Today marks the anniversary of the death of Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, one of the leading 20th century business tycoons who had amassed an estimated $5 billion fortune by the time of his passing.
Born to a wealthy family in Athens, Niarchos grew up with parents who had been naturalized Americans and returned to Greece three months before his birth.
He went on to study law at the University of Athens and later worked for his maternal uncles in the Koumantaros family’s grain business. During this time he began his journey in the shipping industry by convincing his uncles that their business would yield more profit if they owned their own ships.
The rest is history, and starting in 1952, Niarchos had the world’s biggest supertankers built for his fleet. Propelled by both the Suez Canal Crisis and an increasing demand for oil, he began a rivalry with fellow countryman and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
Over the course of the 20th century, Niarchos and Onassis would become arguably the most known names in global petroleum shipping.
The New York Times published an obituary following Niarchos’ death. The full text follows below.
Stavros Niarchos, Greek Shipping Magnate And the Archrival of Onassis, Is Dead at 86
By Robert McG. Thomas Jr.
Stavros S. Niarchos, the shadowy Greek shipping magnate who spent much of his life battling his archrival Aristotle Onassis for supremacy on the high seas, in conspicuous consumption and at the altar, died on Monday at a hospital in Zurich. He was 86.
Officials of Niarchos Ltd., the shipping company he built into an international behemoth that once operated more than 80 tankers, disclosed his death through its London office yesterday but gave no details. He was reported several weeks ago to have had a stroke.
Although he was known as a mystery man, there was little mystery in the way Stavros Spyros Niarchos built a personal fortune estimated at $4 billion.
Mr. Niarchos, whose name means “master of ships,” was quite simply a master at seizing the moment and turning it to his advantage, especially if it involved the complex world of shipping. What others perceived as disaster, he recognized as opportunity, whether it be economic depression, war or a shortage — or glut — of oil.
The secret of his shipping success was deceptively simple: buy cheap and buy big.
Mr. Niarchos, who was conceived in Buffalo, N.Y., where his Greek-born parents had become naturalized American citizens, was born in Athens on July 3, 1909, three months after his parents had returned from the United States.
Growing up in the adjacent port city of Piraeus, he developed a lifelong love of the water, swimming frequently and sailing his first boat at the age of 9.
Although he earned a law degree from the University of Athens at age 20, his father’s financial reversals forced him to seek a more immediately promising career; he joined a flour-milling operation operated by his maternal uncles. The business imported grain from Argentina, and seeking to keep costs down in the 1930’s, Mr. Niarchos recognized that the family could save freight fees by operating its own ships.
At his urging, his uncles bought seven battered freighters at the Depression-level prices of $20,000 each, and the Niarchos fleet was born. He soon added to the holdings, always buying the largest ships available.
World War II proved a bonanza for him. He leased his ships to the Allies in 1941 and spent the rest of the war in the Greek Navy. When the war ended in 1945, Mr. Niarchos, who had become the assistant Greek naval attache in Washington, did not grieve over the loss of six of his ships to German bombs and submarine attacks, but took his $2 million in insurance proceeds and began buying up surplus Liberty and Victory cargo ships and T2 tankers that had been mass produced during the war.
To get around American restrictions on the sale of such ships to foreigners, Mr. Niarchos formed a company in which his American-born sister and some American friends owned a three-quarter interest. But after Mr. Niarchos compounded his audacity by leasing the ships to a Panamanian company to avoid American taxes, the government sued and he agreed to pay a $12 million fine, give up some of the ships and have three supertankers built at American shipyards.
As usual, the settlement ended up to his advantage. It came as Mr. Niarchos, who had foreseen the postwar boom in trade, was beginning a shipbuilding spree. Not only did the three large tankers prove far more profitable than the smaller ships he had to surrender, but he also ended up commissioning others, each generally larger than the one before.
Mr. Niarchos was one of the first shipowners to grasp the economies of scale: that is, a ship that could carry twice as much oil at twice the fees did not cost twice as much to build or to operate.
But he was not the only one to understand the concept. So did another upstart Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Socrates Onassis, and in the decade after the war the two began a rivalry that amounted to a global game of one-upmanship.
