Shipping Billionaires Race To Invest Pandemic-Era Fortunes

Shipping Billionaires Race To Invest Pandemic-Era Fortunes
  • May 15, 2023

From Private Wealth Magazine, by Ercan Ersoy, Devon Pendleton and Tara Patel

Many of the fortunes forged during the pandemic have long since crumbled. Yet a $95 billion boom among a small group of wealthy shipping tycoons has prevailed, spurring a mad dash to invest and diversify even as they face a comeuppance.

Perhaps no story better illustrates this heady era of feverish demand, squeezed supply lines and soaring rates than Yildirim Holding AS. The under-the-radar Turkish company has more than tripled in value over the past three years, making the family behind it billionaires many times over and fueling ever-lofty ambitions.

Led by Robert Yuksel Yildirim, 61, the family has made a fortune from some of the least glamorous niches of industry, from trading coal with Russia to mining chrome in Kazakhstan and ferronickel in Kosovo. Now they’re preparing to spend $10 billion—more than the estimated value of their current business—to push into solar farms, U.S. fertilizer plants and other areas. The funds for this audacious plan spring from an unexpected windfall generated by the deal of a lifetime: a bet in 2010 on a struggling container line that’s returned more than 800%.

It’s left the Yildirims awash in cash—but also conflict. An aggrieved relative’s lawsuit over the company’s true value has laid bare the pressure and consequences of an extraordinary and astonishingly lucrative few years for shipping. The combined net worth of the industry’s ten wealthiest tycoons is $155 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, up from about $60 billion in early 2020.

The low-profile family dynasties of marine transport are now racing to deploy this bounty, both to cement their grip on an industry in flux and diversify their concentrated fortunes—but the path to make these seismic changes is narrowing by the day.

Container rates, or the amount shipowners can charge to ferry goods across the ocean, have tumbled 77% in the past year after soaring during the pandemic. Global rules limiting ships’ carbon output are quickly coming into effect, requiring expensive upgrades and diminishing margins just as cargo rates fall. The war in Ukraine and ongoing threats from rogue nations and criminal gangs have only added pressure.

For the Yildirims, then, time is of the essence to take aggressive action. Among the other billionaire dynasties making such moves is France’s Saade family, which leads CMA CGM—the very maritime giant that turbocharged the Yildirims’ fortunes…