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Paul Soros: Shipping magnate and philanthropist


Paul Soros was a Hungarian-born shipping innovator and magnate, philanthropist and forward-thinking entrepreneur. He was, according to his younger brother, the billionaire George Soros, "a big-picture man". Both hugely successful brothers had learned from their father "to go against the rules when they are wrong".

Arriving in the United States in 1948 with $17 and a Leica camera to his name, Paul went on to establish in 1956 a multi-million pound business, Soros Associates, designing and engineering ports and offshore terminals to deal with the processing of, usually mined, bulk raw materials, such as coal, bauxite and iron ore. Through his innovations, international trade and production patterns shifted and his company dominated the industry with projects in over 90 countries. His son Peter said, "His genius was seeing what everyone was seeing and finding new ways to solve interesting problems."

In 1989, with a number of awards, patents in materials handling and off-shore technology, and having authored many technical papers, Soros sold the company. He reinvested some of his vast fortune with his brother into industrial and mining ventures.

In 1997, in gratitude for the life the US had given them, Soros and his wife Daisy, also a Hungarian émigré, established Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships, a foundation to provide grants to struggling new immigrants or their children for graduate study. To date, the foundation's $75 million endowment fund has helped more than 400 students. Soros later said, "My story is riches to rags to riches again. I was lucky to survive. The rest was relatively easy."

Paul Schwartz was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1926. His father, Tividar, was a lawyer and Esperantist, a promoter of the artificial language designed to bridge the differences between cultures and languages; he had been a prisoner of war during and after the First World War until he escaped from Russia and rejoined his family in Budapest in 1921; his mother, Elizabeth, had helped run her family's thriving silk business.

The family enjoyed a privileged upbringing with summers spent on an island on the River Danube, and Paul became an accomplished and talented skier and tennis player. In 1936 his father changed the family name to Soros, meaning "will soar" in Esperanto, in response to the growing anti-Semitism emanating from Nazi Germany. Life continued, however, relatively normally until the Nazi occupation of Budapest in March 1944. Tividar then scattered his family to safe houses around the city with fake identity papers denoting them as Christians.

The Russians arrived in February 1945, and Paul was captured and accused of being a fugitive SS officer. Along with thousands of other Hungarian men he was force-marched east to Russia. Paul later wrote, "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 Russian guards squeezed across the bridge, he recalled, "I simply made a run for it." He escaped the guards' notice and hid in a burned-out farmhouse and watched the column pass for about an hour before walking back to Budapest.

He began to study engineering at the University of Budapest and was picked for the 1948 Winter Olympic ski team. He was carrying a leg injury but hid this. En route to Switzerland via Austria, he defected, eventually arriving in the US. George had fled earlier, spending time in London and at the London School of Economics before moving across the Atlantic. They were reunited in 1956.

Paul found work as a tennis pro following a serious skiing injury which cost him a kidney, before winning a scholarship to St Lawrence University in northern New York State; he later enrolled at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. In exchange for his studies, he coached the college ski team.

Upon graduation, Soros had a number of engineering sales jobs before joining Hewitt Robins International, a maker of conveyor belting and industrial hose, as a sales engineer in the export department. It was while on a trip to South America that Soros had his "eureka" moment and, remembering his boating days on the Danube, he designed a low-cost iron-ore loading system for a port in Chile. His systems of floating piers saved time and money by allowing the ever-larger cargo ships to be loaded while moored to buoys rather than having to bring them into purpose-built ports, which in any case would need building. The company went global and he eventually sold it to an Italian state-owned company.

Thereafter Soros and his wife, whom he had married in 1951, became philanthropists while also running an investment company and sitting on the board of his brother George's company, Quantum Industrial Holdings. Soros sponsored many events and became a patron of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, and a trustee and benefactor of Polytechnic University, which he praised for "giving the sons of janitors who possess a work ethic a chance to move into the middle class". He later served as a Special UN Ambassador to Morocco and Jordan.

Viewed as a gentleman, Soros continued his sporting pursuits well into his eighties despite a number of serious injuries, including losing an eye in a golfing accident. In his memoir, which he entitled American (Con)quest, he wrote that after he had reached 65 his taxable income exceeded $100 million a year. His lifestyle, however, 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. Soros is survived by his wife, Daisy and two sons; a daughter died in a car accident.

Paul Schwartz (Paul Soros), entrepreneur and philanthropist: born Budapest 1926; married Daisy 1951 (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died New York 15 June 2013.