The Rafaela - 1971Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this past Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010.

The company said in a prepared statement that it wants to recognize its steady expansion from a one-ship operation at the end of 1970 to become the world’s second largest container carrier, with 420 local offices and 435 cargo vessels serving 306 ports across six continents.

Similarly the company’s modest entry into the cruise industry in the late 1980’s has seen strong growth, especially since 2003, to the extent that today MSC Cruises is the fourth largest cruise company. Its-modern fleet of 11 ships has also become market leaders in the Mediterranean, South Africa and Brazil.

MSC was founded by Gianluigi Aponte, a young Italian seaman and former bank teller who purchased his first ship, the Patricia, in 1970. He acquired a bigger vessel in 1971, which he named after his wife, Rafaela. The carrier, Isle, was bought in 1973.

These three cargo ships represented the beginnings of the shipping line, which initially started operating in the Mediterranean, East EastAfrica and the Red Sea, and expanded to North America and Australia by the end of the 80’s. Headquartered for eight years in Brussels and finally in Geneva, MSC has remained a family business despite its growth over the past 40 years.

MSC announced its entry into the cruise market during the late 1980’s with the Monterey, which has subsequently been sold to several different owners. Immediately after, and in honor of his mentor, the Italian shipping magnate Achille Lauro, Aponte took over the Lauro cruise line. MSC Cruises was established as a subsidiary of the MSC Group when two more ships, Rhapsody and Melody, were added to the fleet.

Following several years of strong growth and a 5.5 billion euro investment program started in 2003, today, 1.2 million passengers cruise aboard MSC ships. With the 2012 launch of the new MSC Divina, passenger numbers will top 1.4 million.