Royal Caribbean caught up in Italian family feud

A legal ownership battle between two Italian brothers, billionaire Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio and his history professor brother Francesco, over the business founded by their father, has seen Royal Caribbean dragged against its will into an international legal dispute.

Francesco, a university professor, has claimed in court documents that he is the rightful owner of 52% of a family holding company. That company owned Silversea Cruises, which, while headed by Manfredi, became a leading brand in ultra-luxury cruises.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd bought a majority stake in Silversea in 2018, valuing it at $2bn.

After years of court hearings and rulings, the case is due to go to an appeal trial in Bologna, which should mark the final decision under Italian law.

Since the sale of Silversea, Manfredi took over travel group Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) with its founder, backed firms including a software encryption company, and funded companies controlled by German financier Lars Windhorst.

Last month, A&K bought two ships in a sale resulting from the collapse of Crystal Cruises.

Manfredi’s lawyers say the case is “groundless.”

The siblings grew up in Rome, with Francesco, born in 1951, pursuing an academic career to become a professor of international history, His younger brother Manfredi, born in 1953,, dropped out of university to work at the family shipping business with their father Antonio, who died in 2011. However, the dispute between the two brothers had started a decade earlier.

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 agreed that 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.

But in 2008 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 used courts in several countries in his attempt to seize Silversea assets, being unsuccessful in Greece and Germany. But his main effort has been through Italian courts. He claims ownership of half of the Silversea shares, or damages equivalent to 52% of the value of the company. That is a claim  estimated at about €800m.

In the years before World War II 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. That led to the founding of Silversea in the 1990s. The sale of a stake to Royal Caribbean in 2018, and the transfer of the remaining stake to Royal Caribbean in 2020, made Manfredi Lefebvre a billionaire and gave him a pile of cash ready for investment through the family holding, Heritage Group.

Heritage, chaired by Manfredi, took over UK travel agency Abercrombie & Kent.

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 favour of Manfredi in 2018. A preliminary hearing for the new trial was held on June 14th and adjourned to December.

Meanwhile, Francesco also sued Royal Caribbean in Miami in May, claiming that his brother had no right to sell the Silversea shares. In the filing, he had accused RCL 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.”