MSC faces growing opposition to Hamburg port deal

Some of the wealthiest citizens of the Hanseatic port of Hamburg are huddling, working out strategies to fend off the arrival of the Apontes from their city.

This week’s biggest shipping news story – the decision by Gianluigi Aponte-founded Mediterranean Shipping Co (MSC) to bid $1.4bn for a 49.9% stake in port operator Hamburger Hafen und Logistik (HHLA) – has seen many famous local businessmen come out and pass judgment while unions are also voicing disquiet with a march scheduled for next Tuesday. 

MSC is making a tender offer looking to run HHLA as a joint venture with the city-state of Hamburg, with the line committing to make the north German port city a “central hub” for MSC’s global network of container services. This would see a new office, a doubling of local staff, an extra 1m teu in MSC traffic and the shifting of the company’s German cruise headquarters to Hamburg. However, all this extra business from the world’s largest containerline is not enough to satisfy some of the city’s most famous tycoons. 

Klaus-Michael Kühne, the 86-year-old who controls Kuehne + Nagel as well as holding a 30% stake in Hamburg’s top line, Hapag-Lloyd, has been voicing his own interest in taking control of HHLA either via his holding company or in partnership with Hapag-Lloyd. On the day the contract was signed, Kühne told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Hamburger Abendblatt that the deal was an “affront” to Hapag-Lloyd, the Port of Hamburg’s largest shipping company customer, accounting for more than 50% of its box business. However, as of yesterday, there was no sign of Kühne making any bid. 

Hapag-Lloyd’s CEO, Rolf Habben Jansen, meanwhile told Reuters yesterday that it would not be in his company’s interest to make an offer for HHLA, but he threatened to move business away from the line’s home city rather than ending up paying a rival to use the port.

Habben Jansen said that as a result of MSC’s bid, Hapag-Lloyd could reduce its transport to Central Europe through Hamburg to about 70 or 80% of current volumes.

Thomas Eckelmann, whose family-run Eureka Group controls HHLA rival Eurogate, has also come out with his own thoughts on MSC’s bid.

“This deal would be a catastrophe for the port of Hamburg. That’s why I’m considering submitting a counteroffer to MSC to the senate on behalf of the Eurokai Group on the same conditions,” Eckelmann told the Hamburger Abendblatt.

Eckelmann, whose family have been involved in Hamburg port operations since 1865, said he was braced for MSC switching from Eurogate Hamburg’s terminals but he could see many HHLA customers in turn switching to Eurogate. 

In July last year, HHLA and Eurogate ended more than two years of discussions about bundling together the container terminals of both companies in Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven. 

It is not just the city’s tycoons taking aim at MSC. Workers from the the Ver.di trade union have called for a demonstration next Tuesday where a march will head from HHLA’s headquarters in HafenCity to the town hall, where a rally will take place with the motto: “Our port – not your casino!”

“HHLA belongs to the citizens of the city,” André Kretschmar, a member of Ver.di Hamburg, told local media. He criticised the way the deal had been hatched behind closed doors between top brass at MSC and the city’s politicians. The union hit out yesterday at the“ feeling of being betrayed and sold out”.

The MSC news has dominated discussions at Germany’s biennial National Maritime Conference, organised by the federal government, which is taking place this week in Bremen. 

Federal economics minister Robert Habeck said MSC’s entry was not likely to face the same kind of government scrutiny that came with Chinese COSCO’s minority investment into a Hamburg terminal earlier this year. 

At the same event yesterday, Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, promised greater federal financial support for the nation’s ports in the wake of calls from states and port operators earlier in the week for greater investment from Berlin. 

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