#84 Aristotle Onassis

Summary Notes


In the biography "Onassis" by Willie Frischar, the extraordinary life of Aristotle Onassis is dissected, revealing a man whose entrepreneurial spirit and relentless pursuit of progress led him from a young, sports-focused boy to a multi-millionaire shipping magnate. Onassis' early exposure to the chaos of war cultivated traits that translated into a business acumen marked by speed, adaptability, and a penchant for making the inconvenient convenient. Despite facing xenophobia and legal battles in the United States, Onassis' innovative approach to ship financing revolutionized the industry, allowing him to amass a fortune and wield control over a fleet valued between $100 and $200 million. His story is one of triumph over adversity, strategic ingenuity, and the ability to thrive amidst the volatile fluctuations of the shipping market.

Summary Notes

Acceleration of Progress and Control of Assets

  • Onassis is recognized for his ability to accelerate progress in his business ventures.
  • He maintains control over his assets through ownership of stocks in various corporations.
  • Onassis's financial interests are vast, with an estimated value of $500 million for his fleet alone.
  • His business empire encompasses 85 companies in over ten countries, including real estate and subsidiary enterprises.
  • Onassis's control extends to operations on land, sea, and air, with a significant workforce under his command.

"Onassis is not an officer of any corporation, domestic or foreign, but an owner holding stocks of corporations which give him control."

The quote highlights Onassis's strategic approach to maintaining control over his business empire by owning stocks rather than holding official positions within the corporations. This ownership provides him with the authority and influence he needs to steer his enterprises.

Entrepreneurial Approach to Business and Life

  • Onassis operates within a "controlled chaos," which may have roots in his experiences during wartime.
  • His business structure and approach reflect his ability to navigate complex situations with an entrepreneurial mindset.
  • Onassis values speed and flexibility, focusing on the most pressing issues and adapting his plans accordingly.
  • His travel patterns are unpredictable, often changing at the last minute based on the needs of his business.

"He didn't have a strict schedule. He just said, what's the most important problem I need to solve? And he'd dedicate that, and then he'd move on."

This quote exemplifies Onassis's prioritization of tasks and his ability to remain agile in his decision-making process, focusing on the most valuable activities at any given time.

Onassis's Personality and Modus Operandi

  • Onassis dislikes having an entourage and values his independence and dignity.
  • He travels light, with clothing and essentials waiting for him at his various destinations.
  • His approach to travel and business is characterized by a high degree of mobility and spontaneity.

"Unlike other tycoons, he dislikes an entourage... invariably, he travels alone and without luggage."

The quote describes Onassis's unique approach to his personal and professional life, emphasizing his preference for simplicity and efficiency when traveling and conducting business.

Onassis's Knowledge and Interest in History

  • Onassis has a deep interest in history, geography, and mythology, which informs his worldview and business strategies.
  • His knowledge of political and military history is particularly relevant to his shipping business, which is affected by global events.
  • Onassis's friendship with Winston Churchill is based on their shared love of history, which adds a unique aspect to his life story.

"This canal, he explains everything. Greek launches him on an historical, geographical, ethnographical lecture interspersed with items of topography and mythology."

This quote shows Onassis's passion for history and his ability to engage in detailed discussions about various subjects, reflecting his well-rounded knowledge and intellectual curiosity.

Onassis's Early Life and the Impact of War

  • Onassis's early life was marked by personal tragedies, including the death of his mother and the Greco-Turkish War.
  • The chaos and violence of the war forced Onassis to mature quickly and take on significant responsibilities at a young age.
  • Onassis's entrepreneurial skills emerged as he navigated the war-torn environment, finding ways to survive and protect his family.

"Aristotle Onassis was still four months away from his 17th birthday, and he went to sleep knowing that this was the last day of his youth."

The quote captures a pivotal moment in Onassis's life where he transitions from childhood to adulthood due to the harsh realities of war, setting the stage for his future resilience and business acumen.

Onassis's Escape and Survival

  • Onassis's survival during the war is due to his resourcefulness and the help of key individuals, including a U.S. vice consul.
  • He managed to escape a war zone by disguising himself as an American sailor and boarding a U.S. destroyer.
  • Onassis's experience during the war exemplifies his ability to adapt, think on his feet, and leverage relationships for survival.