If Mr. Onassis built a 30,000-ton ship, Mr. Niarchos was sure to respond with one of 31,000 tons. The shipbuilding competition continued until 1956 when Mr. Niarchos launched the 47,750-ton Spyros Niarchos, then the largest tanker afloat.
And Mr. Niarchos, who became a hero in Greece by building the country’s first shipyard after the war, found himself upstaged when Mr. Onassis became an even bigger hero in the jet age by creating Olympic Airways.
For Mr. Niarchos, who savored his title as the owner of the largest private tanker fleet, 1956 was to prove the high-water mark in his competition with Mr. Onassis. Curiously, his very success caused his setback. When the Suez crisis of 1956 closed the canal, it created a huge new demand for tankers and doubled shipping rates, much of his own vast fleet was tied up in long-term contracts at the pre-crisis rates, while Mr. Onassis, who had largely been locked out of the market by Mr. Niarchos, was able to take advantage of the crisis and cash in on the higher rates.
But the Onassis advantage proved short-lived. Mr. Niarchos simply bullied his way out of the old contracts, arguing that conditions had changed.
By then the personal rivalry between the two men had extended beyond the world of commercial shipping. Mr. Onassis, for example, was clearly jealous at glowing magazine reports pointing out that Mr. Niarchos, who maintained numerous palatial homes around the world, preferred to run his business from the 190-foot Creole, invariably described as the world’s largest and most beautiful sailing vessel.
The Onassis response was to commission the 325-foot Christina, a motorized vessel, to be sure, but one that became the cynosure of prying eyes, at least until Mr. Niarchos abandoned the Creole in favor of the motorized Atlantis, 50 feet longer than the Christina.
And when Mr. Niarchos bought the Aegean island of Spetsopoula and stocked it with rare plants and game, making it a hunting paradise where he entertained royalty, heads of state and members of the jet set, Mr. Onassis bought an island of his own, Skorios, six years later.
Mr. Niarchos’s good sense of timing saved his fortune. He sold off most of his fleet of tankers before the bottom fell out of the industry in the 1970’s. But he and Mr. Onassis were both bruised by the protracted downturn. In 1970 they even entered into a rare joint venture to build an oil refinery in Greece.
Mr. Niarchos stayed in the business, but the fleet of Niarchos Ltd. whose offices are in London, is a mere shadow consisting of about eight oil tankers. His family had remained deeply involved in the business, including his three sons, who are expected to continue managing the fleet.
In their personal rivalry, when Mr. Onassis scored a social coup by marrying Tina Livanos, the daughter of the long-reigning Greek shipping czar Stavros Livanos, Mr. Niarchos, who had been married and divorced twice, responded by marrying the other Livanos daughter, Eugenie.
It was a rivalry Mr. Niarchos was destined to lose, but he had his moments. In 1965, for example, he divorced Eugenie and at the age of 56 married Charlotte Ford, the 24-year-old daughter of Henry Ford II, the American automobile industry leader. She gave birth to a child a few months later and they were divorced in 1967.
The next year Mr. Onassis played his matrimonial trump card by marrying Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the slain American President, John F. Kennedy, and widely regarded as the world’s most admired woman.
Since the Greek Church had not recognized Mr. Niarchos’s Mexican divorce, he blithely resumed his marriage to Eugenie. After she died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1970, Mr. Niarchos obtained some consolation by marrying Mr. Onassis’ former wife, Tina.
Her death in Paris in 1974, also from an overdose of sleeping pills, created something of a scandal when her daughter, Christina Onassis, demanded an autopsy with the implication that Mr. Niarchos may have had a hand in her death. The investigation cleared him.
The death of Mr. Onassis in 1975 left Mr. Niarchos without a rival to fuel his ambitions.
Although he invested huge sums in various industries, he seemed to spend more time spending his money in the last years of his life, savoring his art collections, for example, and cheering on his racehorses. He also gave some of his money away, in 1979 donating $5 million to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center to help repay the cost of heart surgery performed over the years on more than 100 Greek children.
His survivors include two daughters, Maria and Elena Anne; three sons, Philip, Spyros and Constantine, and several grandchildren.
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