CMA CGM exec gives his take on the NOL takeover

CMA CGM vice-chairman Rodolphe Saade feels it has enough volumes to operate in two terminals in South-east Asia.
CMA CGM vice-chairman Rodolphe Saade feels it has enough volumes to operate in two terminals in South-east Asia.PHOTO: CMA CGM

The buyer at the door of Singapore's national liner has a decades-old appetite for acquisitions.

If the deal proceeds, the takeover of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) will hardly be the first time France's CMA CGM sweeps a national icon into its fold.

The shipping giant, privately owned by the billionaire Saade family, made its first leap onto the league tables after it was chosen by the French government to take state-backed Compagnie Generale Maritime (CGM) private in 1996.

On Monday, after one year of talks, CMA CGM proposed a $3.38 billion cash buyout of Temasek Holdings-controlled NOL.

"We were the first ones to initiate the discussions with NOL and Temasek and it made sense to them, that is why we carried on with the discussions," CMA CGM vice-chairman Rodolphe Saade told The Straits Times.

"Of course they were talking to others... I don't know about the offers of the others, but what I will say is that we are the third-largest container carrier in the world."

A fierce industry consolidator, CMA CGM has, over the years, acquired and integrated brands such as government-owned Australian National Line, African specialist Delmas and Taiwan's Cheng Lie Navigation into its suite.

If the anti-trust authorities greenlight the buyout, NOL's name will disappear and American President Lines (APL), the brand that NOL vessels operate under, will be expanded on all continents, he said.

The NOL deal, set to close in the second half of next year, also sees CMA CGM making a commitment to reinforce Singapore as a maritime hub by sending more volumes through the PSA ports here.

Very few of CMA CGM's ships call at Singapore now. Most call at Malaysia's Port Klang instead.

Despite a slump in global trade volumes, Mr Saade is convinced that "double hubbing" in South-east Asia makes sense. "It's not a question of competition (between the two ports). We have enough volumes to operate in the two terminals."

In fact, CMA CGM is still seeing volumes grow and it is overcapacity rather than falling volumes that has pushed freight rates down and revenues in turn, added Mr Saade.

He expects freight to struggle over the next six months but dismisses notions that Temasek is exiting a sinking industry.

"People have said many things about shipping for many years, but if shipping was not there, we would not have TV sets and all kinds of other goods at competitive prices. Because today, the only competitive and environmentally friendly mode of transport is shipping. Maybe one day it will be different, but at least for the years to come, I don't believe so."

Sticking by a bold vision is one trait Mr Saade shares with his father, CMA CGM chairman and chief executive Jacques Saade. The senior man emigrated from Lebanon to the French port city of Marseille amid a civil war.

When he founded Compagnie Maritime d'Affretement (CMA) in 1978, just five crew on a single ship plied the Mediterranean route.

After a visit to China, the graduate of the London School of Economics quickly anticipated the nation's rise as an export centre.

He opened CMA's first office in Shanghai in 1992, even before his ships were allowed to call directly at the Chinese ports.

As for how CMA CGM intends to turn around the fortunes of loss- making NOL, Mr Saade said: "I will not comment on the way it is being managed now but I would say we firmly believe we have the expertise to allow NOL to develop a much stronger and better business."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'CMA CGM exec gives his take on the NOL takeover'. Print Edition | Subscribe