Shipowner dies amid family feud

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UPDATED: One of Norway’s last remaining family-controlled shipping companies lost its patriarch Wilhelm Wilhelmsen over the weekend, just as a power struggle within the Wilhelmsen family was spilling over into the media. The conflict, brewing for the past few years, was launched by family members who want more control over their own fortunes, and went public about it two weeks ago in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).

Shipowner Wilhelm Wilhelmsen, shown here at an event supporting the business school BI, died Saturday, just weeks after several family members publicly challenged his and his son’s control of the family’s vast holdings. PHOTO: Wilh Wilhelmsen Holding

The power struggle has pitted Wilhelmsen’s two sisters, their five daughters and the daughter of Wilhelmsen’s late brother Finn against Wilhelmsen and his only son Thomas, who’s part of the family’s fifth generation. The women in the family, with the exception of Wilhelmsen’s widow Unni and their own two daughers Julie and Monica, are demanding a new management structure to gain more influence over their own stakes in the family firm.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Wilhelmsen’s death was later revealed to be a suicide. See the update here.

“Shareholders who represent the majority of the Wilhelmsen family’s capital have begun a process to simplify and modernize the family’s privately owned companies,” wrote Cathrine Løvenskiold Wilhelmsen in an email to DN just after she resigned from the board of stocklisted Wilh Wilhelmsen Holding in early February. She represents unhappy women in the fifth generation who hold “around 60 percent of the Wilhelmsen family’s own capital,” but feel they have little say in how the Wilhelmsen empire is run.

They all, along with Wilhelmsen’s two daughters and only son Thomas Wilhelmsen, collectively own the complicated web of companies tied to the family’s controlling stakes in main stocklisted shipping operations, Wilh Wilhelmsen Holding and Wallenius Wilhelmsen.

Wilhelmsen ships span the globe, now mostly in the car carrier business. PHOTO: Wilh Wilhelmsen Holding

Only Wilhelm Wilhelmsen himself, who died on Saturday at an age of 82, has held real power over the family’s shares in their shipping businesses that include liner shipping and car carriers plus other stockholdings, real estate and financial investments within the Nordic countries and globally. Values estimated to total at least NOK 5 billion (USD 543 million) are at stake.

“It’s not just the money that’s the point,” Cathine Løvenskiold Wilhelmsen, age 50, wrote in a text message to DN just last week. “We want to be part of deciding how the family’s capital is managed. As of today, in our opinion it’s not managed well, neither in the private- nor the stocklisted portion of the group.”

Thomas Wilhelmsen, age 45, responded that “the companies have delivered and are delivering good resultats for their owners. Beyond that I have no comment.”

Thomas Wilhelmsen is now alone at the top of the Wilhelmsen Group, and left to defend what he has called its “centralized control.” PHOTO: Wikipedia

He did have more comments earlier as the Wilhelmsen women’s uproar spread to other media. “The Wilhelmsen family has succeeded for five generations in carrying over and developing values that have created valuable companies and thousands of jobs in Norway and internationally,” he wrote to DN. “That’s tied to thoroughness, a nose for business and some good luck, but I would also give our way of managing the family’s ownership, in terms of sharing values but centralized control, some of the honour.”

It’s the “centralized control” that seems to be causing the most irritation among his cousins and aunts. Wilhelm Wilhelmsen not only made his son chief executive of the Wilhelmsen Group, but the two of them have held the most control not least through the elder Wilhelmsen’s single A-share in one of the family companies, Tallyman. It in turn controls the stocklisted Wilh Wilhelmsen Holding with 60 percent of the shares, plus nearly 38 percent of car-carrier conglomerate Wallenius Wilhelmsen.

The elder Wilhelmsen also, according to DN, wanted to hand over that A-share and its voting control to his son as early as 2011, but was stymied by some Oslo Stock Exchange regulations. DN reported on Saturday that the 82-year-old shipowner “had his own plan” as to how the share would be inherited. In a text message to DN for its article on Saturday, Wilhelmsen wrote that  he had “of course reflected over” the fate of his A-share, “and it’s natural to communicate this externally when the time is ripe.”

It seems ripe now. Wilhelmsen died on Saturday February 22 of undisclosed causes that later were revealed to be a suicide. Cathrine Løvenskiold Wilhelmsen was quick to issue a statement that “the business disagreement within the family is unimportant right now. In this situation we are concerned about Wilhelm’s closest family and how they’re doing.” She called the elder Wilhelmsen’s death “terribly sad,” claiming she and other family members she represents are “deeply affected by our uncle’s and brother’s death. Our thoughts and deepest sympathy go to our aunt who has lost her husband, to Monica, Julie and Thomas who have lost their father, and their children who have lost their grandfather.”

Wilhelm Wilhelmsen was one of the last of Norway’s shipowners to retain control over a large fleet plus other shipping, real estate and financial interests. PHOTO: Wilh Wilhelmsen Holdings

The 82-year-old who carried the almost reverential title of “shipowner” in Norway had spent his entire life in the family company. “He was one of the most central contributors to the Norwegian maritime business for decades,” stated Harald Solberg, head of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association.

Wilhelmsen took firm control in 1964 of the originally Tønsberg-based company that dates back to 1861. He was board leader from 1992 to 2010, interrupted only when he also took over as CEO from 2000 to 2003. He guided the company through the shipping and offshore crisis of the 1980s, the fatal crash of a plane carrying 50 Wilhelmsen employees to Hamburg in 1989, and when the Norwegian captain of a Wilhelmsen ship, the MS Tampa, rescued 438 refugees from drowning in the Indian Ocean. Australia, which had the closest port, refused to take them in. A standoff ensued, with Wilhelmsen and the Norwegian government supporting the captain, who eventually had to take the refugees to Nauru instead.

Wilhelmsen left the volatile tanker market, with most of the company’s fleet today centered around roll-on/roll-off vessels dominated by car carriers that ship automobiles, for example, from Asian producers to buyers in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

Wilhelmsen was also an active outdoorsman and was knighted by King Harald V. Funeral arrangements were pending.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund