Shipping: Follow the Star

  • Share
  • Read Later

When his ship Valkyrien foundered on the coast of Scotland in 1883, Danish Captain Peter Maersk MØller thought he saw a seven-pointed star in the sky. Even in that moment of disaster, MØller, an optimist if ever there was one, decided that he had witnessed an omen of good fortune. Apparently he was right: today the family flag, a seven-pointed white star on a light blue field, is known the world over. It flies on 92 freighters, tankers and other vessels of the Maersk Line, over a shipyard and machinery and petrochemical plants, even over a 25,000-acre sugar plantation in Tanzania.

The old stargazer's son, Arnold Peter MØller, founded the firm, and it is named after him. A. P. MØller made the most of his small stake, and in 1904 he was able to buy a secondhand steamer. He parlayed that one vessel into what is now a multimilliondollar empire. A believer in running a tight ship, A. P. MØller was one of Denmark's richest men when he died in 1965 at the age of 88. He passed the helm of the company to his son, Maersk McKinney* MØller, now 54, who commands his diverse enterprises from an inconspicuous red brick building on King's Square in Copenhagen. Near his desk hangs a world map on which colored magnets chart the day-by-day movements of Maersk Line ships. Says MØller: "What I do is operate a round-the-world bus service."

Shipping rolled up a $40 million profit for A. P. MØller Co. in 1966, more than 90% of it from abroad.

"Working without government support, we must compete with flag preferences and subsidized companies—in reality with foreign governments. But we work hard, we watch our expenses and we try to give service second to none," MØller explains. The system works. This year Maersk ships represented half of the Danish merchant fleet's total ton nage of 4,000,000 tons.

Most of the line's ships are built at MØller's Lindoe shipyard near Odense. Of 54 ships launched there in the past ten years, 31 fly the seven-pointed star. But even without the shipping line, the shipbuilding branch would probably be in the black. The boom that followed the closing of the Suez Canal left order books bulging, with some delivery dates as far ahead as 1970. Eleven ships with more than a 2,000,000-ton capacity are on order at Lindoe, including two 240,000-ton tankers for Esso.

A modest, retiring man, Maersk McKinney MØller credits his success to two things: his grandfather's star and his father's motto: "No detail is too small. No effort too great."

* For his mother, Kentucky-born Chastine Estelle McKinney.