The 1978 War in Lebanon prompted him to move to Marseille. This is where he set up Compagnie maritime d’affrètement (CMA) with his brother Johnny on September 13 the same year. The company initially operated services between Marseille, Beirut and Syria. Saadé said: “I wanted the sea. Marseille is beautiful and the sea looks a little like that in Beirut.”
In 1983, Saadé made the decision to cross the Suez Canal and extended the company lines to Mina-Qaboos in the Gulf of Oman. Jacques Saadé was trying to prepare the company for the "Far East" to win a competitive advantage over other carriers.
In 1986, after noticing that volumes from Asia were constantly on the rise, he decided to extend CMA's shipping lines to Asia (including Japan). He later traveled to China himself in 1992 to open the first regional office in Shanghai, entrusting the management of the company's development in Asia to John Wang, a professor at the Shanghai Maritime University.
In 1996 Jacques Saadé acquired CGM (Compagnie Générale Maritime) following privatization.
Two years later in 1998 came acquisition by CMA of the National Australian Line ANL and in the following year 1999 merger of CMA and CGM and creation of the CMA CGM Group.
In 2006, Saadé concludes the acquisition of DELMAS and the CMA CGM Group becomes the third largest shipping Group in the world. Three additional acquisitions were made in 2007: Chinese Company Cheng Lie Navigation Ltd, U.S. Lines, and COMANAV.
He chose to equip his fleet with new large capacity vessels fitted with the latest green technologies. These vessels, combined with various other actions, allowed the group to reduce by 50% its carbon emissions per shipped container per km on its owned fleet between 2007 and 2015, confirming an objective set in 2007.
At the height of the crisis in 2009, the shipping industry was badly affected. Jacques R. Saadé was opposed to breaking up the Group. Supported by his son Rodolphe Saadé, and daughter Tanya Saadé, he was convinced container transport sector would bounce back. In 2010, CMA CGM signed an agreement with the family-run industrial Turkish group YILDIRIM. The agreement enabled the Group to strengthen its financial structure and secure Finance for its investment plans. This also later led him to invest, notably in building the Group’s first three 16,000 teu vessels: the CMA CGM Marco Polo, the CMA CGM Alexander Von Humboldt, and the CMA CGM Jules Verne.
The CMA CGM attitude has garnered the attention of the Anglo-Saxon analysts at Lloyd’s List. In its 11 July 2011 edition, the British daily, a reference in the shipping industry, highlighted the fact that “with the support of a solid family network, Jacques R. Saadé fought tooth and nail during the crisis, keeping the creditors at bay, juggling the order books and deployment of his fleet, and having the courage to reject several potential Investors waiting for a partner that does not interfere in the way he runs the company”.
However, according to these British analysts, his tenacity paid off – the CMA CGM Group has since returned to profit. The daily French financial newspaper Les Echos said: “Many observers thought CMA CGM would not recover from the losses suffered two years ago, while Jacques R. Saadé said he always knew his company would survive.”
In 2017, Jacques Saadé apoints Rodolphe Saadé Chief Executive Officer of the CMA CGM Group. Later that year, Jacques Saadé appoints Rodolphe Saadé Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the CMA CGM Group while he is himself appointed Founder Chairman.
Today, the CMA CGM Group is the world’s 3rd largest container shipping company and No.1 in France. With a fleet of 489 vessels, it serves more than 420 ports worldwide and carried around 15.6 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) - estimated - in 2016. Present on all continents and in 160 countries through its 775 offices, it employs 29,000+ people including 4,500 in France. Revenue for 2016 is US$16.0 billion.