Turkish billionaire Rahmi M. Koç has a passion for history and boats.
Which helps explain why the 84-year-old industrialist and philanthropist ended up buying RMK Merrill-Stevens, the venerable boatyard on the Miami River that claims to be Florida’s oldest operating business.
In an interview, Koç said he is evaluating plans with RMK Merrill-Stevens’ CEO and minority owner, John Spencer, to modernize and upgrade the boatyard, which straddles both sides of the Miami River.
The goal is to improve efficiencies and gear up to accommodate bigger yachts.
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“Money is to be made with big boats,” said Koç, who keeps a vacation home in Miami and is a member of the New York Yacht Club.
RMK Merrill-Stevens is but a drop in the ocean of Koç’s investments.
Koç, who studied business at Johns Hopkins University, is one of the most prominent businessmen in Turkey, and his family controls the nation’s largest industrial conglomerate, Koç Holding A.S. The conglomerate has about 81,000 employees and had 2013 revenue of $65 billion — equal to about 8 percent of Turkey’s GDP.
Founded by Rahmi Koç’s late father, Vehbi Koç, the holding company has operations in various sectors including energy, automotive, consumer durables and finance. It builds everything from Fiat and Ford cars to refrigerators.
Its RMK Marine shipyard in Istanbul builds yachts, coastal tankers, chemical tankers and naval vessels. Among other plans, Koç wants to use his new Miami River beachhead at RMK Merrill-Stevens, acquired in November 2013, to market RMK Marine megayachts in the United States.
His family is also well-known for its philanthropic activities.
In 1969, as the family business empire prospered, the father created The Vehbi Koç Foundation to coordinate philanthropic work of Koç Holding. Rahmi Koç is the deputy chairman of the foundation, which focuses on education, healthcare and culture.
The foundation, which is worth about $1.8 billion, spearheaded the founding of Koç University in Istanbul and supports the private nonprofit university. Koç is chairman of the university, where most classes are taught in English.
In 2009, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace awarded the Koç family its Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in recognition of the family’s work.
In the United States, the foundation gave $10 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2009 for the creation of new galleries of Ottoman art. Rahmi Koç is an honorary trustee at the Metropolitan Museum. The foundation in 1997 endowed a chair at Harvard for Turkish studies.
His fascination with history and industry prompted him to create the Rahmi M. Koç Museum in Istanbul to exhibit a diverse collection of industrial, transportation and communications items.
“I have an affinity for old things,” Koç said.
The museum’s enormous collection includes vessels such as a 1893-vintage steam yacht, Ysolt, built in England, and the Kismet, a 34-foot sailboat used in 1965 by the first Turkish sailor to go around the world. This year, the museum added The Rosalie, a steam tug built in Holland in 1873.
Among numerous other holdings, the museum also has a U.S. Navy submarine, the USS Thornback, built in 1944.
In April 2003, Rahmi Koç retired as chairman of Koç Holding and his oldest son, Mustafa V. Koç, succeeded him at the giant company, whose shares trade publicly in Turkey but are 70 percent controlled by the Koç family.
Rahmi Koç then took two years to sail around the world. His vessel: Nazenin IV, a 124-foot sailing yacht built at RMK Marine in Istanbul. He later sold the yacht and has a new one, the 171-foot Nazenin V, also built at his Turkish shipyard.
Besides the RMK Merrill-Stevens boatyard, Koc’s personal ventures in South Florida and the region include a minority stake in the development of a resort and hotel complex at the historic Surf Club in Surfside through Miami-based Fort Capital Management. The Surf Club’s structures are being restored. The project includes a 151-unit condominium, The Surf Club Four Seasons Private Residences, and a 77-room Four Seasons Hotel.
Through Fort Capital, Koç’s family also has a personal investment in the development of Norman’s Cay, a private six-mile-long island in Exuma, Bahamas. The island was once a landing strip for Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder. Fort Capital, which is pursuing a residential and resort development on the secluded island, said plans include a Bahamian immigration center on the island along with an upgraded runway with a nearby marina.
“I’m a silent partner,’’ Koç said.