FAST SHIPS IN A TRANS-PACIFIC NICHE MARKET

FAST SHIPS IN A TRANS-PACIFIC NICHE MARKET

The need for consolidation through mergers and takeovers has been long reported in these columns. We've come a long way since late 1996, when the news broke on the P&O-Nedlloyd merger, and the $825 million takeover of APL Ltd. some 12 months later by Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines.

Since then we've seen the A.P. Moller acquisition of most of Sea-Land's shipping and port business, and watched Hamburg-Sud swallow up Alianca and much of the Crowley container-shipping empire.We've been bemused by the reasoning behind Hanjin's purchase of beleaguered DSR-Senator Lines, and we've reported on the ''merger'' of Evergreen and Uniglory.

We treated our readers to a taste of P&O Nedlloyd's future moves, questioning whether Hamburg, Hong Kong or Singapore suits. And we asked whether brotherly conflicts should really stand in the way of the necessary in France.

This week, we turn the spotlight on Switzerland - with certain caution of course - and look at the latest in this web of intricacies.

That's a $400 million investment by a cash-rich United Arab Emirates finance bank in a ''small, niche player.'' It may not rattle the big guys, but could rock the boat a little for those who feel fast is beautiful.

Norasia Shipping Ltd. and Abu Dhabi Investment Co. (ADIC), a public limited-liability company based in Abu Dhabi, have signed an agreement to form a new joint venture company, to be known as Abu Dhabi Container Lines Ltd (ADCL).

ADIC is owned by Abu Dhabi government institutions. Al Suffun Holdings, a wholly-owned subsidiary of ADIC, will hold 51 percent shares in the container line. ADIC intends to place ADCL shares held by Al Suffun Holdings with various United Arab Emirates institutions and private investors.

ADCL will acquire the 10 new, 1,388-TEU Norasia vessels built in Germany and China, eight of which are intended to run in two separate strings on the trans-Pacific trades.

Four of those vessels are being placed in a new-look Pacific Northwest service providing fast transit times between China and Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.

The other four will form a new service, also due to kick off from Yantian on Dec. 4, catering to the Los Angeles-Oakland gateway.

There have been tentative plans to extend either of the two trans-Pacific services to the Middle East, and this can be achieved with seven ships to provide a weekly service.

However, Norasia will play a wait-and-see role in this sector. Companies such as Wan Hai, Hyundai and OOCL already have a strong involvement in the market, even though they provide an entirely different product than that of Norasia.

It is product difference that underlines the reasoning in the new joint venture with the Abu Dhabi cash cow. Norasia works on a niche market. It succeeds on fast transit times for time-related goods.

Sure, it tried the Atlantic and Canada with 25-knot ships. And after 12 months it felt 18- to 19-knot ships would be more profitable, so it switched the speedboats to the Pacific. I really don't want to get involved in those tiresome discussions anymore.

But for Norasia's future, there was never going to be a merger or takeover with another line - even alliance-partner Compagnie Maritime d'Affretement. It had be done by convincing an independent organization, such ADIC, on the benefits of putting a few hundred million into shipping.

Norasia has always been big in the Persian Gulf,. Its intricate web of subsidiary companies in the Middle East and in the Med has been put together with careful precision - companies like GM Lines getting involved in the Asia/Indian sub-continent/Middle East (GALEX) service with CMA and The National Shipping Co of Saudi Arabia.

Who is GM Lines? It's a subsidiary of Norasia, based in the UAE. GM? Well GM may just stand for Ganymed, which is Norasia's ship-management company based in Malta. Intricate, but very, very interesting.

Norasia is a very private company. It doesn't talk much to the press in general, and even less to me.

But it survives and survives well in this competitive world, because it knows some customers need speed for fast delivery of goods. It doesn't need big alliances, simply because its product doesn't fit in. Its ships can belt across the Pacific in record time - and with some $400 million of UAE money behind them, they might just belt faster.

The question now is this: What of the competition? Sure, FastShip is keen on the Atlantic, but you surely don't earn a living from one sea route.

Over to you, FastShip. I am sure you have the answer to this one.

Oh, and in case you missed it, Norasia Chairman Hans Steiger believes ADCL will ''become a world leader in fast maritime transportation with a fleet of container hips capable of speeds of 25, 32 and 40 knots to meet worldwide demand in regional and international trades.''