Announcements in Mexico that high-rolling financier Carlos Cabal Peniche is a fugitive from justice have spurred worries that his problems may affect two of Mexico's top companies - Fresh Del Monte Produce and Transportacion Maritima Mexicana (TMM).
Mr. Cabal is believed to have been on the lam since Monday, when Mexican Finance Minister Pedro Aspe announced that the executive was being sought for participation in illegal loan scheme.The billionaire businessman's empire, Grupo Cabal, owns Fresh Del Monte Produce. In addition, TMM, Mexico's largest ship line, has a $40 million stake in Banca Cremi - one of two banks owned by Grupo Cabal. Mr. Cabal's Grupo Financiero Cremi-Union is believed to be the eighth-largest banking group in Mexico.
ROLE IN REEFER CARRIER
The fugitive financier, who is just 37 years old but has an empire valued, according to Mexican newspapers, at $2 billion, also is an investor in a refrigerated-transport joint venture with TMM known as Global Reefer Carriers.
Mexico's Finance Ministry accuses Mr. Cabal of using his banking empire to lend money to himself or shell companies to build and finance his fortunes.
TMM's director of investor relations, Pedro Mejorada, said the line's profitable refrigerated-transport venture would not be damaged by Mr. Cabal's flight.
Although TMM is a 49 percent shareholder in the joint venture - which brings bananas and pineapples from southern Mexico to global markets - the ship line is further protected by the fact that it owns 5 percent of the investment group which, along with Mr. Cabal, owns 51 percent of Global Reefer Carriers.
"We have the majority (stake). We operate it, we control it. It's going like any other day," Mr. Mejorada said of Global Reefer's services.
Global Reefer is the primary transporter for Fresh Del Monte Produce, which was purchased last year by Grupo Cabal for $525 million. Mr. Cabal was in the process of trying to purchase the canned-food operations of Del Monte, known as Del Monte Foods Corp. and owned by an investment group that includes Merrill Lynch & Co.
The director of Fresh Del Monte Produce's Southern California operations at Port Hueneme in Oxnard expressed surprise at the reports about Mr. Cabal, but said there have been no visible effects on operations.
James Dawson said in a telephone interview from the California fruit port: ''I wouldn't anticipate any right now. I haven't noticed any effects or been able to project any."
To the best of his knowledge, said Mr. Dawson, Mr. Cabal's banking difficulties do not have any direct bearing on Fresh Del Monte Produce.
Despite the surprise, TMM's Mr. Mejorada said the ship line did not expect to be damaged by the government's takeover of Banca Cremi because of banking laws that protect shareholders through an insurance process.
"All the banks will continue to protect Banca Cremi," said Mr. Mejorada, referring to a national deposit-insurance scheme in Mexico.
Shipping analysts concurred with the TMM official that, despite the ship line's bleak financial picture, the scandal involving Mr. Cabal would not likely affect ocean-going operations.
"I would be surprised if this has any direct impact on their day-to-day operations," said James Winchester, an investment analyst specializing in shipping for Lazard Freres in New York.
Because of the deposit-insurance system and the presumed court or government appointment of new directors for Del Monte operations, the damages are likely to be minimal, said Mr. Winchester.
TMM stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
COOL CARRIERS: 'NO HICCUP'
Also watching the Cabal case is Cool Carriers USA Inc., a refrigerated- transportation ship line that carries Del Monte fruits. Three of Cool Carriers' Crystal Class automated crane vessels are under contract for two years with TMM and Global Reefer Carriers.
"There's been no hiccup here," said Gerald A. Fountain, president of Cool Carriers in Oxnard, where vessels discharge bananas from Ecuador and southern Mexico. "We read about it, and we worry about it, but I don't know if it is going to affect us."