TIME TO EXPLORE OPTIONS FOR MARITIME SURVIVAL

TIME TO EXPLORE OPTIONS FOR MARITIME SURVIVAL

It's been a period in which French giant Bollore looked set to either merge its Delmas shipping business with Britain's OT Africa Line, or acquire outright its West Africa trade rival.

It's been a time when DSR-Senator is concerned that a $16 million fine, imposed by the European Commission for alleged violations of antitrust regulation, could severely damage its fragile bottom line.And it's been a rough time for Taiwan's Nantai Line, which as the country's main carrier in the Asia/Africa trade, has finally decided enough is enough, and acknowledged that the arrest of its entire Asia/South Africa fleet is good reason to say goodbye to the deep-sea marketplace.

So while some of the big names ease their way through the complications of due diligence, and others concern themselves with making the third-quarter returns look a lot better than the second, perhaps it's time to reflect. Time once again to look at the possibilities and the probabilities in this headlong stampede for survival.

For Delmas and OT Africa, far removed from the U.S. marketplace, and with a high concentration in the Europe-West Africa trades, a merger would be ideal. OT Africa, which is hurting possibly more than Delmas at the moment, needs someone to work alongside. Delmas, under the Bollore ownership, might not need so much propping up, but the idea of merging, or even possibly acquiring the OT Africa business, will do no harm, particularly on the ground in West Africa where OT Africa has some fairly hefty local clout.

OT Africa said the situation has been forced on the company. It's the same old story in a different land. Plunging rates, fierce competition, too much overhead. But if we look at who the newcomers are, the answer is simply none.

The big new name is a joint name - that of Maersk and Safmarine liner operator, SCL. Remember before Maersk bought Sea-Land's liner business, it also acquired Safmarine's? So this one's a tale of a line or two that realize the problems, and want to do something about it before it's too late. OT Africa also pinpoints P&O/Nedlloyd as a serious competitor in the Europe/West Africa market. The Anglo-Dutch line recently put together a vessel sharing agreement with WAL, a German company, after it thought better of hanging around with SCL after the Maersk buyout.

Nantai? Well there's a similar standing there as well. Nantai used to belong to the Good Hope Express consortium, dominated by big players like Maersk, Nippon Yusen Kaisha and CSAV. Nantai didn't like this cozy family and decided to do things its own way on the Asia/South Africa trades.

A little over a year later, three of its ships are under arrest for alleged non-payment of charter bills. In effect, Nantai is no longer a carrier on these trades. So this one's a story of a line that tried but failed to do things its own way.

Then there's DSR-Senator. Faced with a $16 million fine from the EC over TACA (Trans-Atlantic Conference Agreement) antitrust problems in early 1998, the German line is one of several carriers clobbered with hefty penalties. Last year, it lost $47 million. This year, it expects to earn a $10 million profit.

Nice turnaround, but hardly grounds to get excited and give in to what you disagree with without a fight. The reasoning was that the line could engineer a clever restructuring backed by a huge handout from the parental pocket.

Philosophy here - simply an understanding that something was wrong, and it needed to be addressed in a positive way. Result? Providing Brussels agrees - survival.

Each of these three cases has come to light in recent days. Each has its own story to tell, but more important, each line is a victim - a victim of an industry where the biggest will always survive, the clever will always pull through, and those who think they can make it alone, go under.

Arguably, to the benefit of all concerned, there's a nice little niche of DSR's coming up as well. All of them can be categorized. Like some obscure star sign system, there's the hunter and the hunted. There's the worried and the concerned.

There's the pessimist and the loner. And in the new world, there's the shining light - that optimist who emerges from the dust of despair, burning his rate restoration plans, and laughing off global contracting as another industry myth.

This knight in battle-scarred armor will emerge and proclaim that the war is won. And in the meantime, P&O Nedlloyd will list on the London Stock Exchange, raise enough money to merge or acquire its rightful Asian delight. Maersk will get totally fed up with the words, ''due diligence,'' and wish it hadn't bought Sea-Land's liner business.