MICHAEL MARK XYLAS (1899-1982)
Michael M. Xylas finished studying at the historic Gymnasium of Chios (founded 1792) and immediately enrolled in the Law School of Athens University. His studies, however, were immediately interrupted by the outbreak of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) throughout which he served on the battleship AVEROFF. He would later recall that when he found time, he read his law books sitting by one of the ship’s chimneys. He was still in his sailor’s uniform when he took his diploma examination, passing with credit (8/10).
In 1923, during a short trip to Chios, he met Eleftherios Venizelos who was visiting the island at that time. So impressed was the eminent politician with the young lawyer’s knowledge and personality, that he asked him to join him in politics. Michael M. Xylas although honoured, did not accept this proposal, saying that he came from a shipping family and felt that his future had to be bound to the sea. That same year, he set up a law office in Athens with his friend from the island of Oinousses, George Lygnos, and thereby commenced a cooperation that would see the two friends practicing together for 27 years, specialising in maritime law. This lively office saw the apprenticeship of many young lawyers including Costas M. Lemos and Markos J. Lyras, both of whom achieved great success in the shipping industry.
In his capacity as lawyer, Michael M. Xylas represented the interests of a fellow Kardamylian, Panagiotis M. Poutous, a self-made shipowner who had previously worked as chief engineer on merchant ships. During the several visits to this client’s house, where he lived with his sisters Matrona and Irene, Michael M. Xylas met Stamatia C. Poutous, his client’s niece, who was living there while studying in the Philosophical School of the University of Athens. Their acquaintance led to a happy marriage in 1931 after her graduation, and the birth of their only daughter, Matrona, four years later.
Thus, Michael M. Xylas continued a strong collaboration with Panagiotis Poutous and in 1936 became his business partner, acquiring 50% of the steamship MICHALIS POUTOUS, renaming her ARIS. It did not take long before Xylas, fascinated by the shipping world, developed an ever-growing influence within it. The many articles published in various maritime publications of the time testify to this.
ARIS was managed from an office located at 25 Tsamadou Street, Piraeus and a newly established office in London, John Livanos & Sons Ltd., belonging to the Kardamylian shipowner John M. Livanos, who were appointed as her agents. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Michael M. Xylas acquired, in partnership with Markos Lyras, a small cargo steamer from John Vardavas, the Panamanian-flag FROSSOULA. However both, the ARIS and the FROSSOULA, were torpedoed during WWII, while Greece was still neutral. In the meantime, Michael M. Xylas had relocated his offices to 44 Notara Street, Piraeus.
In 1946, after the end of WWII and while Greece was experiencing a devastating Civil War, Michael M. Xylas went to London and his wife Stamatia and daughter Matrona joined him the following year. From that moment onwards, the British capital became his base of activity. Thanks to the perfectionism and integrity which characterised all his business initiatives, his work, already recognised in Greece, also became widely acknowledged in British circles.
His post-war return to shipowning began with a bold venture, the acquisition of the 1918-built large passenger ship ΑΒΑ from the long established British enterprise Elder Dempster. The liner had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty at the outbreak of the War to be used as a hospital ship, and to this end she offered invaluable service before being returned to her owners on 7th January 1947. On 1st May 1947, she was acquired for £55,000 by Bawtry Steamship Co. Ltd., an enterprise controlled by John Livanos, Panagiotis Poutous and Michael M. Xylas, renaming her MATRONA and registering her in Liverpool. The ship was scheduled to be employed in a liner service to South America, in order to meet the ever-increasing flow of migrants of the time. Unfortunately, on 31st October 1947, during her repairs at Bidson Docks in Birkenhead, UK, she capsized as a result of a wrong estimation by her repairers, who removed the permanent pig iron ballast that had been originally installed for the stability of the ship. After many efforts, the ship was raised on 8th June 1948. However, the damage was so severe that she was declared a compromise total loss and was eventually sold for demolition.
The unfortunate capsizing of the MATRONA did not discourage Michael M. Xylas, who continued to establish his fleet. Near the end of 1947, he acquired from Michael A. Embiricos the cargo ship FRYXOS II, a 1919-built vessel that was delivered in early February 1948 in Rotterdam and renamed PROSPERO, flying the Panamanian flag. Soon after, Michael M. Xylas established Faros Shipping Co., Ltd., which began operating in 1949 based at 6 Βevis Marks, London EC3. Its directors were Michael M. Xylas, James R. Douglas and Thomas A. Leitch. The PROSPERO remained under the control of the Xylas Group until the end of 1953, when she was sold for demolition in Japan.
