Sammy Ofer, shipping magnate & philanthropist, was one of the last of a generation of great shipping tycoons, a charismatic individual with a sharp business sense, and a good judge of character. He is remembered for running an enormously successful and closely-knit international shipping and business group, with fiercely loyal and devoted management and ships’ crew.
A shrewd businessman, he grew and adapted within very different business environments throughout his career, and always knew how to strike a hard bargain while at the same time holding on to old-world values: he was a man of his word in an industry where reputation was given utmost importance. He was 89 years of age and is survived by his wife Aviva, sons Eyal & Idan, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Sammy Ofer's Early Life
Sammy Ofer was born on the auspicious day of 22 February 1922 in Galatz, Romania. In 1924 his family, which included his parents and 2 brothers (David who died in 1994 and Yehuda (“Yuli”)) emigrated to Israel (then the British Mandate of Palestine) from Romania. The family settled in Haifa.
In the 1930’s Sammy’s father, Joseph Hershkovitz, established a business of providing ship chandlery (i.e. supplies) to ships which called at the port of Haifa. The initial customers were principally vessels from Romania and Bulgaria.
From his childhood Sammy was fascinated with ships. His professional involvement with shipping started when he joined the then well-established ship agency “Dizengoff” in Haifa. During the Second World War Sammy joined the British Navy, and served as a Petty Officer on board a British Minesweeper based in Alexandria. Following his service in the British Navy, Sammy and his brother Yuli joined their father’s chandlery business. Sammy’s eldest brother David was initially in the family business but left for a career in public service and rose to the equivalent of the rank of General in the Israeli police force.
Developing The Shipping Fleet
During the War of Independence of Israel Sammy joined the newly formed Israeli Navy and participated in the first Navy Officer Course. After the end of the War of Independence, Sammy and Yuli rejoined the family business. Sammy’s dream had always been to become a ship-owner, and in the 1950s this dream became a reality with the acquisition of his first ship, a small general cargo ship, which he named “Eyal” after his eldest son. The young shipping company concentrated on the East Mediterranean liner service, catering primarily to the growing needs of the newly formed State of Israel. In the 1960s the family changed its name from “Hershkovitz” to “Ofer” and the family business in Haifa subsequently became known as the “Ofer Brothers Group”.
By the late 1960s the family business had grown to a formidable size. In 1969 the Ofer Brothers Group reached an agreement with Israel’s national carrier Zim to merge its liner operations into Zim, paving the way for future expansion in other areas. Sammy’s younger brother Yuli remained in Israel and managed the Israeli-based shipping and real-estate business of the Ofer Brothers Group, while Sammy and his immediate family moved to Europe where he started a second career, founding a new and independent international shipping group which in the years to come grew into a vast shipping empire spread between Europe and Asia. By the late 1970s Sammy had moved to Monaco and based his operations there under the name of SAMAMA. However, like most other large ship-owners, the day-to-day operations of his fleet were managed through London, which was and remains the premier shipping centre in the world.
Expanding The Fleet
With the German shipping banks as the first lenders to the new business, the new group’s fleet began to expand. Sammy quickly gained a reputation for being an efficient operator of older tonnage and earned the respect and confidence of a broad array of international shipping banks and charterers. By the early 1980s the international group had expanded into the tanker business, which was managed from Hong Kong and later Singapore, and in the 1990s it further expanded into floating oil storage and production facilities for the offshore oil and gas industry. Through constant reinvestment and timely acquisitions in the low points of shipping cycles (especially in the extreme shipping recession of the 1980s) the international group Sammy founded grew to become one of the largest privately held shipping groups in the world with a fleet of well over 200 vessels.
Developing The Shipping Business
In the late 1980s the international group began to diversify from shipping, and entered the world of cruise ships by teaming up with the Pritzker family to make a sizable investment in Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. (“RCL”). As RCL grew it embarked on an aggressive expansion program, constructing newer and larger cruise vessels that were the largest built at the time, many coming from the yards of the French shipbuilder Chantiers de l’Atlantique. In recognition of his support for this large new-building program, and his confidence in the shipyard, in 1993 Sammy (together with Jay Pritzker) was awarded the honour of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur – an honour which a few years earlier had also been bestowed on Arne Wilhelmsen, one of RCL’s founders. Sammy was on the board of RCL until 1995 when he passed his responsibilities over to his eldest son, Eyal.
