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Fabrizio Vettosi and shipping. A lifelong midfielder/ INTERVIEW

Naples - Finance expert with a passion for soccer or failed soccer player who wound up in finance? Either description could suit Fabrizio Vettosi, the chief of VSL, who has a true passion for numbers, but always has a pair of football boots and shorts in his car and who has an indefatigable passion for Naples Football Club.

Naples - Finance expert with a passion for soccer or failed soccer player who wound up in finance? Either description could suit Fabrizio Vettosi, the chief of VSL, who has a true passion for numbers, but always has a pair of football boots and shorts in his car and who has an indefatigable passion for Naples Football Club. Perpetually restless with a great desire to stand out, always happy to preside at conventions and forums, generous with his “financial” advice, and such a big talker that it is difficult to get a word in edgeways, you might think all this would be a bit too much, but in fact, with his disarming smile, he is very likeable. With a deep generosity, he has undertaken great social commitments and participates in many benevolent initiatives with enthusiasm. His head is in Milan, or wherever his presence is required, but his heart is in Naples, or actually Pozzuoli, where he actually spends every weekend with his ever-patient wife Rosita.

As the President of VSL, how do you see the future of the shipping industry?
“Of course we cannot deny the “mantras” of our elders, but we must keep in mind that every apparently traditional sector has had its moments of innovation and change. Clever consultants call them moments of “discontinuity,” and shipping cannot escape these changes, like all other sectors of the economy. Shipowners absolutely must “re-engineer” their companies in light of the new modes of communication (smart shipping, smart ports). Shipping will be more and more like a link in the logistical chain in which the winners will be those who have strong organisation, management and competencies; therefore it will become less and less connected to the tangible aspect represented by the “ship” and more and more dependent on know-how.”

With the economic crisis in 2008, there has been more investment funds buying stakes in shipping companies: tell me something positive and something negative about the investment funds.
“You have given me the opportunity to finally put an end to a stupid dichotomy that often leads to senseless arguments; that is, the presumed antagonism between shipping and investment funds, as if the latter were ‘a bad thing’ for our industry, describing them as ‘cold’ subjects without ‘heart’ or ‘passion.’ I believe that I’m a case in point since some say that I have more ‘heart’ and ‘passion’ than the average shipowner. Since time immemorial, or at least since 1600 when the rich Dutch, Portuguese and Venetian spice merchants became shipowners by providing cargo and capital, shipping, as a ‘capital intensive’ sector, has needed the ‘capital element,’. So in this day and age when amongst other things, banking capital is scarce or non-existent, I do not find it at all strange that new financial actors appear on the stage; in fact, I believe that it is a great alternative opportunity for the shipping industry. Furthermore, by definition, financial investors are ‘rational’ and objective, and therefore base their decisions on reliable figures and potential economic returns, and for this reason they can be very helpful in assisting shipowners in taking complex decisions that may be debated within the family and/or across generations. Look, one of the positive aspects is really the contribution that investment funds bring to improving company governance, supporting generational change. If the investment funds had held stakes in certain shipping companies in the past, probably some major shipping dynasties wouldn’t have gone extinct even given the traumatic events [that they experienced]. A negative aspect that I ascribe to investment funds is their lack of specialisation and their ‘impatience’ due to the need to maximise returns in the short term. But luckily that is changing.”

Has shipping made it through the worst, or must it still suffer more?
“I believe that we are moving into a slow normalisation, I am accustomed to seeing the positive even in catastrophic situations. This long and intense crisis perhaps made many shipowners aware and responsible by convincing them that the future of their companies would not be based on speculation and asset trading on ships, but rather on transportation and logistics. This is my hope, although I also see that at the first signs of improvement, shipowners are being carried along by the enthusiasm and deciding to order ships. But luckily the low availability of capital is a correct brake on these erroneous practices.”

Which sectors are experiencing the greatest difficulties and which are those that have best overcome the crisis?
“There is no doubt that the sectors in which industrial and managerial competencies prevail (ex. Ro-Pax, Ro-Ro, chemicals) there are more barriers to entry and therefore there is greater selectivity and consequently greater stability. These segments certainly have held up better.”

Can family-run shipping companies survive in this situation and in your opinion what should a modern and efficient shipping company look like?
“We must never forget that shipowners are remembered by the names of their families and almost never by the names of the companies, this says a lot about the importance of the family as a place where mission, style and values are shared. In any case, as I was saying, today it is more difficult to preserve these values in a competitive context that is complex and changing quickly. I therefore believe that [family-run companies] can play a decisive role with the help of investors, whether public (stock exchange) or private (private equity funds)”.