Initially, Faros undertook the management of a significant number of ships owned by various shipowners from Chios and Oinousses, shipowners such as Aristeidis Xilas, John Nikiforos and John Angelos, while at the same time serving as the starting point for the establishment of a number of important shipping enterprises. One example was the business of the Diamantis Lemos and Georgios Nikolos families, who had entrusted the representation of their ships to the Faros office from 1950 until 1962, when they founded their own independent establishment in London, under the trade name Diamantis Lemos Ltd.
In 1952 Panagiotis Poutous passed away and Michael M. Xylas undertook full responsibility for the increasingly prosperous family group on behalf of Panagiotis Poutous’ wife, Hara, and his daughters Kiki and Mary. In the following year, coinciding with the improving shipping market, the family acquired a Liberty ship which was named ALKIMOS and placed under the flag of Costa Rica until 1959, when she raised the Greek flag in response to the efforts of Constantinos Karamanlis’ administration to strengthen the Greek registry.
At that time, construction was underway for Michael M. Xylas’ first newbuilding programme, which concerned an order for a general cargo ship design to be built at John Readhead & Sons Ltd., South Shields, UK. The first ship was named ANAX, placed under the Liberian flag and delivered to her owners in March 1955. Three sister ships followed: the APOLLON in 1957, the ATLAS in 1958 and the ΑLEXANDROS in 1959. During the launching of the ΑLEXANDROS on 11th November 1958, Michael M. Xylas bravely attempted, with a hard-hitting and honest speech, to sound the alarm of the looming decline of the once supreme British shipbuilding industry. Earlier the same year, Alexandros Comninos, an energetic, versatile and highly educated man, became a member of the family by marrying Matrona, Xylas’ only daughter. The couple had three children together: Nicolas, born in 1959, Julianna in 1961 and Stamatia in 1963, before the marriage ended in 1975. Also in 1958, Michael M. Xylas’ nephew Anthony J. Xylas, second son of his older brother John, a lawyer born in 1921, married Kiki, elder daughter of the late Panagiotis Poutous, and started to represent the interests of the Poutous family.
Despite the severe crisis that had begun in the shipping market in 1957, Michael M. Xylas acquired two more ships towards the end of 1959, with a view to strengthening the fleet and improving the Faros office, which was gradually reducing its third party management activities. The first of these ships was the 1944-built Liberty PANAGOS, a Lyras family owned vessel that had been in lay up in Trieste since 1957. She was renamed AMAZON and placed under the Greek flag. The second was the 1941-built British CLINTONIA, acquired from Stag Line on 10th December for £62,500, renamed ASPIS and placed also under the Greek flag. It is worth noting that the main engine of the ASPIS had been changed in 1947 from coal-burning to oil-burning, at a total cost of £138,000. At the same time, three Liberian-flag newbuildings, the aforementioned ANAX, APOLLON and ATLAS, were re-registered to the Greek flag. From this point onwards, all Michael M. Xylas group ships were placed under the Greek flag.
During this period, Michael M. Xylas was elected to the Council of the Greek Shipping Co-operation Committee, where he would later serve as Vice Chairman. He also significantly contributed to the creation of the Hellenic War Risks Club, the first Greek mutual insurance organisation, established in 1961. Faros was among the ten founding offices of this important organisation for Greek shipping.
The following decade was marked by a series of notable changes in the group. Initially, it was considered necessary to set up an office in Piraeus, primarily centred on crewing, since up to that point this was managed by the Karagiannidis Brothers agency located in Akti Miaouli. As a result, Pyrsos Shipping Co. Ltd., based in 14 Vasileos Konstantinou, Piraeus, was established in 1960. It was headed by Anthony J. Xylas, whose colleagues included his elder brother Captain Mark J. Xylas, a former seafarer who had served on ships owned by the family for many years. This newly formed company went on to play a significant role in the operation of the group.
As Faros’ role as an agent of ships belonging to third parties was phased out (with the notable exception of those belonging to his nephews Anthony and Mark) the office was relocated to 32-38 Duke’s Place, London EC3. Meanwhile, Michael M. Xylas took the decision to reorganise the family fleet with an almost exclusive focus on a fast upcoming power in world shipbuilding, Japan. As a result, the 1953-built dry cargo ship GEORGE, which was acquired from Antonis Pappadakis in August 1964 at a cost of £226,000 and renamed ALKYONE, was his last second hand acquisition.
