From Romanian poverty and the Holocaust: Marcel Adams Rose to Billionaire Real Estate Developer in Century-Long Life

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Born in a Carpathian mountain village to a peddler of animal hides, Marcel Adams became a billionaire through shrewd investment in the burgeoning postwar real estate boom in Canada and an extraordinary single-minded determination.

That iron will no doubt contributed to his longevity. Adams died on Aug. 11, nine days after his 100th birthday.

Marcel Adams
Marcel Adams

For years, Adams was listed among the richest Canadians by Canadian Business magazine and, in 2017, his wealth was calculated at US $1.5 billion, with assets in mostly commercial properties across the country and in the United States.

Adams immigrated to Canada in 1951 from Israel with virtually nothing and, following in his father’s trade, worked in a tannery in Quebec City. While still an employee, he took the advice of a lawyer he met at his synagogue and invested in the development of a modest residential building. Soon he had several apartments and, fortuitously, switched to commercial real estate, most profitably, shopping centres – a new phenomenon. He completed the first mall in the provincial capital in 1959.

Despite his success, Adams never fit the image of the moneyed class. Physically unprepossessing and a man of few words outside his intimates, Adams preferred to blend into the crowd and avoided honours. His philanthropy grew with the years, but he remained low-key personally, while still seen frequently at Jewish community events well into his 90s.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, his son-in-law, McGill University history professor Gil Troy, observed: “’With his thick peasant hands…and thicker accent, Marcel loved being underestimated by elegant Canadians.” He remained famously frugal, always pleased at finding a way to save money even on the most mundane of daily expenditures, and planned each day’s agenda with a pencil and paper.

Adams knew the importance of paying attention to details and the small gains that led to broader outcomes.

Born Meir Abramovici in Piatra Neamt, Romania, the young Adams toiled in Nazi slave labour camps between 1941 and 1944, when he escaped and fled to Palestine via Turkey. There, he raised cattle and joined the army, fighting in the 1948 War of Independence.

Thanks to his proficiency in French, Adams was tapped by the Jewish Agency to serve in Algiers and Marseilles, helping to get North African Jewish refugees to Israel.

Adams founded Iberville Developments Ltd. In 1958, moving the business to Montreal in the mid-1960s. The privately-held company became one of the largest commercial real estate enterprises in Canada.

After his father left its day-to-day operations, Sylvan Adams ran Iberville. Since he made aliyah five years ago, Iberville has been headed by Sylvan’s son, Josh.

“He was a great man, a Holocaust survivor, who never complained, never looked back, only forward, as he worked hard to build a better life for himself and his family,” stated Sylvan upon his father’s passing.

Adams and his late wife Annie, also a Romanian immigrant, were particularly supportive of Tel Aviv University. Among the projects they initiated there are the Adams Institute for Business Management Information Systems and the Adams Centre for Brain Research. Annie Adams died in 1997.

In 2005, Adams established, with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities a fellowship program providing US $1 million annually to promising PhD students. To date, 142 students have benefited, many going on to promising careers in Israel.

Although his formal education was curtailed, Adams had a keen intellect and a lifelong hunger for learning. He had a genius for mathematics and read widely, at least, anything he felt would further his practical knowledge.

“As the historian son-in-law, my ‘job’ was to feed him serious works of history, biography, current events,” Troy related. “Whenever I threw in a novel, he scoffed, meiselach (trivialities).”

Those who knew Adams remember a warm, engaging and eternally optimistic man, a great storyteller who drew on his own incredible life.

In a condolence on the Paperman funeral home website, Rabbi Allan Nadler, formerly of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, said the Adams he knew was “’down to earth, warm and a haymisher Rumaynisher Yid who was often the anonymous donor when an urgent situation arose that required discreet charity.”

Besides Sylvan, who devotes himself to promoting Israel to the world through such spectacular events as bringing the Giro Italia cycling race to Israel for the first time, Adams is survived by his son Julian, a biochemist known for his key role in developing the drug Velcade for the treatment of myeloma; Troy’s wife Linda, a lawyer; Leora, a nurse; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.