He studied law at the University of Athens and in 1929 began working in his family’s grain business. Seeing the substantial transportation expenses involved in importing wheat, he recognized that it would be more economical to own the transport ships and bought his first six freighters during the Great Depression.
Niarchos served in the Hellenic Navy during World War II. He participated in the Allied operations in Normandy and was awarded, among other distinguished service medals, the Commander of the Order of the Phoenix, the Royal Order of King George I, and the Royal House Order of SS George and Constantine. While Niarchos was serving in the Hellenic Navy, a vessel Allied forces were leasing from him was destroyed in battle. After the war, Niarchos used the insurance funds as capital to expand his fleet, beginning his emergence as a significant participant in international commerce. For many years, he owned the largest private fleet in the world, with his company operating more than 80 tankers and other vessels.
In 1956, Niarchos agreed to build and operate Hellenic Shipyards, the first private investment of its kind in Greece, which rapidly became the Mediterranean's largest shipyard. In 1985, the shipyard was placed under state control, but Niarchos´s lasting commitment to Greece still stands today as a demonstration of the power of private investment for the country’s economic well-being.
Stavros S. Niarchos understood what it meant to think and act globally long before the term “globalization” came into wide use. Although he was known predominantly for his shipping business, Niarchos’s diversified financial activities were at the core of the global economy from the time he formed the Niarchos Group in 1939 until his death in 1996, and he was considered one of the most innovative and successful businessmen of the twentieth century.
Niarchos’s legacy continues today through the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), which is endowed exclusively through a bequest made in his will. The Foundation began its grantmaking efforts in 1996, working in Greece and around the world, and it derives its mission from Niarchos´s commitment to Greece and Hellenism, as well as his keen instincts and interests in support of causes in the fields of education, social welfare, health, and arts and culture.
By designating a significant part of his estate to establish SNF, Stavros S. Niarchos created an enduring means to enrich the lives of others worldwide.