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How a few shippers can make headway by trusting

Greeks have always been the world's go-betweens, the traders and shippers who bred mistrust simply because they were middlemen. In 1977, however, five Greek shipowners got together and began to think otherwise.

"We havem to get Greek shipowners together," said George E. Economakis, a founding member of Hellenic Marine Consortium (HMC). Pushed together by necessity to cut operating expenses, the consortium's members may be opening a new chapter in Greek shipping.

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"Most shipowners are totally selfish, running very individualistic enterprises," Mr. Economakis says. "In fact, it's extremely difficult to get any Greeks to cooperate."

In the best Greek tradition of rampant individualism, the nation's 1,000 or so shipping magnates unusually trust only close friends or relatives with their companies' inner workings. But in just three years, Hellenic Marine has been able to attract 29 shipowners to its cooperative. By grouping, the owners can buy fuel and equipment wholesale, trade advice on new technology, and attract more customers.

Best of all, the members can recruit increasingly scarce Greek crew more cheaply. HMC opened an attractive storefront office on the wharf of Piraeus, near Athens, and now it jointly sponsore recruiters in some Greek villages. Crew are treated better than average. "This is our advantage in Greece -- good and reliable crew," says Economakis, HMC's managing director.

Other shipowners are keeping an eye on Hellenic's apparent success. "HMC is the first big move to cut the overhead for the shipowner's rising costs," says Aristomenis Karageorgis, president ot the Union of Greek Shipowners. "It has been very successful and may be repeated."

The members' savings -- and short record of cooperation -- have led them to consider building a cement plant and buying a shipyard together. HMC had already opened a tourist office, an extension of the $4 million in air tickets bought by the owners to transport crew to remote ships.

HMC, however, is not without its internal strains. Already one member has dropped out. "For 20 Greeks to agree is difficult," says Economakis. "For 1, 000, it would be impossible."

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