How did you wind up in the world of shipping and the world of finance?
“I got into both because of my passion and by chance. I always had an interest in numbers and finance, so much so that at nineteen I was hired by BNL because of the 60/60 I got on my accounting diploma, and whilst there I was sent for a period of training in the Shipping Department. Furthermore since my youth I spent time at the houses of friends who were shipowners (for example Onorato, Ievoli, on Sundays I had to take the still young Gennaro Ievoli to see the Naples football team, and then there was also Peppino D’Amato and Antonio d’Amico, who were great masters). Then one fine day, after I left the bank, I asked my friend Amedeo Giurazza why Italian shipowners had to turn to a Greek advisor (Anthony Zolotas) and foreign banks to satisfy their needs, and so we set up an organisation that was dedicated to shipping finance advisory that was reasonably successful. Then came the years of Efibanca, which had a recognised brand that was famous in the international shipping industry, and now the “half madness” of VSL with my friends Ciro Russo, Massimo Marè and Carlos Balestra of Mottola.”

What did you want to be when you were a boy? You must have had dreams...
“More or less what I did, and therefore up until now I have been lucky, ah ..... I forgot, like many kids, I wanted to be a footballer.”

Which financing project are you proudest of, which were you not able to pull off, and which one do you most regret?
“My profession requires me to be very reserved, but as I said, I think that my profession should be practised out of passion and not just to make money. I have affection for all my deals like they were my own children. There were many successful deals but I was particularly involved in three of them: first of all, the financing in syndicate of the “Moby Freedom” and “Moby Wonder” was the first time in its history that Moby, which was at the time a medium and not very managerialised company, ordered two complex and innovative ships (Ro-Pax Fast Ferries) from a Korean shipyard; I remember that Dr. Aldo (Grimaldi) called them “crazy,” and yet the financing operation was a success, and luckily the investment was also a turning point for Moby. Then I remember a financing project that was organised for Premuda on a ship as old as the hills (Four Wind) and under Maltese Law (which was almost considered indecent at the time for an Italian bank); years later, Ezio Rosina and Marco Tassara admitted to me that they gave me that job to get me out of the way because I was always coming through their offices hoping to pick up a commission and they didn’t risk a single lira on the success of the operation. Finally, the mezzanine financing done at Evergreen for the acquisition of Lloyd Trieste, a true masterpiece of innovation which I did with my friend and colleague Ciro Russo. I won’t reveal the project that didn’t work out because it could go through in the next few months.”

Does one need particular characteristics to be a “financier of the sea”?
“No, I repeat, heart, passion,....... and one cannot forget to always carry a computer,........ or as Angelo D’Amato would say, even a financial calculator will do.”

What do you particularly like about your work?
“Shipping is the only industrial sector that allows for the application of all the branches of financial theory.”

You travel so much that you are rarely to be found at home: what city do you consider to be most suited to your work and which is closest to your heart?
“In effect to do the work that we do, one doesn’t need a ‘fixed residence,’ just a room and a computer. In any case, ideally I would open offices in Athens and London, but I try to get by with a mix of Milan, Genoa and Naples.”

Which shipowner do you most admire and which is your most faithful client?
“It is a difficult question, but I will answer sincerely: there are many shipowners that I admire because there are about 30 sectors within the shipping industry, and therefore there are at least two or three for each major sector, and then in the context of the families there is often more than one member of the family who is clever and capable... so I think I have given you some clues. In terms of loyalty, I think that it comes from your own capability, if a shipowner comes back to you more than once that indicates reliability more than loyalty, it means that you deserved his trust. Look, let’s say that has often happened to me with certain shipowners,... others have gone astray, which I consider to be somewhat ungrateful.”

Is there jealousy among shipowners?
“Intuitus personae and ego are inherent in this business. I believe that only the worlds of fashion and luxury could compete with shipping on these terms.”What is the greatest satisfaction in your work and what was your bitterest disappointment? “Luckily so far I have many gratifying experiences. My greatest disappointment: the way in which CdA exited Moby.”

In the era of globalisation is it difficult to maintain one’s own identity?
“I would say no, roots and identity are never lost, but are rather an opportunity for comparison, which is much quicker today, it helps to improve the human species.”

How important are friends in your life? Do you have many, or do you have a best friend? “Because I am extroverted, I have many close friends in our own sector, and also one female best friend, but I must admit that I am very close to my friend and partner Ciro.”

You have a delightful wife, Rosita. What role does she play in your life?
“A fundamental role, and an irreplaceable one. If she wasn’t there to put things in order and to give me good advice, I would be lost. That said, we’re often too busy to be giving advice to one another.”

Do you owe much of your success to her?
“So far I owe practically all of it to her.”

How does she forgive you for your long absences, which are of course for work, but absences nonetheless?
“The problem is that I also have some hobbies that take up my time, and as a result they cannot be justified. But when I am with her I try to please her through her hobbies (enduring miles and miles of shopping in whichever city she is in, which is truly a torture for me!)”

What are your hobbies?
“Everyone knows that I am a football fan, and I write about it in my spare time, and I continue to play at a competitive level in the ‘overs’ category (an elegant way not to say ‘old men’).”

You are also a Naples super-fan, with whom do you share this passion?
“In the shipping world, I used to share it every Sunday at San Paolo Stadium with my friend Alexis Tomasos, the only one who can stand me and stand up to me for hours of technical-tactical cogitations. Now that he is in London, I do the same with my dear friend Giulio Pazzanese, the Manager of the FIGC and with some professional footballer friends and/or the Manager of Calcio Napoli.”

