One ship became two after Aponte began serving Africa and the Middle East. With freight rates favorable and costs low, he expanded by plowing profits back into the company, fueling the purchase of additional small, aging ships cast off by major competitors.
"They've built their business by buying secondhand ships and being able to undercut the market by having lower capital costs than everyone else," Shaerf said.
Mediterranean was a relatively minor world player when it began serving the U.S. East Coast in the mid-1980s. Its first run brought it to New York, Norfolk and Baltimore, where the company originally set up camp at Locust Point.
A relative newcomer to the market, Di Casagrande remembers having to work hard to establish credibility with the port community and its customers. A charismatic captain with a thick Italian accent, Di Casagrande worked long days and slept on a couch in his office while Mediterranean was getting established.
In the early years, he often fought perceptions that his employer had connections to the Mafia, a rumor that analysts say might have been linked to the company's Italian roots and its tendency to keep financial details private.
Italian seafarers continue to dominate the carrier's officer ranks, as well as its executive offices. Di Casagrande graduated from the Italian Maritime Academy the same year as Aponte, and the line's president, Nicola Arena, also was a classmate.
"We all come from the merchant marine ... we come with that kind of pride," Di Casagrande said. "If something happens to a member of the family, we all help. We are very close."
Analysts say the maritime background of its executives might explain why Mediterranean has remained true to its roots as a traditional ship operator while its major competitors have moved aggressively into door-to-door logistics and other transportation-related services. In keeping with its reputation as a maverick in the industry, the company has all but shunned alliances with other carriers, which often charter space on each other's ships in order to cut costs and boost revenue.
"They are a very traditional ship-owning company," said Fossey, the London analyst. "They're run by mariners, and mariners understand the running of ships, whereas a lot of the companies in the business these days are run by professional business people."
Di Casagrande often conducts business with customers from his regular table at Boccaccio's restaurant in Little Italy, a favorite haunt for many of the power brokers in Baltimore's maritime community. The company's organizational structure has few layers, with local managers having wide authority to make strategic decisions.
Aponte's tendency to empower managers means decisions come quickly. It took less than two months for White and other state officials to renegotiate Mediterranean's contract with the port. Negotiations with other carriers have been known to stretch on for up to a year or more.
"I find dealing with [Mediterranean] very refreshing," White said. "They let you know where you stand. There's no gray."
Aside from its recent purchase of new ships, analysts don't see Mediterranean veering substantially from its 32-year-old strategy of organic growth coupled with lean management.
"They have their own agenda," Fossey said. "It's an incredible story. The company is 30 years old, and it's the No. 2 liner in the world."