During the same month, Michael M. Xylas was one of the keynote speakers in the First Maritime Conference, held at a hotel in central Athens, an initiative of the Union of Greek Shipowners and the Greek Shipping Co-operation Committee, in the presence of King Constantine, the Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou and certain key members of his administration, as well as heads of other political parties in Greece. Michael M. Xylas’ speech, concentrating on Maritime Law as well as industry issues requiring immediate attention, concluded as follows:
“Maritime Legislation that’s fit for purpose is vital for the preservation of our already great Greek Merchant Marine and for its further development. As our Merchant Marine has managed to reach this level of progress and development without any further government assistance to the point where the Prime Minister himself has rightly called it ‘the glory of Greece’, it is not unreasonable for our Merchant Marine to require that its affairs continue to be governed by contemporary legislation that’s fit for purpose.”.
In the meantime, Michael M. Xylas and his wife Stamatia had taken the initiative to renovate the dilapidated Primary School in Kardamyla, where Michael M. Xylas had studied while Chios was still under Turkish rule, turning it into a Cultural Centre. The inauguration of the Centre took place on 17th October 1965, and its operation was funded by Michael M. Xylas’ family up to 1996, when his daughter Matrona, wife of the artist Nicholas Egon – whom she married in 1980 – handed it over to the municipality of Kardamyla, while continuing to maintain a strong interest in its smooth functioning.
Michael M. Xylas played a key role in the development of not only his own group, but also of relatives and friends, unstintingly giving of his time, enthusiasm and experience. He was a great inspiration during a decade in which Greeks were the protagonists in the development of the new, gigantic shipbuilding industry of Japan. Among those who worked closely with him were the Angelicoussis, Andrianopoulos, Inglessis, Loucas Nomikos, Lentakis and Peratikos families, all of whom were taking their first steps in shipbuilding ventures at the time.
Michael M. Xylas’ outstanding shipbuilding presence in the Land of the Rising Sun started with the launching of the Mitsui built bulk carrier ΑCHILLEUS on 28th May 1965, and was followed by two more bulk carriers, sister ships ΑRCHIMEDES and APOLLONIUS, 26,683 dwt each, built by Osaka Zosensho K.K. in 1966 and 1967 respectively, as well as the bulk carrier ARISTOTELIS, 42,197 dwt, delivered in 1969.
However, Michael M. Xylas’ biggest investment in Japan was with the IHI Shipbuilding Group, where he placed orders for the construction of no less than 32 ships – some of which were placed on behalf of his nephews Anthony and Mark Xylas – from 1968 to the end of his life in 1982. George Campbell, the renowned Canadian naval architect, whose office was responsible for the design of pioneering vessels built especially by IHI, played a key role in that activity. Aside from a close collaboration, Campbell and Michael M. Xylas established a strong and long-lasting friendship, which continued with Anthony J. Xylas.
The IHI Group delivered the following ships ordered by the Faros Group: one Panamax bulk carrier, the AGAMEMNON, in September 1968, ten Freedom-type general cargo ships built between December 1968 and March 1972, fifteen Fortune and Friendship-type bulk carriers built between June 1971 and April 1985 and finally, six Freedom MK II-type general cargo ships built between August 1978 and March 1980.
As the group grew larger, so did the need for additional office space, leading to the relocation of Faros to Thorn House, Upper St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2 in early 1971.
In 1976, Αstron Maritime Co. S.A. was established in Piraeus by Michael M. Xylas, who had returned to Greece in 1973 and who went on to spend the rest of his working life in close cooperation with Anthony J. Xylas, who was assuming an ever more influential presence within the family group.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Michael M. Xylas together with his wife created the Homerion Cultural Centre in Chios Island. It was a pioneering, multipurpose centre and a first class establishment for the cultural development of the region. The establishment was inaugurated in 1980 and was finally donated to the Municipality of Chios Island in 1985. Unfortunately, Michael M. Xylas was not able to fully enjoy the fruits of this huge labour of love towards his home island because only two years after its inauguration he passed away. The Centre continues to thrive to this day.
Michael M. Xylas gave to his family, his country and all communities with which he was associated, a clear and powerful vision of unique leadership through the values of integrity, self-sacrifice and humanity. His daughter Matrona and her children have wholeheartedly adopted and developed his great legacy in all its many facets and, in so far as shipping interests are concerned, represent the Phoenix Shipping Group comprising a fleet of modern bulk carriers and tankers.