In the early 1960s I began to hunt for adventures beyond El Paso and the Sierra Madre. I wanted to do business at a higher level, with greater range, and on a bigger scale.
By this point, I had come to believe about partnership what Andrew Carnegie had once said about teamwork: it is “the ability to work together toward a common vision . . . the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
It was certainly true of my first partner, the old fighter pilot Stanley Kessler, who helped me expand our war surplus business after the war to make the first money I ever made. It was true of the working relationship that Frank Senkowsky and Genaro Mendoza brought to our collaboration in Mexico, with each taking responsibility for the part of the business that matched up to our individual talents. Even from the partners who had screwed me out of my share of the profits, I learned that partnership could have its strengths—though my experience with those double-dealers also taught me that no matter how much you trust somebody, you should always work to verify he’s doing what he says he’s doing.
But for all the success I had experienced in my partnerships up to that point, these were just a warm-up act for what was to follow.
During the ’60s, I partnered with three men whose skill and friendship helped me move beyond Mexico and achieve success around the globe. Ralph Feuerring, a Swedish American, was born in Berlin to a wealthy family and had come to MIT by way of Jerusalem. Ara Oztemel, a Turkish Armenian American, was born in Istanbul to an architect’s family and had come to Boston’s Northeastern University by way of Cairo. Henry Leir, a German American, was born in Silesia to a hard-pressed family and had come to New York by way of Luxembourg. All three came to America touched by holocaust or genocide. Each wanted something different from me, and I wanted something different from each of them.
Ralph Feuerring came to Mexico to find me in 1956. He wanted to buy my manganese ore. He had been buying ore in India, shipping it through the 120-mile Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and selling it in the United States. When President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the canal and closed it to Israel in 1956, however, the shipping costs from India became prohibitive. Over the next few years, I sold him manganese, and we did some other deals.
Ralph and I developed a friendship with many of the qualities a good partnership requires: trust, respect, and compatible strengths. It was Ralph who connected me with Ara Oztemel, with whom he had been doing business, in 1959.
Ara needed cash for the fledgling trading company he had formed to do deals with the Soviets. With the Cold War approaching its height, trade between Western nations and the Soviet Union was at a standstill. Ralph had sent Ara to me, thinking I might be interested. Ara touted a motley mix of prospects, mostly commodities and products he hoped to import, including Soviet-made scooters that were Vespa knockoffs.
I didn’t bet on Ara’s scooters, but I began to spend time with him. He looked like a Buddha—bald and round—but had none of the holy man’s asceticism or taste for meditation. He could hold his liquor and loved to chase fun, adventure, and money, all bundled together. So did I. I found him fascinating, larger than life.
In early 1961, Ara came to me again. Once more he needed a large amount of cash to make a deal with the Soviets to import their chrome ore to the United States. The deal was ripe to make. The US needed metallurgical-grade chrome to make stainless steel but had no domestic source. Moreover, Ara said he had an angle. He somehow had developed a personal connection with Anastas Mikoyan, an Old Bolshevik who is remembered by history as the sole Soviet politician to hold a senior position at the center of power under Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev—a span of six decades. Mikoyan wanted to promote trade with the West and had a natural tie to Ara: he was Armenian.
I liked the boldness and scale of Ara’s proposition. I loved the irony of buying a mineral critical to equip America’s military —in the heat of the Cold War—from the Soviet Union. But where was I going to find the $50 million Ara needed to pull it off?
Enter Henry Leir.
I had met Leir the previous year in San Luis Potosi. He had come specifically to find me, and I was deeply flattered. He was a legend in the international metals and minerals industry. He had built a thriving minerals trading company in Luxembourg in the 1930s, befriended the royal family and helping that country rebuild its economy.
Leir liked to recruit bright young men, teach them about his business, and back them with his money and clout. He came to my office in San Luis Potosi in the spring of 1960 and opened by saying he had heard good things about me. He was then very direct about what he wanted: to “marry me.”
