The founder of the Tsakos group, Captain Panagiotis Tsakos, could justifiably be called an icon of Greek shipping.
Born in Kardamyla on Chios, he graduated from the Livanos Marine Academy and experienced his first seagoing adventure at 16. Promoted through the ranks, he gained his master’s papers at 26 — and still proudly uses the title of Captain.
From early voyages, where the deck boys were grateful to find a bale of hay to sleep on instead of the cold deck plates, to his position today at the helm of one of the best-known Greek companies, he has maintained traditional values while adapting to changes in the business, the needs of the market and the call of the times.
So while the Tsakos group today manages a fleet of some 80 vessels, 58 of them are tankers belonging to New York-listed Tsakos Energy Navigation (TEN), headed by Captain Panagiotis’ son Nikolas. They include nine aframax newbuildings slated for delivery between April 2016 and September 2017.
TEN also has two suezmax shuttle tankers in the water, with a third to be delivered in the fourth quarter this year, plus one LNG carrier and a second under construction.
“We didn’t want to have so many tankers, but as you go along and your clients are happy with you, they ask you for more,” Captain Panagiotis says simply. “So you gain more tanker friends and you start losing some of your dry cargo and container connections that 10, 20 or even 30 years ago were placing their trust and their preference in you.”
This is an imbalance he seems to want to correct. Today the non-tanker fleet comprises two capesize bulk carriers, four kamsarmaxes and a handymax, as well as seven containerships ranging from 1,600-teu to 4,000-teu.
As a canny owner, he plays his cards close to his chest. Earlier this year it was confirmed that the company had dropped a possible contract for up to 10 capesizes with New Century Shipbuilding. But like many other solid Greek owners, Tsakos is considering newbuildings, seemingly in both the private and the public arms of the group.
In November, Nikolas told investors that TEN would be keen to book newbuildings, provided they had charters, possibly including profit-sharing provisions. “If we have employment for 10 VLCC newbuildings, very seriously we will consider doing it,” he said.
Captain Panagiotis backs this up, saying: “We’re working in this segment and we may have news to tell you soon.”
About half of TEN’s ships are secured by long-term charters and Captain Panagiotis says this policy will continue. “Nikos, as you will have realised, is more conservative than I am,” he says wryly.
It helps explain why the group has not delved further into the shuttle tanker and LNG markets.
“We didn’t order half a dozen. We think two to four vessels in each sector is a good basis to show your presence; for the users to take you seriously and for them to try your services,” Captain Panagiotis says.
He stresses that these careful steps are not dictated by a lack of daring, but queries how it is possible to forge ahead in a sector that has not yet found its balance.
“You sign an LOI [letter of intent] and by the time you sign the contract the circumstances, the rules and the technology have changed as regards the use of various types of machinery and other equipment, including the main engine,” he points out.
Even though the heavy majority of the Tsakos fleet is now controlled by the publicly listed company, he is categorically opposed to the “OPM” (other people’s money) phenomenon.
“We are shipowners, and shipowners we shall remain, with our own money — and of course in partnership with our banks. But we will not spend our skills and devotion to become operators of tens of vessels belonging to other people and purchased with other people’s money. We have no interest in this,” he says flatly.
He believes the current trend for outside money to flood into shipping will destroy the market. “How many ships can we run? This is more than an office for us. This is our life,” he says with passion.
Even his wife, Dr Irene Saroglou, offers medical advice to staff and families of crew. And it is not unusual to find Captain Panagiotis sitting at a table in the company’s in-house restaurant exchanging views with captains and senior officers on shore leave.
He believes about 50% of small owners and start-ups can access funds and survive. “Those who know and want to, and are determined to give all their life to shipping, can — and can find money and can find opportunities much more easily than us old-timers.
“And if he’s serious and patient and if he really knows and loves the sea, there’s no way he won’t get ahead. He just has to be prudent and hardworking. Even if his timing’s wrong, he’ll find a way to help him get through if he is an honest, ethical, skilful and devoted entrepreneur.”
All very different from his early days. “What did we have of all this? Nothing! We put up our house as a guarantee and gave our personal guarantees.”
Captain Panagiotis is a powerful man. But he has also clearly won the devotion and respect of his staff and those around him. Combining a solid tradition with modern-day methods has come up trumps.