"He produced an American sailor's uniform for the youngster to put on. Took him to the harbor and put him aboard a US destroyer."

The quote details the dramatic escape of Onassis from imminent danger, showcasing his quick thinking and the crucial assistance he received from the U.S. vice consul, which ultimately saved his life.

Early Life and Ambition of Aristotle Onassis

  • Aristotle Onassis faced humiliation when he had to bribe for his father's release, which sparked his ambition.
  • His family criticized him for spending money on the bribe, but he felt it was necessary insurance due to the political instability.
  • This experience led Aristotle to seek freedom and control over his life, propelling him into entrepreneurship.
  • Aristotle decided to emigrate with only $250, setting the stage for his future success.

"I shall keep no more than $250 of what's left and I'll emigrate." This quote shows Aristotle's decision to take control of his life by leaving his past behind and starting anew with a small amount of money.

Entrepreneurial Mindset and Control

  • Aristotle desired to remain his own master, which is a common trait among entrepreneurs seeking control over their lives.
  • Control over one's life often translates to control over financial independence and time management.
  • Aristotle's ambition was fueled by his desire for autonomy, especially after being able to survive on his own for a few months.

"And it's hard to have control over your own life if you don't control how you make money in the world as a result of that." This quote emphasizes the importance of financial independence in having control over one's life, a key motivator for Aristotle's entrepreneurial pursuits.

The Value of Perseverance and Adaptability

  • Aristotle learned the importance of adaptability and perseverance during his journey to Argentina.
  • He managed to improve his living conditions on the ship by using personal persuasion and a small bribe.
  • His first job paid only $0.25 an hour, but he quickly sought opportunities for overtime and advancement.
  • Aristotle's relentless resourcefulness is highlighted as a key trait for entrepreneurs.

"You can change it. You can influence it. You can build things that other people can use." This quote from Steve Jobs, which Willie Frischauer cites, encapsulates the belief that life is malleable and that individuals have the power to shape their own destinies, a philosophy that Aristotle embodied.

Breaking Into the Tobacco Industry

  • Aristotle's first business venture was selling tobacco, which he initially struggled with due to a lack of interest from buyers.
  • He employed an unusual sales technique by persistently showing up at the managing director's office and home, eventually leading to a successful $10,000 sale.
  • This experience taught him the importance of approaching problems from a different angle and the power of persistence.

"I'm trying to sell tobacco, was a simple answer." Aristotle's straightforward approach and persistence paid off, leading to his breakthrough in the tobacco industry.

Financial Prudence and Expansion

  • Despite early successes, Aristotle maintained a frugal lifestyle, saving money and continuing his day job.
  • He experienced failure with a cigarette manufacturing venture targeted at women, which taught him to cut losses when necessary.
  • By age 23, Aristotle had amassed a profit of $1 million through his ventures.

"He was already worth a few thousand dollars, but was far too cautious to give up his bread and butter job at the telephone exchange or leave his boarding house for more luxurious quarters." This quote illustrates Aristotle's cautious approach to finances, ensuring he had a stable income and low expenses even as his wealth grew.

Continuous Learning and Growth

  • Aristotle invested in his education, learning languages and skills to further his business acumen.
  • He understood the value of stress in personal growth and avoided seeking comfort, which can lead to stagnation.
  • His responsibilities at a young age shaped his resilience and determination.

"At a very young age, I had the responsibilities of a chief of a tribe." This quote reflects Aristotle's early acceptance of responsibility and the pressure it placed on him to succeed, contributing to his growth as an entrepreneur.

Introduction to the Shipping Industry

  • Aristotle's role as a consul exposed him to the shipping industry during the Great Depression.
  • He dealt with various challenges in the industry, which piqued his interest and led to his future success in shipping.
  • The economic crisis provided an opportunity for Aristotle to observe the industry and identify potential areas for investment.

"It was really at this moment he assumed office as consul that a ship owner was born." This quote marks the pivotal moment when Aristotle's interest in the shipping industry began, setting the stage for his later success in this field.

Economic Cycles in Business

  • Business involves navigating through economic growth and contractions.
  • Successful businesses are able to weather economic downturns.
  • Recessions are seen as a normal part of the business cycle.