Taking this offer of partnership in stride, I replied that he knew a great deal more about minerals and commodities than I did, but I knew something about love. “Frankly,” I said, “I’d rather be your sweetheart than be your wife.”
Thus we began an elaborate six-month square dance.
Some of my wants were clear and definite. I wanted to expand my business reach beyond Mexico. I wanted to make bigger deals than I had so far. I wanted to deal in commodities beyond my manganese trade. My other wants floated into vague boyish exuberance. I wanted to mingle with other dealmakers in exotic places. I wanted to be a bigger deal myself. I wanted to be a “roving ambassador,” whatever that meant.
Leir and I called our company Stanley A. Weiss & Company, Ltd. But with our energies focused on other opportunities, it never went anywhere. We closed it after two years.
But Leir was always in the back of my mind. When Ara said he needed $50 million to buy chrome ore from the Soviets, I reached out to Henry Leir. He agreed to put up the money.
Ara and I went to the New York offices of Amtorg, the Soviet trading company, and closed the deal on Friday, June 2, 1961. We flew to Moscow to finish the formalities. That weekend, Kennedy and Khrushchev met for their one and only meeting at their famous summit in Vienna. Kennedy recognized later that the Soviet premier had “beat the hell out of” him. It beat the hell out of Ara and me, too: By the time we arrived in Moscow, US–Soviet relations had fallen into a freeze that was both deep and dangerous. What had been da on Friday in New York was nyet on Monday in Moscow.
Since we were there, Ara said we might as well enjoy ourselves. The Soviets assigned a beautiful young woman, a dancer, to look after me. Her mother was Ukrainian; her father, from the Belgian Congo. She took me around Moscow, singing sweet songs about the wonders of communism. She proudly took me to the recently created Lumumba University, named for Congo’s prime minister who had been killed a few months before. She introduced me to some of the African students the Soviets were training there. I expected to be hit with blasts of Marxism and anti-Americanism. Instead, to her embarrassment, the students jumped all over me to help them get to the United States.
The gap between Soviet doctrine and experience was very real, and it awakened me to the realities of life in the Soviet Union. Back in my hotel room, I tried an experiment to see whether the room was bugged. I said out loud, “God, I wish I had more soap.” A minute later there came a knock on my door. The valet was standing there with more soap.
After a stop in Leningrad, I flew home by way of Brussels and, boarding my afternoon flight to New York, spied Jason Robards, tipping his hat good-bye to Lauren Bacall, soon to be his wife. Coincidentally, Robards and I wound up seated next to each other. Although we had never met, we kept glancing at each other as if we might have. Then it dawned on us both that we were seeing ourselves in the mirror: he looked like me, and I looked like him. Since we were both well on the way to getting drunk, neither of us was all that clear-eyed.
Robards said, “Why don’t we entertain the people on the plane?”
I asked how we could do that.
He said, “Well, we really look alike, so people will think you are me.”
I said, “But I don’t have your voice.”
He waved me off. “It doesn’t matter.”
We took turns. He recited poetry. I pretended. Everyone had a hilarious time. We finally collapsed in our seats laughing and proceeded to put the final touches on our drunken escapade. We became friends.
After a few months, the Soviets rewarded Ara’s patience by ratifying the deal he and I had thought we’d already made. By then Ara and Ralph had formed SATRA, the Soviet–American Trading Corporation, and the Soviets granted them the exclusive authority to bring Soviet chrome ore into the United States. I eventually joined them as a partner in SATRA.
By the end of the 1960s, as the New York Times would later recall in Ara’s 1998 obituary, “as much as 80 percent of the trade between the US and the Soviet Union was handled by the SATRA Trading Company.”
History has given a number of people credit for reigniting trade between the US and the Soviet Union, but make no mistake: Ara Oztemel was its true pioneer. And with Henry Leir, I was proud to have played a role.
Stanley A. Weiss is a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security. This excerpt is taken from his recently published memoir, "Being Dead is Bad for Business,” which is available in bookstores around the United States and online.
Photo credit: Shutterstock / marvent