By Luca Casiraghi (Bloomberg) A luxury cruise firm, a disputed family inheritance, and a Monaco-based tycoon fighting to protect his fortune.
It sounds like the summary of the latest must-watch streaming drama, but it’s in fact a clash that’s been playing out for real over more than two decades. It’s centered on two Italian brothers, billionaire Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio and his history professor brother Francesco, over the ownership of the business their father founded.
Francesco, a university professor, claims he’s the rightful owner of 52% of a family holding company, according to court documents. That company owned Silversea Cruises, which under Manfredi’s watch became a leading brand in ultra-luxury cruises. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. bought a majority stake in 2018, valuing it at $2 billion.
After years of court hearings and rulings, the case may finally be moving toward its endgame. It’s due to go to an appeal trial in Bologna, which should mark the final decision under Italian law.
A decision in Francesco’s favor might not just threaten Manfredi’s fortune, but also an investment strategy that’s seen him pump money into multiple businesses.
Since the sale of Silversea, Manfredi took over travel group Abercrombie & Kent with its founder, backed firms including a software encryption company, and funded companies controlled by controversial German financier Lars Windhorst. Last month, A&K bought two ships in a sale resulting from the collapse of Crystal Cruises.
The brothers declined to comment for this story, as did Francesco’s legal team. Manfredi’s lawyers say the case is “groundless.”
The siblings grew up in Rome, but while Francesco, born in 1951, pursued an academic career to become a professor of international history, Manfredi, two year his junior, dropped out of university to work with their father Antonio, who died in 2011, at the growing family shipping businesses.
The dispute between the brothers began more than 20 years ago when, according to claims made in court documents, Antonio decided to put the siblings’ holdings into a family trust.
The brothers were in disagreement, but in 2001 they found a compromise: Francesco would get properties in Rome and receive a holding company controlling some shipping assets, while Manfredi would keep the cruise business — with a stake held by their sister Elvira.
Seven years later, however, Francesco went to court against the rest of the family arguing that the delivery of the shares of the holding company didn’t go through as planned. Manfredi claims the deal was completed as agreed.
Francesco has previously failed in his bid to seize Silversea assets in Greece and Germany, but the main effort has been through Italian courts. He’s claiming half of the Silversea shares, or damages equivalent to 52% of the value of the company, estimated at about 800 million euros ($803 million), according to court documents.
The Lefebvres have a storied history, coming from a French family that settled in Naples at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Their ancestor Charles Lefebvre became one of the most notable entrepreneurs and bankers in Southern Italy, partnering up with the Rothschilds. He even joined the ranks of the local nobility before the unification of the country in 1860.
The family fortunes dwindled in the years before the second world war until Antonio, a lawyer specializing in maritime law, set up a shipping company that helped European migrants to move to Australia. Gradually, the firm shifted away from the passenger sector to focus on the cruise industry, leading to the founding of Silversea in the 1990s.
The 2018 sale, and the transfer of the remaining stake to Royal Caribbean in 2020, turned Manfredi Lefebvre into a billionaire with a pile of cash ready for investment through the family holding, Heritage Group.
Heritage, chaired by Manfredi, took over UK travel agency Abercrombie & Kent, which specializes in luxury vacations such as $20,000 safari trips. It’s also participating in a new blank check company to buy renewable energy companies with a former Barclays Plc banker and Telecom Italia chief executive officer.
Some investments have run into trouble: Arqit Quantum Inc., the UK encryption company Heritage bought via a SPAC launched with Centricus Asset Management, fell more than 80% from its peak in November.
Heritage also sued Windhorst in a London court last year as the German financier failed to pay obligations on transactions linked to the shares of his companies, even after they had reached a settlement. Heritage still owns stakes in Windhorst-controlled firms, including lingerie brand La Perla Fashion Holding and medical technology company Avatera Medical GmbH, according to a portfolio listing on the firm’s website.
The Italian part of the brothers’ legal battle has gone through several stages over the last decade, but it just entered its final chapter after the Supreme Court found issues with a decision in favor of Manfredi in 2018.
A preliminary hearing for the new trial was held on June 14 and adjourned to December.
Francesco’s lawyer in the Italian appeal trial, Salvatore Patti, declined to comment on the case.
“The Court of Appeal will have to reject Francesco’s demands because Manfredi fully complied with the terms of the deal with his brother,” according to Manfredi’s Italian lawyers, Giovanni Frau, Elena Lucertini and Francesca Poiatti of law firm Frau Ruffino Verna. “The request to transfer shares and assets against legal entities, which aren’t part of the ongoing trial, and the request for damages are totally groundless.”
Meanwhile, Francesco also sued Royal Caribbean in Miami in May as he seeks to get back the Silversea shares. In the filing, he accuses the cruise company of “unjust enrichment, conversion, and aiding and abetting conversion.” He claims the 2018 sale, agreed shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, hindered his ability to recover Silversea’s stock and assets.
In June, Royal Caribbean asked the judge to dismiss the case, claiming the suit is “an attempt to circumvent the Italian legal system.” The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
By Luca Casiraghi With assistance from Lucca de Paoli, © 2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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