Ari Onassis was a business partner but above all a very good friend of mine for many years until his death in 1975. It was great to know him and fantastic to be involved in his odyssey and contributes to build his empire. There are so many things that are said about Ari and by creating this blog I want to reflect the reality about him to make sure his memory is not stained by gossiping people that don't know anything about him. You can also view my website:

Friday, September 28, 2007

Athina's Onassis battle

On Jan. 29 Athina Roussel opened her eyes to a world filled with opportunity and excitement. It was her 21st birthday, fresh cause to celebrate only eight weeks after her wedding to a dashing Brazilian equestrian, Alvaro Alfonso de Miranda Neto, known to his bride and the world's press as "Doda." On the face of it, everything was finally turning rosy for the young woman whose early life had been scarred by the tragic death of her mother, Christina Onassis, and circumscribed by the pressures of enormous wealth — an estimated $600 million she picked up as sole heiress to her mother's fortune.

Even so, Athina, the last direct descendant of the legendary Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, had reason to expect more last weekend. She grew up believing she would inherit the remainder of her family's fortune — in excess of $1 billion — and assume a hereditary role at the helm of the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation, an organization managing corporate and charitable operations.

But that birthday gift did not materialize. As a family insider predicted two weeks before her birthday, "Athina's 21st birthday will come and go without her seeing a single penny of her grandfather's fortune." Indeed, added the friend, "she'll most certainly inherit another long-term problem." Or rather a struggle, which threatens to be messy. The Alexander S. Onassis Foundation isn't ruling out Athina's future succession. But for now, says Anthony Papadimitriou, president of the foundation, Athina simply has nothing to contribute. "The question isn't what she can get out of the foundation but what she is going to offer," he says. "She's not going to bestow greater credibility on our business." To illustrate his point, he refers to the Onassis shipping interests, which the foundation controls. "When I talk to the top people in Exxon Mobil, they want to know who they're talking to; they want to know they trust us to carry their crude. What will they say when they see a young lady with no experience, with no business knowledge?" Papadimitriou told Time that he had invited Athina to familiarize herself with the foundation, but would oppose any attempts she might make to join its board. "Ms. Roussel is the granddaughter of our founder and we recognize her as such. But putting her on the board is something entirely different. Onassis made no such provision," he said. "He didn't even name Christina as president."

That's not a view Onassis' grandchild shares. With assets ranging from the shipping fleets to property in Paris, London and St. Moritz to development projects spanning the globe, the foundation has the heft and reach of a multinational corporation — and an idiosyncratic structure all its own. Athina's claim stems from the foundation's statutes, which state that a direct descendant of Onassis shall be eligible for the presidency upon reaching the age of 21.

That provision was added by Christina, and not devised by her father. Aristotle Onassis was uncompromising in affairs of the heart, brutally dumping opera diva Maria Callas in 1968 to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. (Athina Livanos, mother to his two children, had divorced him after learning of his affair with Callas.) In business he was equally insensitive to the feelings of his women. His will divided his empire in two parts, with 45% of the estate channeled into a public benefit trust in memory of his son, Alexander, killed in a plane crash in 1973. His daughter, Christina, got the bigger slice, but only on condition that the foundation managed her money. She was outraged. "Not only did she find herself losing out on 45% of the inheritance, she was put under the tutelage of the foundation," says Papadimitriou.

Christina spent the weeks after her father's death in 1975 planning her response, emerging from mourning to demand her share of the inheritance with no strings attached. She also insisted on two additional concessions: that she be named lifelong president of the foundation, and that a direct descendant of Onassis would have the automatic right to that role provided he or she had the "capacity to serve" and was "willing to serve," according to legal documents obtained by Time. "The executors [of the will] had no option than to accept her terms," says Papadimitriou. "They would have had to take Christina to court to force her to hand over the part [of the fortune earmarked] for the foundation."
Christina struggled with an eating disorder and an addiction to diet pills until her death from heart failure brought on by a suspected drug overdose in 1988, when Athina was just 3 years old. So her decision to take on the foundation surprised some observers. Athina has already shown signs of her mother's chutzpah and a willingness to go her own way. She dropped out of high school at 17, but became a talented horsewoman and linguist. She renounced the Onassis name at the urging of her father, Thierry Roussel, at the age of 13, telling judges that she felt "great aversion" to all things Greek, but she later shook off Roussel's influence. A French playboy who married and then divorced Christina, Roussel used to manage Athina's fortune in concert with the foundation, though his own relations with its members were stormy — Roussel even accused Athina's Greek trustees of plotting to kidnap his daughter. Athina eventually bucked against his control, and moved to Brussels where she became involved with her current husband, a man 12 years her senior. When, in response to this liaison, her father attempted to tighten the purse strings, Athina took him to court, winning full control of her money, minus an $84 million settlement for Roussel.

Last September she set her sights on the foundation. But its board members say that Onassis didn't want relatives running his empire. In 2003, the board voted unanimously to scrap the clauses Christina had imposed, saying the notion of a hereditary presidency was against the "letter and spirit of Onassis' will." The board also sanctioned a change of guard at the foundation, with Papadimitriou, 51 and an attorney-cum-economist, taking over the role of president from his father and longtime Onassis aide, Stelios Papadimitriou. Alexis Mantheakis, a former spokesman for the Roussel family, says bluntly: "The foundation has clearly slammed the door on Athina. There's still hope, though, that she can pry it wide open."

Perhaps. Documents obtained by Time, including copies of the Onassis will and its revised terms, stipulate that, while the foundation's charter may be subject to alterations, the specific terms imposed by Christina shall "not be amended." This includes the clause about the hereditary presidency of the foundation, but Papadimitriou is undaunted. "I don't think Ms. Roussel is automatically eligible for the presidency," he says. "The clause needs interpretation. It speaks about capacity and willingness to serve. And its implementation is subject to the discretion of the board." Another senior board member says: "I can't envision myself, or for that matter any other board member, reporting to a high school dropout — however charming and sympathetic — on crucial business decisions."

Sentiments like this haven't stopped Athina from launching a charm offensive in tandem with her legal moves. One aim seems to be to soothe any Greek feelings she may have injured in her youthful rejection of her origins. Last year she and Doda joined an equestrian club 20 miles east of Athens, with the aim of competing for the Greek national riding team in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Athina has also renewed her Greek passport, and is rumored to be house hunting in Greece. "It's all about giving her a chance," says Yiannis Aletras, an Athens-based lawyer who has represented Thierry Roussel. "Who's to say her grandfather, however shrewd a businessman, would not have given her that chance at the foundation — even as an honorary member?" Those old enough to remember the pugnacious and unsentimental tycoon may doubt that's true. Yet if his granddaughter has inherited even a touch of his spirit, she won't be giving up her fight anytime soon.

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