Self-Made Billionaire Crowned World’s Richest Woman.
Rafaela Aponte, the 78-year-old shipping mogul, and her husband Gianluigi saw their fortunes jump a combined $46 billion this past year, enough to make her the highest-ranking female founder ever.
InJanuary 2022, as containers piled up at the congested ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in California—the two busiest in the U.S.—a momentous shift was taking place in the shipping industry. Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) had overtaken publicly traded Danish giant Maersk as the largest shipping line in the world by container capacity.
From its headquarters in Geneva, MSC controls a fleet of 730 ships that can carry more than 4.8 million containers, according to shipping database Alphaliner. The company doesn’t publish financials, but shipping expert John McCown estimates that MSC brought in more than $28 billion in earnings in 2022, putting it ahead of Maersk. Unlike its Danish competitor, MSC is a private company, co-owned by husband-and-wife duo Gianluigi and Rafaela Aponte.
Since 2019, the Apontes have reaped the rewards of a pandemic-driven boom which has added billions of dollars to the fortunes of shipping dynasties around the world. Their wealth is tied up almost entirely in MSC, which besides its container shipping operations also owns holiday cruise line MSC Cruises, inland cargo business Medlog and container terminal operator Terminal Investment Limited. Forbes now estimates that Gianluigi and Rafaela are each worth $31.2 billion, up from $8.4 billion apiece in 2022. That makes Rafaela, who cofounded MSC with Gianluigi in 1970, the world’s richest self-made woman thanks to her 50% stake in MSC. Ranked no. 43 in Forbes’ 2023 World’s Billionaires List, she also appears to be the highest-ranked female founder of all time.
Altogether just 96 women billionaires earned their fortunes, though some like Aponte built businesses in concert with husbands or brothers. The other 241 women in the ranks inherited at least a chunk. Self-made women make up just 3.6% of the world’s billionaires. Still, that is more than double the percentage a dozen years ago.
The Apontes first met on a boat trip to the Italian island of Capri in the 1960s. Gianluigi was a ship captain ferrying tourists from the port city of Naples—near his birthplace, the small town of Sant’Agnello—to the island resorts nearby, and Rafaela was the daughter of an Israeli banker based in Switzerland. He soon joined her in Geneva, taking a job as a broker at a Swiss bank.
By 1970, Gianluigi had quit his bank job and the couple obtained a $200,000 loan to buy their first ship, a small cargo vessel named Patricia. They launched MSC in Geneva the same year and grew by buying secondhand ships and targeting less trafficked routes, such as those from Europe to Africa. Their second ship was named Rafaela, and by 1979 they had accumulated 17.
Over the years, MSC grew into one of the largest shipping firms in the world. In 1988, they expanded into cruises with the acquisition of the liner Monterey. It was a good bet: MSC Cruises is now one of the largest cruise firms in the world, competing with its three publicly traded rivals Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. That same year, they also launched Medlog, an inland logistics firm. In 2000, MSC ventured into container terminals, establishing Terminal Investment Limited. In the 2010s, they expanded into passenger ferries in the Mediterranean.
As container shipping rates soared from 2020 to 2022, swelling MSC’s coffers, the Apontes began to use some of that extra cash to make some acquisitions. In June 2021, they bought back a 10% stake in Terminal Investments Limited for $1.6 billion, two years after selling a minority stake to Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. Three months later they acquired a 74% stake in Brazilian publicly traded logistics firm Log-In Logistica for $314 million. Three months after that came their biggest deal in years, a $6.4 billion bid to take over the African transportation and logistics operations of French conglomerate Bolloré Group, led by fellow billionaire Vincent Bolloré. The deal eventually closed a year later in December 2022, with MSC spending $6 billion to snag Bolloré Africa Logistics.
More than five decades since MSC’s founding, the family still maintains tight control over the company. Gianluigi and Rafaela are the only shareholders with a 50% stake each. Gianluigi is the firm’s executive chairman and their son, Diego, is president. Rafaela serves on the board of the MSC Foundation and is responsible for decorating cruise ships.
Despite not having a formal position in the MSC empire, Rafaela has played a key part in the company’s growth, according to Dominique Denat, who loaned the Apontes the money to purchase their first ship in 1970. “Her role is decisive,” he told Swiss newspaper Le Matin in 2022. “She has a very strong character.”