NEWS ANALYSIS: The death last week of Norwegian shipowner Wilhelm Wilhelmsen continues to stir interest, not least after it became known that he took his own life. Norwegian media outlets have a long tradition of not reporting suicides, however, and have thus remained mostly mum even as questions swirl about what will happen to the family-controlled shipping empire in the midst of an internal power struggle.
Neither Wilhelmsen’s immediate family nor the companies he controlled were issuing any comments, publishing only a brief press release that the 82-year-old Wilhelmsen had “passed away” last Saturday, February 22. “In respect of their loss, the family will not be available for any comments,” reads the release that’s still posted on the Wilhelmsen Group’s website more than a week after its fourth-generation owner died.
The death of the family partriarch in a shipping dynasty that stretches back to 1861 and employs thousands of people all over the world warranted media coverage. Several Norwegian media outlets wrote standard if not surprisingly short biographical obituaries, given how newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and other business media had been reporting for weeks on the family’s internal power struggle.
None of the news coverage of Wilhelmsen’s death revealed its cause. That’s also fairly standard practice in Norway, though, and part of a media culture that differs sharply from that in many other countries. In the US, for example, cause of death is considered an essential question that most editors demand answered when reporters are assigned to write about the death of a prominent person.
Blunt obituary and tributes
There’s another tradition in Norway, however, regarding reports of deaths. In addition to the family of the deceased eventually publishing a death notice with details of any upcoming funeral, friends of the family also often write their own form of obituary tributes to the deceased. In the Oslo area, where the Wilhelmsen family and its companies have long been based, such tributes are generally published in newspaper Aftenposten, which is also Norway’s biggest daily and distributed nationwide.
Many of its readers were thus all but stunned Friday morning when Christen Sveaas, himself a wealthy investor and philanthropist who’s also involved in the shipping industry, wrote such a tribute that began with: “Shipowner Wilhelm Wilhelmsen suddenly died on February 22. He took his own life.”
The bluntness of Sveaas’ obituary was highly unusual, even at time when there’s more openness about suicide that’s long been a taboo topic in Norway. It was also highly unusual when the family of Princess Martha Louise’s ex-husband, Ari Behn, immediately disclosed that he’d taken his own life this past Christmas. That unleashed a new wave of the openness long sought in Norway about suicide, with the royal family hailed for its own decision to not hide its own personal tragedy.
When a young Norwegian dies and no cause of death is given, or when police report that someone was funnet død (found dead) with no sign of criminal activity, Norwegians reading between the lines often deduce suicide. Since Wilhelmsen was aged 82, suicide was not immedately suspected despite all the tension suddenly revealed in the family. Wilhelmsen himself had even communicated with media the day before he died, regarding the fate of his all-important voting shares in the company.
It came almost as a shock, then, to read Sveaas’ blunt account Friday morning, and that grabbed media attention itself. It didn’t take long for various media outlets to report on Sveaas’ obituary, with Aftenposten writing in its news space that it had been published with “the understanding” of Wilhelmsen’s family.
Sveaas hailed his friend of 20 years, both on a personal and professional basis. He, along with others who’ve written tributes to Wilhelmsen in the past week, wrote of how the two shared a love for the outdoors, describing the late shipowner as “warm, thoughtful and modest” with a high degree of integrity. He wrote of how Wilhelmsen had continued to develop the family shipping dynasty he’d inherited, merging the stocklisted entities and cooperating with Wallenius of Sweden to create the world’s largest shipping line specializing in car carriers. The Wilhelmsen group itself claims it “operates the largest maritime network on the planet” from more than 2,200 locations worldwide. In addition to actual shipping lines and other ventures, Wilhelmsen offers various shipping products and services including crewing and technical ship management.
‘Unjustified attacks’ on Wilhelmsen’s integrity
Only Sveaas was honest enough to attribute Wilhelmsen’s death to suicide, however, and he went on to write that there had “been many unjustified attacks on his integrity recently.” Sveaas was clearly referring to how other family members, all women, had banded together to challenge the ultimate control held by Wilhelm Wilhelmsen and his son Thomas, who now serves as the group’s chief executive. It’s been a tradition in the family that control of the business passes on to the oldest son.
Wilhelmsen’s suicide came just two week after news of the internal family conflict first broke, when Cathrine Løvenskiold Wilhelmsen resigned from the board of the stocklisted Wilh. Wilhelmsen Holding ASA. The announcement from the company of the fifth-generation Wilhelmsen’s resignation at 3:55pm on Friday afternoon February 7 was brief, stating only that she’d “notified her resignation” and that “a replacement process will be initiated.”
Just a few hours later, however, she sent an email to newspaper DN and others with the unusual message that a group representing a majority of the Wilhelmsen family’s owners in the shipowning group had started a process to change the ownership structure of the family’s companies. The goal, she wrote, was to “simplify and modernize the family’s privately owned companies” including Tallyman, which owns the largest stake in the stocklisted Wilh Wilhelmsen Holding.” Her resignation from its board was aimed at making other family members’ bid for more control over their own fortunes as ryddig (tidy) as possible.
On Sunday February 9, Thomas Wilhelmsen sent his own message to DN, noting that neither he nor his father Wilhelm agreed with the other family members’ view. The power struggle over family shareholdings valued at NOK 3.5 billion was then all but declared, pitting the senior Wilhelmsen who holds the voting A-shares in the company and his son against other family members holding non-voting B-shares.
That set off a stream of coverage in DN that has all but dried up after Wilhelmsen’s death. Other media outlets have stopped writing about the family’s power struggle as well, apparently out of respect for their grief. Cathrine Løvenskiold Wilhelmsen herself has been the only family member to issue a statement so far, claiming that the differences within the family were “unimportant” in light of Wilhelmsen’s “terribly sad” death.
‘Without Wilhelm, no Wilhelmsen concern’
Sveaas’ motivation for revealing the suicide was not clearly stated, but his claim that Wilhelmsen’s “integrity” had been the target of “unjustified attacks” was clear enough. Sveaas added that he admired and had “great respect for Wilhelm and his life and work for the large family.” Sveaas claimed that such admiration and respect “was shared by all who knew him” and by Wilhelmsen’s “many thousands of employees.”
“Without Wilhelm, no Wilh Wilhelmsen concern,” Sveaas wrote.
Share values in the Wilhelmsen family companies and Wallenius Wilhelmsen were being battered like many others this week, as markets dove amidst worldwide concern over the Corona virus. The company had stated in its latest earnings report to the Oslo Stock Exchange that in the short term, “measures to stop the spread of the Corona virus will have a negative impact on most business activities.” Fourth-quarter 2019 revenues of USD 224 million, meanwhile, were up 2 percent over the prior year’s but earnings of USD 31 million were down 25 percent, a decline the company tied to “reduced operating margin for both maritime services and supply services.”
Wilhelmsen’s funeral is scheduled for Thursday, after which more news from the group and family members may continue to emerge.