Paul Soros, Shipping Innovator, Dies at 87
Published: June 15, 2013
When Paul Soros, as a young engineer, observed that large cargo ships could not get to shallow-water piers to load and unload, he came up with a radical solution: take the piers to the ships.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
The idea sprang from his boyhood in Hungary. He remembered seeing buoys being used to create floating piers on the Danube, where he and his younger brother, George, who would grow up to become one of the richest men in the world, spent peaceful days at the family’s summer home before war changed everything for them.
Replicating the system in the United States, Mr. Soros, who died early Saturday at his home in Manhattan at 87, went on to build Soros Associates, which has dominated the port-building industry and shifted international trade and production patterns through its shipping innovations.
The Brazilian national mining company, for example, used Soros designs at its port of Tubarão to become the world’s largest iron ore producer, more than quintupling Brazil’s output in the process. Mr. Soros’s company, with projects in 90 countries, either designed or expanded seven of the 10 largest bulk ports in the world for bauxite, alumina and coal as well as for iron ore.
Mr. Soros died at his home on Fifth Avenue, his son Peter said. He had been treated for Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes and renal failure. He had lost a kidney as a young man and later an eye in a freak accident during a golfing lesson. Earlier he had lived through harrowing times, threatened by Nazis and taken prisoner by Russians before managing to flee to the West.
And he lived in the long shadow of his brother, who found fame as an investor, philanthropist and promoter of progressive political causes. Indeed, Paul was often called “the invisible Soros.”
He was born Paul Schwartz on June 5, 1926 in Budapest, the son of Tivadar Schwartz, a well-connected Jewish lawyer, publisher, investor and former officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the former Erzebet Szucz, the daughter of a well-to-do fabric store owner. During World War I, his father was captured by Russian troops and imprisoned in a Siberian camp before escaping and making his way to Budapest.
Theirs was a comfortable and cultured life, with ski vacations in Austria and summers on the Danube. Paul became an expert skier and a star tennis player and attended a technical college in Hungary.
But in 1936, as Hungary began aligning itself with fascist powers and anti-Semitism spread, the family changed its name to Soros. When German troops entered Budapest in 1944 and began rounding up Jews for deportation to concentration camps or shooting them outright on the banks of the Danube, Tivadar forged identity papers that gave the family false names and portrayed them as Christians. They survived a year of terror, living in safe houses and scraping together supplies until the Russians came and the Nazis were defeated.
The Soviet authorities, however, accused Paul Soros of being a fugitive SS officer and sent him on a forced march east with other prisoners “in rows of four,” Mr. Soros wrote in an unpublished memoir for his family. As they approached a stream beside a village, he recalled, “I knew that, after the bridge, there were no more villages, just open country. With snow on the ground there was no way to get away or hide.”
So as the prisoners and their Russians guards squeezed across the bridge, “I simply made a run for it,” Mr. Soros wrote, escaping the guards’ notice. He hid himself in a burned-out farmhouse and “watched the column pass for about an hour” before walking back to Budapest.
Afterward he became a member of the Hungarian ski team and would have joined it at the 1948 Olympics had it not been for an injury. He soon left home for Soviet-occupied Austria, where he became the country’s No. 2 tennis player and an expert at forging passports. Seeking to defect to the West, he managed to make his way to New York in 1948 on a one-year student visa.
George, meanwhile, at 17 and with his father’s help, fled communist Hungary under the pretense of attending a conference in Switzerland. He traveled to London, where he enrolled in a technical school with a distant relative’s help, did odd jobs to support himself and later was admitted to the London School of Economics.
Paul and George Soros were rivals when young; George believed the firstborn Paul received more attention from their parents. In his memoir Paul wrote that they had had “a pretty bad relationship” as youngsters and that as young men they did not see each other for eight years until reuniting in London.
They acknowledged becoming closer, however, while living in New York years later; their Upper East Side homes were only blocks apart. George handled some of Paul’s investments, which proved quite lucrative and contributed to Paul’s own immense fortune.
After arriving in the United States, Paul was soon admitted to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., but left early on after losing a kidney in a skiing accident in which a buried slalom pole popped up and speared him in the back. After his recovery he enrolled at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, now affiliated with New York University.
Once out of college, he took a succession of engineering jobs before joining Hewitt Robins International, a maker of conveyor belting and industrial hose, as a sales engineer in the export department. By then he had married Daisy Schlenger, whom he had met in New York, and moved to Connecticut.
But he grew restless, wanting to strike out on his own, and though he was offered the chance to run Hewitt Robins’ European operations in Amsterdam, he turned it down and quit to form Soros Associates, based at first in his Connecticut home.
“Not that being a big shot in Europe was a hardship prospect,” he wrote in his memoir. “But I knew that if I did not try the alternative, all my life it would bug me, what if?”
Soros Associates, which is based in New York and has offices throughout the world, became a leading international provider of port planning, engineering and installations. Mr. Soros acknowledged that a variation of his buoy system had been used for oil tankers, but pumping oil from ship to port is a process far different from unloading raw materials like bauxite, iron ore and coal.
Besides his son Peter, Mr. Soros is survived by his wife; another son, Jeffrey; his brother, George; four grandchildren and one step-granddaughter. A third son, Steven, died at 18 months in a playground accident; an 18-month-old daughter, Linda, died after being hit by a vehicle backing out of their garage.
Mr. Soros and his wife had homes in New Canaan, Conn.; on Nantucket in Massachusetts and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was in New Canaan that he lost an eye while taking an indoor golf lesson at a country club. In his memoir, which he titled “American (Con)quest,” he wrote that after he had reached 65 his taxable income exceeded $100 million a year.
But he said his lifestyle was not lavish.
“I find conspicuous consumption in bad taste and something of an insult to people who have to work hard to make ends meet,” he wrote.
He played rubber bridge well into his 80s and at such a high level that his skill won the attention of the bridge columnist for The New York Times in 2010.
In 1998 Mr. Soros and his wife created a trust called the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, which provides grants to immigrants for graduate study; the endowment eventually totaled $75 million. For 18 years, through 2012, they underwrote Midsummer Night Swing, Lincoln Center’s outdoor dance party.
“My story is riches to rags to riches again,” Mr. Soros once said. “I was lucky to survive. The rest was relatively easy.”