How are you as a football player and who in your circle do you consider to be your most feared rival?
“I am a midfielder who very much gets by on running and thinks on the field like a coach (to stay close by, I would say that I imitate Jorginho), in terms of football there are not many crazy guys like me who play football in the shipping industry. Then to speak of professional rivals I do not see many, but not because of yours truly being too skilful, but rather because of the lack of interest in the shipping sector.”

You are ambitious and sometimes irritable: do you think that this benefits or damages you?
“Essentially I seem that way but I am not. Ambition is human as long as one doesn’t fall into social climbing, and I love details and so I like to study things in depth, like a good analyst, before making my judgement, and this sometimes leads me to give the impression that I know more than my interlocutor. Essentially this is the result of the fact that I am humble, I love to study and I don’t sleep much. Am I irritable? I would rather call myself straightforward: I get angry when I see hypocritical behaviour, and I am very direct to the point of colliding with my interlocutors.”

What is your life’s goal? Do you consider yourself to be a careerist?
“Absolutely not, I would like for what I created with three “friends at the bar” to last and be carried forward by others.”

I know that you are very committed to social projects, what in particular motivated you to be interested in the most vulnerable people?
“I was born into a humble family, I played a popular sport that brought me into contact with all levels of society, especially the neediest and most helpless, and I feel pleasure if I can help these people, not because I want to be in the limelight, but because of a natural stimulus.”

When you are able to rest, how do you like to spend your free time?
“Good question, Rosita tells me that I tire myself out more in my free time than when I am working, because I enjoy doing serious exercise on the terrace at home.”

What were you like as a child?
“A bit mischievous, at ten I was suspended from Elementary School because I threw a punch at a friend who was guilty of not exchanging a toy figure with me after he had promised to (the figure was the mythical Sanon, the Haitian national footballer who scored an historic goal at the World Cup in ‘74 against Italy)!” .

You live in Pozzuoli where you can breathe in both antiquity and the sea. Where do you love to go for vacation?
“I have a great passion for continental Greece and its islands, perhaps this has something in common with Pozzuoli.”

If you could change something in your life what would it be?
“I would like to give a bit more time to my wife.”

What kind of a person is Fabrizio Vettosi, in your own opinion?
“A rational person who is very curious, but at the same time passionate and in every case someone who tries to make consistency his ‘main route’.”

You have an office in Milan, but do you think that London would be better for your career?
“If I only worked in finance, I would say yes, but since I am in shipping finance, now I would say that you could even do it from an island in the Pacific Ocean.”

What do you think of Vincenzo Onorato as a shipowner and as a friend?
“As a shipowner he was certainly ingenious and innovative, since he revolutionised the business model in the Ro-Pax Fast Ferry segment; he taught me a great deal during our night-time discussions (neither of us sleeps much) in which I for one tried to transfer my modest financial know-how to him, and I took an interest in the undergraduate theses of Aki and Ale (Vincenzo’s sons) which were on precisely these topics. As a former friend more than a friend, since we’ve not spoken for about two years, I’d prefer to tell him what I think face to face one day, but if I ever meet him again, certainly one of his faults is that he listens to too many people, even those who pretend to be his friends.”

And what is your idea about the Onorato-Grimaldi controversy?
“Premise: Manuel, like Gianluca and Diego, are first of all three extraordinary industrial managers more than shipowners. This is a positive as I see it, but as Italians, by chance or by luck, they have not conquered three companies listed abroad (in my statistics I do not see other similar cases). It is paradoxical, Manuel and Vincenzo have many ideas in common. My whole life Vincenzo has repeated to me what Manuel now says: that is, ‘it makes no sense (at the time) to spend billions for a public service that I provide as a private company,’ and also, ‘Tirrenia is a Ferrari with flat tyres,’ ‘I am going sailing, I am a sportsman, only competition improves you.’ And I also remember when he reprimanded me because I was getting too passionate about my commitment to Confitarma, and if I wasn’t able to carry forward the applications of the International Registry (ex. 100 miles) or to defend the Cabotage reserve fund as the Greeks did. In short, I believe that this dispute was born from a misunderstanding, Grimaldi is simply doing his job and respecting the rules of the European Community and International Law, while Onorato sees ‘ghosts’ that are not there, and should only think of responding to the competition on the field, like on a race track. But the thing that I think is a mistake is that they are trying to make the arbiter ‘play,’ in this case politicians, dragging them by their lapels, who since they are not experts, are in danger of making a mess of things when they attempt to work in specialist areas that they know nothing about. This is the opinion that I formed as an eye witness to the events in question.”

Is there anyone whom you really cannot stand?
“I am an athlete, still playing, so this concept doesn’t exist for me, I prefer to express my opinions face-to-face and remain consistent, this can make me sometimes seem to be the enemy of my interlocutor, but that’s not the case. You fight it out on the field, but after 90 minutes (plus recovery time) everything is over, and you are friends again.”

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