The proverb that still waters run deep could have been created for Stena’s masthead. Although Sweden’s largest private company is best known for its ferries, a deeper look into the company’s operations reveals a sprawling conglomerate of diverse businesses.

Stena’s roots stretch back to the 1600s when the small family-run company traded metal and scrap.

Fast forward 400 years and the company’s principle activities stretch from shipping, and offshore drilling to real estate and finance.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Stena is the largest private holder of real estate in
Sweden and the largest recycler of industrial waste in Scandinavia,

“We are a conglomerate without exit. This gives us diversity and we are trying to keep a common culture for our businesses,” says Dan Sten Olsson, the chief executive and only Olsson family member to remain in the business.

Mr Olsson is no stranger to acquisitions. In 2000, the company bought Stena Link, its struggling ferry lines affiliate, back from the stock market after the listed company announced a SKr1.5bn ($210m) rights issue to cover losses and service debt.

Stena Link was hard hit by the abolition of duty free sales, but in 2003 it returned to profit. The company is now the largest operator on the Irish Sea, has 34 vessels, and owns ports in Harwich, Fishguard, Holyhead and Stranraer in the UK.

Now, Stena wants to seal its position as Europe’s largest ferry owner by trying to acquire Scandlines, the Danish-German ferry operator.

“We don’t sell anything we buy,” says Mr Olsson. Mr Olsson’s plans to grow the company are facilitated by a significant cash pile, the bulk of which is generated from it’s cash-rich oil rigging business.

Over the next two to three years Stena plans to invest between SKr3-SKr4bn a year. “We are going to build more ferries. The challenge now is to invest,” he says.

His ambitions may be thwarted by rival bidders for Scandlines, which include Seereederei, the German shipping group, and some private equity groups.

Stena may face significant competition for Scandlines, given the appetite of private equity firms for comparable businesses.

But Mr Olsson, is not one to admit defeat easily, having spent most of his life steeped in maritime life.

“Our family have been fishermen for 300 years,” he says. “I am a keen sailor. I sail small boats and have a little boat called Daisy,” he laughs.

But much of his time is spent on land. Having received his MBA in Gothenburg, he worked in a bank for one and a half years before moving to London to learn shipbroking. At the age of 25, he finally settled into the family business.

If Mr Olsson’s bid for Scandlines fails, there are other projects in the pipeline, such as expanding the group’s tanker business.

Stena’s technical department is well-known for developing more efficient ship types including ice-class ships to navigate the Baltic waters, and it transports 10-15 per cent of all crude oil out of Russia. Tanker shipping contributes more than a quarter of group profits.

“We want to grow organically. If one branch of the business wants to double in size we can do that.”

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