WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Does the name Robert Owen O'Brien ring a bell? Probably not, and that's understandable. O'Brien's moment in the shipping spotlight was brief, and he's remembered less for who he was than for what he did. In March 1984, O'Brien was an unemployed seaman living at the Seamen's Church Institute in New York when he heard that a ship belonging to bankrupt Hellenic Lines was to be sold at auction. He showed up at the courthouse, unshaven and in old clothes, and said he was affiliated with a company that turned out to be fictitious.

When the bidding began, O'Brien enthusiastically joined in. He bid the price of the Hellenic Star to $1.63 million -- several hundred thousand dollars more than it otherwise might have fetched. Though O'Brien was the high bidder, he didn't get his ship -- it turned out that he barely had two nickels to rub together, let alone $1.63 million. The ship went to the runner-up bidder, Morgan Guaranty Trust, which wasn't happy about the higher price, and O'Brien vanished to parts unknown.

I hadn't thought about that episode in years until I happened upon an account of it while cleaning out files in preparation for the JoC's move to new offices last week. The tale of O'Brien and Hellenic is but one of dozens of maritime-industry bankruptcy stories that the JoC covered between the late 1970s and mid-1980s.

During those years, shipping bankruptcies were a staple of the JoC's coverage. Hardly a month passed without news of some company being forced to reorganize or liquidate. Bankruptcy procedure was as familiar to maritime reporters as criminal law is to sportswriters.

There were such high-profile cases as Seatrain, Pacific Far East Line, States Line and Prudential Lines, and a litany of other operators that spanned the alphabet from tiny Armasal Line to the most spectacular bankruptcy of them all, United States Lines in 1986.

Shipping bankruptcies still happen, but much less frequently than 15 or 20 years ago. The last big liner-company bankruptcy was the 1995 filing of Lykes Bros. Steamship Co., which eventually was bought by Canadian Pacific's CP Ships and reorganized as Lykes Lines Ltd.

After years of red ink or paper-thin returns, most liner companies are making money. Recent months have produced a stream of announcements of higher profits by companies such as Neptune Orient Lines, Hapag-Lloyd, P&O Nedlloyd, Atlantic Container Line and Orient Overseas Container Line.

Why the improvement? One reason is the economy. The 1970s and 1980s were decades of inflation, high interest rates, political upheaval, and soaring -- and crashing -- prices for oil and other commodities. Long-range planning was nearly impossible.

A few carriers did well in trades where circumstances were favorable for brief periods -- for example, when South American nations were loading up on debt, and when soaring oil prices caused a jump in cargo to the Mideast and West Africa. Overall, however, it was a rough time for carriers.

Many liner operators in the 1970s and 1980s were still adjusting to containerization and to the deregulation of U.S. railroads and trucking. It was a different game from port-to-port breakbulk shipping, and many carriers were clueless.

Few carriers understood their costs. Many granted pricing authority to sales representatives eager to fill ships at whatever rate they could get. Some lines built the wrong kind of ships -- two notable examples were in the Asia-U.S. West Coast trade, where PFEL failed with LASH barge carriers and States Line went broke operating roll-on, roll-off ships.

Though it hasn't been smooth, carriers finally have begun to get their footing. An important development was the 1984 Shipping Act, which allowed lines to form joint services and ship-sharing deals that broadened coverage while reducing carriers' expense and risk.

Ocean carriers have become more comfortable with intermodal rates and service. Carriers have updated their fleets, and ports have developed terminals that have made cargo-handling more efficient. Ship lines have adopted yield management, and are exerting tighter control over pricing. Further efficiencies also could emerge from the current movement toward use of the Internet to smooth documentation.

We haven't seen the last downturn in liner shipping, nor the last bankruptcy. But when the next down cycle hits, the industry is likely to weather it in better shape than it did 15 to 20 years ago.

The U.S. marshal's office learned from its experience with Robert O'Brien in 1984, and tightened its identification procedures at subsequent bankruptcy auctions.

Ocean carriers have learned some things, too.

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney

oc.com.