Meet Rafaela Aponte The World’s Richest Self-Made Woman (Forbes)
Rafaela Aponte, a 78-year-old shipping mogul, and her husband Gianluigi experienced a remarkable surge in their wealth over the past year, with a combined increase of $46 billion. This remarkable boost catapulted Rafaela to the position of the highest-ranking female founder in history.
The significant transformation in the shipping industry began in January 2022, amidst the mounting stacks of containers at the congested ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the busiest ports in the United States. At this time, a pivotal shift occurred as the Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) surpassed the publicly traded Danish behemoth Maersk to become the world’s largest shipping line in terms of container capacity.
From their headquarters in Geneva, MSC exercises control over a fleet of 730 ships capable of transporting over 4.8 million containers, according to shipping database Alphaliner. While the company does not disclose its financials, shipping expert John McCown approximates that MSC generated earnings surpassing $28 billion in 2022, placing it ahead of Maersk. Unlike its Danish competitor, MSC operates as a private company, jointly owned by the dynamic husband-and-wife team of Gianluigi and Rafaela Aponte.
Since 2019, Rafaela Apontehave enjoyed the fruits of a booming shipping industry, fueled by the pandemic, which has significantly increased the wealth of shipping dynasties worldwide. The majority of their wealth is tied up in MSC, which not only operates container shipping services but also owns other businesses such as MSC Cruises, Medlog (an inland cargo business), and Terminal Investment Limited (a container terminal operator).
According to Forbes, Gianluigi and Rafaela’s individual net worth has skyrocketed to $31.2 billion each, a substantial increase from $8.4 billion apiece in 2022. This remarkable surge in wealth places Rafaela, who co-founded MSC with Gianluigi in 1970, as the wealthiest self-made woman globally, thanks to her 50% stake in MSC. She holds the impressive rank of number 43 on Forbes’ 2023 World’s Billionaires List and appears to be the highest-ranked female founder in history.
Out of the 337 women billionaires, only 96 have built their fortunes independently, with some like Aponte establishing businesses alongside their husbands or brothers. The remaining 241 women inherited at least a portion of their wealth. Self-made women account for just 3.6% of the world’s billionaires, a figure that has more than doubled over the past twelve years.
The Apontes’ journey began when they first crossed paths during a boat trip to the picturesque Italian island of Capri in the 1960s. Gianluigi, a ship captain, was ferrying tourists from Naples, his birthplace and a port city, to the nearby island resorts. Rafaela, on the other hand, was the daughter of an Israeli banker residing in Switzerland. Gianluigi eventually joined her in Geneva, where he secured a position as a broker at a Swiss bank.
In 1970, Gianluigi left his banking job, and with a $200,000 loan, the couple purchased their first ship, a small cargo vessel named Patricia. They founded MSC in Geneva that same year and expanded their operations by acquiring secondhand ships and targeting less congested routes, particularly those between Europe and Africa. Their second ship was aptly named Rafaela, and by 1979, they had amassed a fleet of 17 vessels.
Over the years, MSC has experienced significant growth and has become one of the largest shipping firms globally. In 1988, they expanded their operations to include cruises by acquiring the liner Monterey. This move proved to be successful, as MSC Cruises now competes with publicly traded rivals Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian as one of the largest cruise firms in the world. During the same year, MSC also established Medlog, an inland logistics firm. In 2000, they further diversified their business by venturing into container terminals and establishing Terminal Investment Limited. In the 2010s, MSC expanded its presence in the Mediterranean by entering the passenger ferry market.
As container shipping rates surged between 2020 and 2022, Rafaela Aponte’s MSC experienced a significant increase in revenue. Leveraging this financial strength, the Aponte family, who still maintain tight control over the company, decided to make strategic acquisitions. In June 2021, they repurchased a 10% stake in Terminal Investment Limited for $1.6 billion, two years after selling a minority stake to Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. Just three months later, they acquired a 74% stake in the publicly traded Brazilian logistics firm Log-In Logistica for $314 million. Another three months passed before their largest deal in years materialized.
They made a $6.4 billion bid to acquire the African transportation and logistics operations of the French conglomerate Bolloré Group, led by billionaire Vincent Bolloré. The deal was eventually finalized in December 2022, with MSC investing $6 billion to acquire Bolloré Africa Logistics.
Despite not holding a formal position in the MSC empire, Rafaela, along with her husband Gianluigi, plays a crucial role in the company’s growth. They are the sole shareholders, each with a 50% stake in the company. Gianluigi serves as the firm’s executive chairman, while their son Diego holds the position of president. Rafaela contributes to the company by serving on the board of the MSC Foundation and overseeing the decoration of cruise ships.
According to Dominique Denat, who provided the Aponte family with the loan to purchase their first ship in 1970, Rafaela’s involvement has been instrumental in the company’s success. Denat stated in a 2022 interview with Swiss newspaper Le Matin, “Her role is decisive. She has a very strong character.”