x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Oil magnate of the sea

Loucas Haji-Ioannou, the Greek-Cypriot shipping magnate and founder of a dynasty that remains central to the Greek maritime community, has died in Athens aged 81.

Loucas Haji-Ioannou, left, with his son Stelios.
Loucas Haji-Ioannou, left, with his son Stelios.

Loucas Haji-Ioannou, the Greek-Cypriot shipping magnate and founder of a dynasty that remains central to the Greek maritime community, has died in Athens aged 81. Mr Haji-Ioannou may not have enjoyed the notoriety of Niarchos and Onassis, his post-war contemporaries, but his moniker "The Tanker King" said it all. By 1990, as the head of the Troodos Shipping and Trading fleet, he was the world's largest independent ship-owner, with more than 50 tankers, totalling 7.5 million deadweight tonnes.

His pre-eminence was due, in part, to his shrewd response to the impact of the Iran-Iraq war on the shipping industry during the 1980s. As one of the few owners prepared to risk sending tankers into the Gulf, where they were high profile, easy prey for Iraqi fighter jets, he almost monopolised the route between Iran's Kharg oil terminal and the relatively secure Strait of Hormuz. On the advice of British security specialists, he met escalating insurance costs by equipping his vessels with new safety and protection systems, and consequently profited significantly from the high charter rates he could charge to those prepared to enter the war zone.

Born in 1927 in the Cypriot village of Pedhoulas, Mr Haji-Ioannou's working life started in the family's trading business. In 1950 he moved to his uncle's company in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, initially as an accountant, and later as office manager. On the uncle's unexpected death, Mr Haji-Ioannou started his own import-export business in the kingdom. One of only a handful of foreigners permitted to operate without a local partner, he was the sole importer of Greek cement during the 1950s building boom. The small fortune he earned enabled him in 1959 to enter the shipping business by purchasing a 10,500 deadweight tonne dry cargo ship in London.

He bought his first tanker in 1969 in Athens, realising that the global trade in oil would be hugely advantageous to the shipping industry. It was the beginning of an auspicious period that lasted through the 1980s. Mr Haji-Ioannou's younger son, Stelios, who later founded easyJet, joined the family business in 1998 as chief executive. His father, Stelios recalled, was a workaholic who had little time for niceties: "Every morning, my father used to wake up, pick up the phone and shout a bit at people, go to lunch and then shout a bit more." It was a basic approach, but a successful one.

In 1991, however, disaster struck when the M/T Haven, a very large crude carrier, leased to Troodos Shipping, exploded and sank off the coast of Genoa, Italy. Six Cypriot crew members were killed, and around 50,000 tonnes of Iranian crude flooded into the sea, causing massive environmental damage and sparking a series of lawsuits. The criminal charges against Mr Haji-Ioannou and Stelios included manslaughter, extortion and attempting to bribe a witness. Although father and son were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing three times, with the last trial concluding in 2002, the affair took its toll on Mr Haji-Ioannou's reputation and health. He had been unwell for some time before his death.

In recent years, he had concentrated on his philanthropic interests. Mr Haji-Ioannou was born on Sept 15 1927. He died on Dec 17, and is survived by Nedi, his wife, two sons and a daughter. * The National