Arne Wilhelmsen, a founder of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) and a strategist of the modern cruise industry, died April 11, 2020, in Palma, Spain. He was 90 years old.
Wilhelmsen was a constant influence on the company from its founding, serving more than three decades on the board of directors. Together with the company’s first CEO, the late Edwin Stephan, Wilhelmsen saw possibilities for the nascent cruise industry that others did not. “At a time when the rest of the world thought cruising was a niche use for old transatlantic liners, Arne was already seeing glimmers of the growth that was possible,” said Richard Fain, RCL’s chairman and CEO. “He had a vision of the modern cruise industry when the ‘industry’ might have been a dozen used ships, total.”
Their key insight: building new ships uniquely designed for cruising in warm weather. The industry did not grow from New York, the traditional transit hub; it came to Miami, helping the region itself grow as the public discovered an entirely new way to take a vacation.
Wilhelmsen saw the potential for cruising to become the fastest-growing segment in an expanding vacation industry. A believer in economies of scale, he once recalled, “My initial challenge was to convince my partners and management in Miami to build bigger and more efficient ships in order to grow the company.” True to his vision, the company now sails 61 ships calling on all seven continents and its fleet features the largest cruise ships in the world.
Born on June 15, 1929, in Oslo, Norway, Wilhelmsen earned his MBA at Harvard Business School and worked as a chartering assistant for Norway’s EB Lund & Co. and later as a shipbroker in New York. After joining the family business in 1954, he became its president in 1961. The scion of a leading Norwegian shipping concern—Anders Wilhelmsen & Co AS—he spent most of his life in the family business, including an early stint as a deckhand.
Photo: Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.