In a parallel way the international group also moved into commercial, hotel and residential real estate, a move which was initiated and spearheaded by Sammy’s son Eyal. Through years of timely acquisitions of properties, the international real estate group today comprises a core part of the group, having assembled a vast array of trophy properties throughout prime locations in Europe and North America.
The family diversified into banking in 1994 when it became part of the controlling group of shareholders of United Mizrahi Bank (now United Mizrahi Tefahot Bank) which today is Israel’s 4th largest bank and its largest mortgage bank.
In 1999 the family acquired a controlling interest in Israel Corporation (Israel’s largest publically traded holding company) which at the time included strategic stakes in chemicals, energy, technology and shipping (through a 50% shareholding in Zim) and has since expanded further into semiconductors and green energy areas such as renewables, electric vehicles and hydro-electric power.
Sammy Ofer's Philanthropy
From the late 1980s Sammy devoted considerable time and energy amassing a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern works of art. While the details of the collection have never been made public, the collection is known by art insiders to be an important collection of museum quality works.
Although living in Europe for much of his life, Sammy was always deeply connected to Israel and took interest in everything that took place there. Sammy was known as a generous philanthropist who established and financed many programs in Israel, including creating a fund to assist people in need with life saving medication, and establishing a variety of educational scholarships. Keenly aware of the importance of modern medical facilities for individuals in need, Sammy donated over US$100,000,000 for hospitals and other facilities and charities.
Stemming from his many years of close relations with the London Shipping Community and the City of London, in 2008 Sammy donated £20,000,000 to the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich to enable it to build a new wing in time for the museum’s 75th anniversary and the London Olympics in 2012. This was widely reported as being the largest single private donation ever to a UK cultural institution. Later that year Sammy pledged an additional £3,300,000 to help complete the conservation work on the “Cutty Sark” based in Greenwich, one of the world’s most famous sailing ships.
Sammy Ofer KBE
In 2008 Sammy was awarded an honorary KBE (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his long-standing involvement with the London Shipping Community and substantial contributions to UK maritime heritage. In 2009 he was awarded an honorary life membership of the London Baltic Exchange and an Honorary Commodorship of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
His philanthropic pursuits have also included support for students of the Royal Ballet in London and, more recently, support for a new sports stadium in his childhood home of Haifa, Israel which will bear his name.
Always looking to the future, Sammy made arrangements some years ago for generational change, so that the many businesses forming part of his vast empire could continue unaffected in his absence. Although he never lost interest in the businesses he founded and loved, in his later years he stepped back from day to day involvement and, when not spending time at sea on his yacht, focused his attentions more on his other two passions in life, art and philanthropy.
While Sammy had a reputation for being media shy, he came across as being larger than life in person and carried with him a noticeable presence when entering a room. Sammy never forgot that people should be measured by their actions rather than their words: being rich or famous did not impress him, but personal virtues and integrity did. It was therefore not surprising that the employees of his organization from all ranks were so loyal to him. He was always interested in their well-being, their thoughts and their ideas, and they appreciated his interest and sincerity.
One of the secrets of his success was his never tiring curiosity and desire to learn from others. From his earliest days in the shipping business he was known to spend many hours speaking with the seamen and officers of the vessels, often in enormous depth, and was not a typical ship-owner tucked away in his office. His curiosity was well known and extended far beyond shipping, to international business, politics, economics, art and almost every aspect of life.
Sammy loved life, he had a great sense of humor and laughing was an important part of it, although he always took his business seriously. He was inspirational, an interesting and engaging person to spend time with, and a truly unique individual.
Through his children and grandchildren and in the spirit of Sammy their founder, the businesses of the group will continue unchanged, maintaining his tradition of hard work and dedication, as they protect and build upon the great legacy he left behind.
Sammy Ofer - businessman and philanthropist
Sammy Ofer - naval service
Sammy Ofer with his wife Aviva