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Home » The Human Element » Jacques Saadé: Founder of CMA CGM and Immigrant

Jacques Saadé: Founder of CMA CGM and Immigrant

PortandTerminal.com, May 31, 2019

Jacques Saadé, Founder and Chairman of CGM, the world’s third largest container line, was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1937. When he died in 2018, aged 81, in his adopted country of France, Saadé left his beloved creation, CMA CGM, a global powerhouse in shipping. CMA CGM today is present in 160 countries, serving 420 ports, with 505 vessels and a capacity of 2.4 million TEU. The group employs 34,500 people in the world. Just before his death in 2018, Saadé’s fortune was estimated at almost $US 7 billion, according to Forbes.

Early Years

Beirut, Lebanon in the 1930’s

Jacques R. Saadé was born on 7 February 1937 into a prosperous, Christian Orthodox family in Beirut, Lebanon.

Saadé’s father was a successful businessman with factories in neighbouring Syria producing tobacco, cotton, olive oil, ice and more. Eager to see Jacques, his eldest son, succeed in his footsteps he encouraged Saadé to attend the prestigious London School of Economics.

Department of Economics and the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics

In 1958, one year after his graduation from the London School of Economics, Saadé father passed away leaving him in charge of the family business, Rodolphe Saadé and Co. Jacques was just 21 years old at the time.

New York Internship

Photo: Malcom McLean’s first container vessel, a converted oil tanker from WW2

On the advice of his father, after his graduation Jacques did an internship in New York at the maritime company Isbrandtsen to learn about shipping.

It was during this time that he discovered containerization as a shipping concept. Containerization for maritime cargo got its breakthrough in 1956 thanks to Malcolm McLean. In 1957 McLean’s first container ship the Gateway City began regular service between New York, Florida, and Texas. The point was not lost on young Jacques Saadé who would have been aware of this shipping innovation while in New York doing his maritime internship.

Civil war and immigration to France

Lebanon’s civil war lasted 15 years and claimed 150,000 lives

In 1975 civil war broke out in Lebanon and lasted until 1990. An estimated 150,000 Lebanese were killed. Similar to the ongoing war in Syria today, the Lebanese civil war caused a mass exodus of over 1 million Lebanese people fleeing the conflict for other countries.

In 1978, Saadé, then 41 years of age, immigrated from Beirut to Marseille, France with his young wife Naila and their children, including Rodolphe, then only 5 years old. All three of the Saadé’s children, Tanya, Rodolphe and Jacques Jr. would later take on leadership roles at CMA CGM. Young Rodolphe would later succeed his father as the company’s CEO.

Founding of Compagnie Maritime D’affrètement (CMA)

Photo: Ville dÓrient was CMA’s first vessel

Jacques Saadé and his brother Johnny founded CMA shortly after immigrating to France in 1978. The company initially operated services between Marseille, Beirut and Syria.

In 1983, Saadé made the decision to cross the Suez Canal and extended the company lines to Mina-Qaboos in the Gulf of Oman. Jacques was trying to prepare CMA for the “Far East” to gain a competitive advantage over other carriers.

In 1986, after noticing that volumes from Asia were constantly on the rise, he decided to extend CMA’s shipping lines to Asia (including Japan). He later traveled to China himself in 1992 to open the first regional office in Shanghai.

In 1996 Jacques Saadé acquired CGM (Compagnie Générale Maritime) following privatization.

Next generation of leadership at CMA CGM

Rodolphe Saadé, Chief Executive Officer, CMA CGM S.A. 

In 2017, Jacques Saadé appointed his eldest son, Rodolphe Saadé, Chief Executive Officer of the CMA CGM Group. Later that year, Jacques Saadé appointed Rodolphe Saadé Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the CMA CGM Group while he was himself appointed Founder Chairman. Jacques Saadé passed away shortly thereafter in 2018.

Jacques Saadé’s wife Naila, and the other two children — Tanya and Jacques Junior — have important management roles in the company as well and all are seen as modest and hard working.

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