Who is Wilmer Ruperti?

Exclusive by Rainbow Nelson

August 12, 2004 | SECTION: Issue #58721; Insight & Opinion; Pg. 5 | Master mariner with the Midas touch: After breaking the strike that crippled Venezuela, the country's leading independent shipowner come oil trader, Wilmer Ruperti, gives a rare insight to his rapidly expanding tanker empire.

EVERYTHING Wilmer Ruperti touches appears to turn to gold. This modern-day Midas has turned from shipping master to a leading player in Venezuela's billion-dollar oil business.

A year and a half ago he stood alone alongside the government during a strike that threatened to bankrupt Latin America's fourth largest economy.

His opposition to those that sought to bring down president Hugo Chavez broke a two-week blockade and allowed the country's state-owned oil company, PDVSA, to turn the oil taps back on and start rebuilding the economy.

It was a move that cemented his place doing business with the new PDVSA after all-but-one of the company's chartering team was dismissed along with 19,000 other striking employees.

As a trained master, he even offered his own services to take control of PDV Marina vessels that had been stranded for weeks due to the refusal of striking officers to move the vessels or to hand over the ships to under-certified personnel. In return, president Chavez awarded him with a medal, making him one of the few Venezuelan civilians to receive such an honour.

After coming to the rescue of PDVSA in its hour of need, his group of companies has experienced a super-stellar trajectory as it picks up business lost by those international operators deemed to have backed the strike.

Now boasting a fleet of seven ships, including three panamax newbuildings to be delivered over the next six months, Mr Ruperti is on the hunt for two VLCCs as he seeks to position himself at the heart of plans by president Chavez and his Argentine counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, to build a South American oil major, Petroamerica.

On arrival at his lavish offices in the heart of the most exclusive part of Caracas' business district, it is clear that the gamble of throwing his hat in with Chavez is paying dividends.

His group has offices on two floors of the city's most imposing office block in Altamira.

Mr Ruperti's own offices is dedicated to his shipowning arm, Suramericana de Transportes de Petroleo, and his oil trading activities as Venezuelan representative for Trafigura. On the next floor is his shipmanagement arm, Global Shipmanagement.

On arrival to meet the most revered and equally loathed man in Venezuelan shipping, it is difficult to know what to expect.

Those Venezuelans that lost their jobs following the strike and maintain their opposition to the Chavez administration have painted Ruperti as a mercenary - profiting like a modern-day pirate from a pragmatic alliance with the new PDVSA.

Others that take a less political line and have sought to maintain business links with PDVSA can only look on with envy the close contacts he has developed with the company's new managers.

As I arrive to find a heaving reception room filled with people there is little doubt about who the boss is.

A chain-smoking bear of a man with a voice like gravel is issuing instructions to those around him in a manner that leaves little room for any misunderstanding.

He is preparing to fly to Margarita Island to attend a meeting between the presidents of Venezuela and Argentina which will bring into play a wide-ranging trade agreement including shipbuilding and repair contracts and does not want to be late.

After being warmly welcomed into his office, he begins by proclaiming himself nothing more than a businessman, but, like most conversations in Venezuela, talk soon turns to politics and his role in breaking the strike.

"I didn't agree [with the strike] because PDVSA people are not politicians and I disagreed that the major industry of Venezuela was on strike because it was affecting the people in Venezuela. They lost $ 7bn because of that strike. They [PDVSA] are not politicians," says Mr Ruperti.

"So in the end I was against the strike. I tried to convince the seafarers not to join the strike and after they decided not to overthrow it, I put in vessels to help get the business back going," he says.

To get ships calling in Venezuelan ports he used his close contacts with shipping tanker operators such as Novoship, the owner of the Marshall Chuykov, which was the first vessel to call at a PDVSA terminal, and his own vessel, the General Zamora, a panamax product tanker acquired in 1998.

At this stage, our meeting is interrupted by a regular call to one of the two mobiles on his desk, allowing me to take in the ornate gold ornaments, brochures for public schools in England and leather bound furniture that decorate his office.

Clearly being apolitical is paying handsomely for some under the Chavez special brand of socialist revolution.

