Behind every successful man you’ll find...

Well, in George Procopiou’s case, you’ll find three hard-working daughters. Gillian Whittaker talks to the proud father

George Procopiou is a busy man. His office is piled high with files and papers. As TW+ is ushered in, two top bankers are leaving: there are decisions to be taken, policies to be planned.

But with fleets that encompass 54 vessels in Dynacom Tankers, 29 dry bulk carriers under the Sea Traders flag and 10 LNG carriers, including four newbuildings, in Dynagas, 67-year-old Procopiou still finds time to enjoy his work and the growing involvement of his family in the business.

Three of his four daughters are already onboard. The youngest, Maria-Elena, is not yet as, at 19, she is studying economics at Bocconi University in Milan. “She has top grades, if not the highest in the class,” says Procopiou proudly.

Eliza, the eldest, has played a role for more than 20 years on the financial and chartering side, and her husband, Nick Chrissakis, is involved with the company’s IT department.

Ioanna is involved with dry cargo. Her husband, John Kairis also works in shipping, but not in the Procopiou empire — he runs Kairis Brothers.

Finally, Marina handles tanker projects and long-term business, while her husband, Tony Lauritzen, is on the commercial side of the LNG business and is chief executive of Dynagas LNG Partners, which listed last November.

LNG is a market segment that has clearly stirred Procopiou’s considerable enthusiasm. For the first five years he was working the spot market with three LNG carriers. “This gave us a great experience in going into almost all existing terminals, loading and discharging, making the vessels flexible and compatible with all these terminals. I believe we have the highest compatibility record on our vessels — above 100 terminals,” he notes.

A Dynagas vessel was also the first to carry out the Northern Sea Route when the 149,700-cbm Ob River completed a laden voyage in 2012.

“This was a dream come true. I had been thinking about this for years,” Procopiou confides. “I wanted to do it. If I would be the first or not, I didn’t know, but it came out to be the first.”

Clearly the work that went into winterisation of the ships, co-operation with charterer Gazprom and the Russian authorities and crew training fascinated him.

“I believe the LNG carrier market has a long way to go. But the charterers are very, very careful to choose among players or owners that have in-house experience and an impeccable track record,” Procopiou comments.

He says that over the past 6½ years since getting into the business the group has had zero time off hire and no claims. But while he concedes that capital requirements in LNG set a high entry barrier, his group has by no means been a slouch in building conventional vessels.

In the past decade he reckons he has ordered more than 100 ships at 12 different yards in Japan, Korea and China at a combined cost of more than $8bn. He does not consider his actions reckless, but says that by definition shipping involves a higher degree of risk than other businesses.

“If you are not a risk-taker, you are not in shipping. If you don’t want the risks, you buy US bonds. And that’s the reason you expect the risk/reward element to be analogous,” he says.

He admires companies that are expanding with a good plan and story to tell in convincing investors to support them. The fact that his ships are generally traded spot is another clue to the way he sees risk. His business card also indicates the kind of man he is, stating simply: “Civil Engineer”.

With the almost youthful enthusiasm of someone with a far lower professional profile, he admits that his first love was tankers.

His first-ever ship was a 55,000-dwt tanker called Pennsylvania that he bought in 1971. Today he fields 14 VLCCs, 23 suezmaxes, 16 panamaxes and a solitary aframax tanker. But whether it is tankers or bulkers, Procopiou, like his colleagues, is not keen to go out on a limb with specific predictions about where the markets will go.

“I believe cyclicality will again prevail. The market will go up and come down. When and how and by how much, nobody knows,” he volunteers. “I don’t believe that all this forecasting can be of any use.”

The natural tendency of owners to order ships will push the pendulum the other way, he believes, “and today the capacity of the shipyards is such that it can kill any market”.

His group employs 5,000 people ashore and onboard, and one of his greatest concerns is to see that the sons and grandsons of crew members and office employees can join the industry if they choose. It is one of the reasons behind his desire to keep expanding.

“The attitude of trying to scare people from expanding and becoming more active is creating some euphoria in the inherently envious Greek character, but we are creating a long-term problem for Greece,” he adds.