Meet the Billionaire (and Ex-Fisherman) Giving Away His Fortune to Help Save the Ocean
A former-fisherman-turned-billionaire from Norway known for being a ruthless businessman now says he plans to give most of his wealth away.
Kjell Inge Roekke is the tenth-richest man in Norway, with a net worth over $2 billion. In an interview with Oslo's Aftenposen newspaper published Tuesday, he revealed plans to bequeath his holdings in ways that can benefit society, starting with a state-of-the-art ship that will perform marine research.
"Sea covers 70 percent of Earth's surface and much is not researched," he said. Among other things, Roekke's ship will remove up to five tons of plastic daily from the ocean and melt it down so it can do no harm.
The path to wealth for Roekke, 55, is a fascinating story. He was born in a small town on Norway's west coast. Suffering from dyslexia, he dropped out of high school and moved to Seattle to catch pollock and crab.
Thereafter, he developed what many in Norway describe as "American" traits that have both helped his business and earned him a controversial reputation.
He built his fortune by buying up old boats and modifying them into industrial trawlers. He returned to Norway in his late '30s and set about acquiring a stake in a 173-year-old Norwegian conglomerate, buying up 40 percent of its shares and merging it with his own Resources Group International. Forbes reported that Roekke has "earned a reputation as a ruthless corporate raider" throughout his career.
"He was the first one to bring American-style, aggressive capitalism to Norway, daring to use shareholder power to get what he wanted," Steinar Dyrnes, a journalist at the Aftenposten who wrote a biography of Roekke, told Reuters in 2014.
Roekke is also known for having an explosive temper. "He is often very charming and friendly," Dyrnes said of Roekke. "But there is another side. He can be very angry ... which is very un-Norwegian."
Indeed, Roekke spent 23 days in prison after being convicted of bribing his way to a boating license. Afterward, he spent more than $3,000 buying takeout pizzas for his old cellmates.
That generosity has now appeared to have gotten the better of Roekke.
"I want to give back to society the bulk of what I've earned," he told Aftenposten. "This ship is a part of it. The idea of such a ship has evolved over many years."
The cost of the ship was not disclosed, but it will include everything from sea and air drones to an auditorium to enormous amounts of lab space. It will be managed by conservation organization WWF, and be known as REV, short for research expedition vessel. One of its primary focuses will be how to control the enormous amount of plastic now at sea.
Roekke, who also owns an oil business, has given WWF complete independence as for its mission.
"We are far apart in their views on oil, and we will continue to challenge Røkke when we disagree with him," WFF chief Nina Jensen told Aftenposten, "but in this project we will meet to collectively make a big difference in the environmental struggle."