"It's all part of the game. I think it's a very healthy way to think about it. Not, oh, my God, this is the end of the world. People jumping off of buildings. It's, oh, this is normal. This happens all the time."

This quote emphasizes the importance of viewing economic fluctuations as expected events in business, rather than catastrophes.

Strategic Asset Acquisition

  • Aristotle Onassis's approach to entering the shipping industry during an economic depression was innovative.
  • He visualized the value of ships as assets, particularly during financial downturns.
  • Onassis saw the potential in purchasing ships at a fraction of their original cost to use as floating storage.
  • He recognized the risk of operating ships but also the safety in acquiring them cheaply.

"A ten year old ship was good for another decade, would be a floating warehouse for the price of a Rolls Royce."

The quote illustrates Onassis's strategic thinking in acquiring ships at low cost for their storage value, likening the investment to buying a luxury car.

Flag of Convenience Strategy

  • Onassis used the flag of convenience strategy to avoid restrictive practices and save on costs.
  • Registering ships under different flags can offer economic and operational advantages.
  • Onassis switched a ship's registration from Greek to Panamanian to circumvent restrictive regulations.

"With one stroke of his pen, Aristotle Onassis not only freed himself of the restrictive practices which threatened to delay his ship for the first time, he availed himself of the considerable advantages of Panamanian facilities."

This quote describes how Onassis swiftly changed a ship's registration to benefit from more favorable Panamanian laws, demonstrating his adaptability and strategic foresight.

Expansion into the Tanker Business

  • Onassis expanded into the tanker business, recognizing the lucrative potential despite the risks.
  • He built larger tankers than the standard at the time, understanding the economic benefits.
  • His expansion into tankers was part of a meticulous investigation and strategic decision-making process.

"Most tankers at this time were 9000 tons. He decided to make 15,000 tons."

The quote shows Onassis's ambition to innovate within the tanker industry by building larger vessels than were common at the time, highlighting his forward-thinking approach.

Adapting to War and Economic Challenges

  • Onassis faced setbacks due to war, which immobilized his fleet.
  • He adapted by focusing on American-based ships and reorganizing his tobacco business.
  • Onassis's resourcefulness allowed him to navigate through the challenges posed by war.

"Do what you can with what you have, and problems are just opportunity and workloads."

This quote reflects Onassis's philosophy of making the best out of difficult situations, viewing problems as opportunities rather than obstacles.

Decentralized Organizational Structure

  • Onassis preferred a decentralized organizational structure to avoid government interference and maintain flexibility.
  • He avoided taking charge of a large company that would attract government attention.

"Onassis felt that he might be taking charge of a company which was so big that the government could not be indifferent to its future and the prospects of thousands of employees."

The quote reveals Onassis's concerns about government interference in large companies and his preference for a decentralized structure that offers greater autonomy.

Innovative Shipping Finance

  • Onassis created a new financing model by securing contracts with oil companies before approaching banks for loans.
  • He used the security of these contracts to obtain the necessary capital to expand his fleet.
  • His method revolutionized shipping finance and opened up new investment opportunities for financial institutions.

"A ship of 30,000 tons made $120,000 a month. A five year charter amounted to 60 monthly installments."

This quote explains the financial logic behind Onassis's strategy, showing how securing long-term contracts provided a predictable and substantial revenue stream.

Belief in the Inevitable

  • Onassis believed in the inevitability of larger ships for the future of transportation.
  • He remained confident in his vision despite opposition, leading to significant advancements in ship size.

"Aristotle Onassis had not the slightest intention of submitting to this defeatist view. For more than a decade, he had been obsessed with the idea that the future of transportation was in bigger and bigger ships."

The quote conveys Onassis's conviction in the progression towards larger ships, demonstrating his ability to envision and work towards future industry trends.

Human Relations in Business

  • Onassis understood the value of maintaining good human relations in business.
  • He made strategic decisions to build long-term relationships and goodwill.

"Though he could be pugnacious and persistent, Onassis had little of the hard faced, unyielding tycoon in his mental makeup. Besides, acceding to reasonable requests where others were likely refused seemed a sound investment in human relations, which made many friends."

