly be more different. But the Greek couple have joined their diverse talents to achieve success on a global scale amid volatile markets, cutthroat competition and a devastating debt crisis that wiped out a quarter of their country’s economy. It’s the kind of entrepreneurship that can help drive Greece’s nascent economic recovery as it emerges from a decade of spiraling debts.
Mr. Tsakos, who studied economics at Columbia University in New York, comes from a traditional seafaring family that bought its first ship in 1854.
He now runs Tsakos Energy Navigation Ltd. , a New-York listed tanker operator with a fleet of 70 ships worth more than $2.5 billion, according to maritime data provider VesselsValue Ltd. TEN moves crude and oil products for customers including Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
Ms. Kritharioti studied business administration at Athens University of Economics and Business, “but fashion won me over in my early teens,” she said. Her family has been in the fashion industry for a century and she launched into the global high-end fashion scene in 2013 with her dresses worn on the red carpet by celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Kate Beckinsale and Kim Kardashian.
At the same time, her work is prized by brides both in Greece and abroad, with wedding dresses making up half of Ms. Kritharioti’s business.
“If you want to shine, you wear Celia,” said Iliana Eleftheriou at the final fitting of her wedding dress in August. “When you are in her dresses, you feel beautiful and empowered.”
Mr. Tsakos’s tankers don’t carry such cachet, but is one of the longest-standing shipping players on the New York Stock Exchange, with a listing going back to 2002. The business has faced headwinds over the past decade, with freight rates depressed in a long downturn, but his company has stayed above water by providing long-term charters ranging up to 15 years that give his fleet a buffer against volatile pricing changes.
“During 9/11, we were doing our roadshow in the U.S.,” Mr. Tsakos said. “It was like the sky fell upon all of us, but we came back, listed six months later and since then, we haven’t missed a single dividend payment.”
His business changed drastically in September when President Trump sanctioned tankers run by a unit of Chinese shipping behemoth Cosco Group for alleged illicit Iran oil shipments. The move rattled oil transport markets and sent tanker rates soaring overnight.
“Freight rates went mad, from $35,000 a day to $70,000 to $140,000 to $280,000 and more,” Mr. Tsakos said. “The average break-even for our ships is around $25,000. I haven’t seen this since the last supercycle from 2004 to 2008.”
The rally lasted for two weeks. Daily rates have retreated but remained at around $100,000 for many supertankers as of late last week. Mr. Tsakos says the drop is healthy in the long run because it will be less likely that shipowners will start ordering many more ships, which could lead to a capacity glut.
“At $100,000, we are still making a good return. Positive fundamentals exist for the next two years also, so there is significant upside,” he said.
Ms. Kritharioti is in a kind of a David-and-Goliath competition that prompts her own hard look at market demand and pricing as well.
She is featured in the July edition of British Vogue magazine among the world’s best couture houses, alongside better-known names such Chanel, Christian Dior and Valentino. Ms. Kritharioti and her 25 seamstresses on average put together no more than 30 dresses a month that sell from $5,500 to tens of thousands of dollars.
“We are up against giants with thousands of employees and boutiques across the world. Their budget is very big, but we survive and thrive because we offer something unique: handmade and heart-made,” Ms Kritharioti said.
Mr. Tsakos’s tankers, meanwhile, are built in South Korea, and he took delivery of new ships recently that were immediately deployed to move crude for major clients.
“Barriers and sanctions never helped shipping,” Mr. Tsakos said. “We are the truck drivers of the sea, and we need open highways to do business.“
Mr. Tsakos plans to replace some of his older crude tankers and double his fleet of four liquefied natural gas carriers over the next two to four years.
Ms. Kritharioti wants to open her first retail shop in London, but the uncertainty over Brexit is holding her back. “We will import dresses from Greece, and until now, there were no customs [levies] or any other taxes. If the U.K. imposes import duties, then it doesn’t make much sense,” she said.
Married in 2001, the couple has three teenage children and they travel extensively together.
“She’s been to dozens of ship launches at yards around the world and I go to her fashion shows. Don’t ask me what is more fun,” Mr. Tsakos said. “The kids also come along if they can. Family comes first.”
Source: Wall Street Journal