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69 Robert Yuksel Yildirim, Yildirim Group

Plans to expand into the US ports sector suffered a setback in 2019 but group president and chief executive Robert Yuksel Yildirim expects other opportunities to emerge

The Turkish industrialist has reconfirmed his commitment to the French container shipping group CMA CGM

ROBERT Yuksel Yildirim would probably be the first to admit that 2019 has not been the best of years for him.

Plans to expand Yildirim Group’s port interests into the US suffered a serious setback when Yilport’s offer to buy the Long Beach Container Terminal concession was turned down in favour of a rival bid from Australian bank Macquarie.

Convinced there were hidden forces at play that persuaded the US authorities to pick Macquarie over Yilport, Mr Yildirim made no attempt to hide his anger and disappointment.

The Turkish entrepreneur — who has a 24% stake in French container shipping group CMA CGM and whose family-owned business operates in nine industrial sectors in 51 countries, employing 13,000 people worldwide — had been eyeing a US port investment for some time.

So when Hong Kong’s Orient Overseas (International) Ltd was ordered to dispose of its state-of-the-art LBCT, following its takeover by China’s Cosco, Mr Yildirim submitted an offer worth around $1.76bn and had been led to believe he was the front runner.

Because of that, he withdrew from negotiations to buy three North American terminals from Macquarie, only to discover soon afterwards that Yilport had not been picked to take over LBCT.

“It hurts me to lose LBCT, the best terminal in the US,” the group’s president and chief executive said at the time.

“I never thought it would come to market, and it has a tremendous future.”

Now he is exploring other US port opportunities, including a public private partnership agreement with Gulfport Mississippi to develop a 2.5m teu terminal there that is under discussion, and possibly a greenfield site development.

Meanwhile, Yilport continues to expand elsewhere, signing a 49-year operating contract in July for a multipurpose terminal at the Italian port of Taranto, where Evergreen had once tried to establish a transhipment hub.

The Istanbul-headquartered group, whose other business interests range from mining and fertiliser production through to shipping, shipbuilding, real estate and construction, now has terminals in Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Peru, Malta, Norway and Sweden, as well as Italy.

Mr Yildirim is to take over as chairman and chief executive of Yilport from the beginning of 2020 until a successor is found to Christian Blauert, who stepped down in December.  

At one stage, Mr Yildirim had been expected to sell his CMA CGM shares but there are no such plans in the pipeline at the moment.

He had come to the rescue of CMA CGM back in 2010, when the French line was in financial difficulties, injecting $600m into the group through five-year bonds that matured in late 2015.

Subsequently, he agreed to convert the bonds into shares for a two-year period, up to the end of 2017, to enable CMA CGM to buy Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines. The investment now seems to be open-ended.

Meanwhile, as Mr Yildirim reflects on 2019, there will be one standout memory.

“There will be other opportunities, but LBCT was the best available today, and I wanted to buy it. I love that terminal, but I lost it, not because of commercial reasons but because of political decisions,” he contends.

Mr Yildirim also appeared in the Top 100 in 2011201220132014201520162017 and 2018.


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