Remembering Edwin W. Stephan, Founder of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

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Edwin W. Stephan, the visionary founder of Royal Caribbean and a leading light of the modern cruise industry, has died at age 87.

In the late 1960s, Stephan dreamed of a company running year-round cruises from Miami on ships of a kind never before seen in the industry.  He envisioned three ships providing a level of service and luxury surpassing what could be found on land. The first ship, Song of Norway, set sail from Miami on November 7, 1970, and the company has never looked back.  It was the first ship ever specifically for cruising.

The ships were designed with safety as the top priority and purpose-built to ply the Caribbean and dock in its ports. On those ships, Stephan also came up with the round, cantilevered Viking Crown Lounge – inspired by the Seattle Space Needle – that gave Royal Caribbean ships a striking visual profile that stood out from competitors.  A crucial feature of his ships, which were created to be much more than just transportation from here to there, were open decks for enjoying the sun and ocean breezes – features eventually adopted by the rest of the cruise industry.

“Ed Stephan started this company with a passion for innovation and those two terms – passion and innovation – remain core to Royal Caribbean’s culture today,” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. “He was an inspiration and a great friend to many in the company. He was an honorable man who loved his family, his work, and his community.  Our company and our industry are in debt to the size of his dreams, the keenness of his vision, and the kindness of his leadership.”

Stephan, a gentle introvert who dreamed big, worked tirelessly to make his vision come true and saw Royal Caribbean, the first cruise company of its kind, grow into a multi-billion-dollar industry.   He served as the company’s first president for 27 years, later serving as vice chairman of its board of directors until his retirement in 2003.

A native of Wisconsin who disliked the cold, Stephan served in the Korean War as a decorated army radar technician before settling in Miami to make a career. Breaking into the thriving downtown hotel business, he worked his way up to managing a hotel next to the pier where well-worn ships sailed to Nassau and Havana for quick turnaround cruises. This precursor to modern cruising had operated since the 1920s, with owners who often valued cargo capacities over passenger loads.

Intrigued by what could be, Stephan joined a steamship company and then a nascent cruise line before traveling to Oslo, Norway, with a big idea. Shipping culture there went back centuries to the time of the Vikings, essential in Stephan’s view.

This is how Stephan later remembered that beginning in The Royal Caribbean Story, a video about the company:

“I went to Norway to look for principals to build new, safe ships. I was having a lot of bad luck. One evening it was snowing like crazy and someone said, ‘There is a guy who basically sleeps during the day and drinks brandy at night, but he’s very interested in this.’”

That evening in 1968 expanded into a meeting with three Norwegian ship owners – Anders Wilhelmsen (who remains Royal Caribbean’s largest shareholder), Sigurd Skaugen, and Gotaas Larsen.  From that meeting, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line was born in January 1969. The choice of the word “Royal” was meant to denote the high level of service demanded by Stephan’s original vision.

Tall and lean with piercing blue eyes, Stephan was shy and was no doubt pleased to bury himself in the design of the first of three ships as a respite from the rough-and-tumble world of his backers. He became a man obsessed, working day and night on drawings and costs and the fine details of bringing a dream to life. He made time for nothing else.

Pete Whelpton, a former associate in the hotel business and Royal Caribbean’s executive vice-president of hotel operations from the beginning, said, “His mind worked like a computer. I told my wife, ‘He’s going to burn out one of these days. You’re going to smell something, and it’s going to be Ed’s brains.’ It was so amazing what this guy could do.”

Its sleek superstructure made it instantly recognizable for the gracefully sweeping Clipper-style bow and topped at the rear by the Viking Crown Lounge, a round, cantilevered venue attached to the aft side of its stack, some 200 feet above the waterline. It was christened Song of Norway, and the 724-passenger ship first sailed from the Port of Miami’s Dodge Island on November 7, 1970.

Rod McLeod, who retired in 2003 as executive vice president of travel industry relations after 25 years with Royal Caribbean, said Stephan was no micro manager: “But Ed was very into the details. Royal Caribbean was his concept and the creation of Royal Caribbean was a passion for him, so he took an interest in everything that was going on from menu planning to entertainment to sales to marketing. It was his baby.”

It has been noted that until his retirement in 2003 as RCL’s vice chairman of the board of directors after serving as president for the company’s first 27 years, Stephan read every customer comment card. It was in keeping with his insistence that in all considerations, the guest came first.

“Our heartfelt condolences go out to Ed’s loving wife, Helen, and the children he adored, Michael,  Samantha, Gary and Kristin,” said Fain.  “He will be deeply missed by all of us here, by his many friends, and by our community.”

He is deeply mourned by people throughout the company who knew him and others who wish they had.

A family only service will be held to honor Ed’s memory. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in memory of Edwin Stephan to be made to Mount Sinai Miami Medical Center Foundation in honor of his physician, Eugene J. Sayfie M.D. By Mail: 4300 Alton Road, Ascher Building #100, Miami Beach, Florida 33140.