This quote illustrates Onassis's approach to business dealings, where he balanced assertiveness with a willingness to build positive relationships, recognizing the long-term benefits of such an approach.

Negotiation and Long-Term Relationships

  • Willie Frischauer emphasizes the importance of leaving something on the table during negotiations to maintain long-term business relationships.
  • He discusses the value of compounding relationships over short-term gains.
  • The approach is contrasted with one-off transactions focused on maximizing immediate profits.

"He makes sure everybody walks away with something because he's not doing one off transactions where he's just going to take everything he can, realizes, hey, humans, the benefit of a compounding relationship in business over a long period of time is going to make a lot more than me thinking from the short term, just trying to make maybe 5% or 10% more."

This quote reflects the strategic approach of valuing long-term business relationships over short-term profits, suggesting that the cumulative benefits of ongoing partnerships can outweigh the immediate gains from aggressive negotiation tactics.

Organizational Structure and Decision-Making

  • Berkshire Hathaway's organizational structure is described, highlighting its decentralized nature.
  • Willie Frischauer explains that while routine tasks are delegated, critical decisions regarding investments and compensation are centrally controlled.
  • The approach mirrors the practices of Aristotle Onassis, who focused on the highest value activities and reserved key decisions for himself.

"He was already shredding the load of routine work, but reserving decisions strictly for himself."

The quote illustrates the practice of delegating routine work while keeping strategic decision-making at the top level, ensuring that the most critical business decisions are made by those with the most insight and experience.

Aristotle Onassis's Approach to Business

  • Onassis's curiosity, thoroughness, and decisiveness in business are highlighted.
  • Willie Frischauer describes how Onassis would explore, ask questions, and master subjects before making quick decisions.
  • Onassis's fame and its drawbacks are discussed, alongside the financial performance of his companies.

"Onassis is a curious man. He explores, asks a hundred questions, orders a report, asks more questions arising from it. Never accepts a statement without checking. He masters the most complicated subject, then makes his decision quickly."

This quote captures Onassis's methodical approach to understanding his business ventures deeply before making decisions, demonstrating the value he placed on knowledge and diligence.

  • Willie Frischauer talks about Onassis's legal challenges and his views on the intertwining of show business and politics.
  • He mentions the indictment Onassis faced and the corruption within maritime commissions.
  • The complexities of Onassis's legal and political entanglements are explored, including his dealings with the Saudi Arabian oil business.

"Aristotle makes some mistakes. He brings this on some degree on himself at the time."

The quote acknowledges that Onassis faced legal challenges partly due to his actions, providing a nuanced view of his business practices and the legal landscape he navigated.

Shipping Industry Volatility

  • Willie Frischauer discusses the extreme volatility in the shipping industry and how it affected Onassis's wealth.
  • The impact of events such as the Suez Crisis on tanker values and freight rates is detailed.
  • Onassis's ability to capitalize on industry fluctuations is emphasized.

"Volatility obviously can make a fortune and can destroy a fortune, right? But it's very hard to not become wealthy without some form of volatility."

The quote emphasizes the role of volatility in wealth creation within the shipping industry, highlighting the risks and opportunities that come with market fluctuations.

Personal Relationships and Rivalries

  • The complex personal relationships within the shipping industry, particularly between Onassis and his rivals, are discussed.
  • Willie Frischauer touches on the feud between Onassis and Stravos Niarchos, as well as their familial ties through marriage.
  • The dynamic between competition and personal interaction among shipping magnates is explored.

"In business, we cut each other's throats, but now and then we sit around the same table and behave for the sake of the ladies."

This quote illustrates the blend of intense business rivalry and social decorum that characterized the relationships between Onassis and his competitors.

Legacy and the Unpredictability of Life

  • Willie Frischauer reflects on Onassis's life, including personal tragedies and his outlook at the age of 62.
  • The unpredictability of life and the importance of living fully are underscored.
  • Onassis's intention to continue pursuing new ventures late in life serves as a reminder of the value of ambition and resilience.

"Aristotle, Socrates Onassis was setting out to show that life begins at 62."

The quote conveys Onassis's forward-looking mindset and his desire to continue achieving and growing, despite his age and the challenges he faced.

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