After Mr Ruperti has finished making his feelings perfectly clear to a broker on exactly where he wants his ship, the conversation soon returns to politics and the country's future.

The country is gripped by a popular referendum scheduled on Sunday designed to determine the future of Chavez and control of the state-owned oil giant, PDVSA.

"I think the president is going to be re-elected. That is the best thing that can happen in Venezuela. If the president doesn't continue, Venezuela will be facing many problems after 2006," he says. His backing for the Venezuelan president rests in their shared commitment to the merchant marine, he says.

"For me, a shipowner can not be political because it's business. I am with the president because he's the only politician who has protected the merchant marine," he says.

Another area where Chavez' policy is good for Mr Ruperti's business, he explains, is in the more international approach being adopted by PDVSA.

"The president of Venezuela is trying to integrate South America, and one of the easy ways to do that is going to be by having vessels," he says.

The declaration of Porlomar, Margarita signed between presidents Kirchner and Chavez at the end of last month was the first step towards achieving a new oil-based alliance in the region. Caribbean countries are looking to duplicate similar accords with PDVSA.

"I am trying to make the most of this. For the first time in the history of Venezuela, you have a private shipowner," he says.

"The government has been very proactive to have shipowners with Venezuelan flag vessels. So I am making the most of that, but never to compete with PDV Marina. I see it as an opportunity build a company in Venezuela. I think the right strategy is to sell its [PDVSA] oil in cost, insurance and freight business. I try to tell the government that this is the best way."

By taking control of the delivery of its crude, he says, Venezuela's merchant marine could grow in the same way as Japanese owners did decades earlier.

"Selling CIF and buying free on board - it is how the Japanese started to grow when they were in dry bulk."

With the ageing PDV Marina employed mainly in the cabotage trade or under fixed contracts with the company's US refining arm, Citgo, selling its crude CIF would present great opportunities for enterprising owners and brokers such as Mr Ruperti.

Already making millions trading his vessels on the spot market, largely in the caribbean market picking up the majority of PDVSA trades in the region, Mr Ruperti is building for an even bigger future.

"The caribbean and central America is basically being supplied by Venezuela. Venezuelan owners should have the business there," he says.

"With Petrocaribe and Petroamerica, it is going to be a good opportunity for a shipowner in Latin America. If the business is going to become more international then it is going to be good for the country to have a shipowner."

The two additional VLCCs, it seems, are just a small part of this master's plan. "I am not in a 100 m race. I am running a 40 km race," he says.

The race started in 1987 as a master of LPG tankers for Mariven, one of the predecessors to PDVSA, before taking him to Caracas to work at the head office. From there he was sent to England to study a masters in shipping and finance at Plymouth Polytechnic in 1989. It was there, he argues, that he was given the skills required to make the leap from master to shipowner.

From Plymouth he returned to Venezuela to work for PDVSA before leaving two years later to join Sonar Charters, the country's leading tanker broker company. After leaving Sonar, he established his own broking company, Nautika. The company's success in fixing a lucrative multi-ship time charter between Novoship and PDVSA in 1997 resulted in an investigation into allegations of corruption in the company's charter division.

Mr Ruperti looks back on the investigation with disdain. "I had a big problem at that time after the competition tried to do away with me," he says. "They tried to screw me. They tried to screw some people, very honest people, and at the end I was $ 2,000 below the market," he says.

Soon after he moved into ownership came with a 50-50 joint venture with Sargeant Marine to buy the panamax vessel, Amity. He acquired the other 50% at the end of last year and renamed the ship Corcovado.

Following the Amity, came the General Zamora, the Bahia de Pozuelos and the Aloro and the triple panamax order placed with Chinese shipyard, Hudong. He also owns two bunker vessels and is building up a healthy third-party shipmanagement business amidst the few remaining Venezuela-flagged vessels.

"Here in Venezuela the only shipowner - serious shipowner - is me. There used to be Tsakos and another Belgian guy. There are bunkering vessels but no more."

This master with the Midas touch gives the impression that in Venezuela it won't be long before he is in a league on his own.

2004 Lloyd's List International