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Shipping firms eye consolidation to spur growth

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German shipping company Hapag-Lloyd’s merger talks with Chile’s Vapores may herald further deals with other peers, its chief executive said, as the group strives to catch up with the industry’s top three players.

“The aim should be to create something bigger by merging several companies,” Michael Behrendt told Reuters. “It is my goal that we can catch up with the top three. I may not be able to achieve this during my time, but perhaps make a step in that direction,” he added.

Hapag-Lloyd, the world’s No.5 container shipping company by capacity, last week said it was in talks to merge with smaller Chilean shipper Compania Sud Americana de Vapores, adding that no agreement had yet been reached.

Shipping groups have been struggling through the worst slump on record, with the weak global economy, oversupply of vessels and low freight rates highlighting the benefits of consolidation in the sector.

It is not the first time Hapag-Lloyd, burdened by 2.35 billion euros ($3.22 billion) of net debt and a nine-month net loss of 56 million euros, has sought expansion through large mergers, though deals have proved elusive.

Last year it held talks with German peer Hamburg-Sud over a deal that would have created the world’s No.4 player behind Maersk Line, part of Danish conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk , Switzerland’s Mediterranean Shipping Company and France’s CMA CGM, but the parties were unable to agree terms.

Six years ago a potential merger with Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines fell through after wrangling over who would own the majority stake.

Behrendt also said that Hapag-Lloyd, in which German travel and tourism group TUI AG owns a 22 percent stake, is ready to launch an initial public offering (IPO) when market conditions improve.

TUI’s Chief Executive Friedrich Joussen in September said the group would offload its Hapag-Lloyd stake via an IPO as soon as market conditions allowed, adding that such a step is unlikely before autumn 2014.

The city of Hamburg holds 36.9 percent of Hapag-Lloyd, while Klaus Michael Kuehne, who also controls Swiss logistics group Kuehne & Nagel, owns 28.2 percent.

Reporting by Jan Schwartz; Writing by Christoph Steitz; Editing by David Goodman (C) Reuters 2013.

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