THE BRITISH entrepreneur David Lewis, who made his mark both in Britain and Israel, was the man behind the development of Eilat as a popular tourist destination. He founded Israel’s prominent hotel chain, Isrotel, 30 years ago, and was also the creative force behind the successful British clothing company, River Island, which he originally launched and co-founded as the Chelsea Girl chain
In Israel, his opening of the King Solomon Hotel in Eilat in 1980 marked out the town as Israel’s future boom resort. For this he was made an honorary citizen of Eilat, the second non-Eilati to receive the tribute.The hotels’ success spread throughout the country with 12 Isrotel hotels and spas, including Haifa and Tel Aviv.
He was lauded for his broad-basedphilanthropy, receiving a CBE in 1995 for his charitable work, and the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation Business Lifetime Achievement Award last year, when he also celebrated 60 years of marriage to his wife Ruth. The couple had five children and 11 grandchildren.
His father, Louis Pokrasse, was the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. He and his wife Clara were London greengrocers who were academically ambitious for their children. David had three younger brothers – Bernard, the late Geoffrey and Godfrey. The family changed its name to Lewis in 1933.
David won a scholarship to Harrow Grammar School, but his schooling was disrupted when his parents faced financial hardship with several shop closures. He developed an early interest in politics, as his formative years saw the rise of Hitler, social reform in Britain, and the Great Depression. He and his brothers witnessed increasing acts of local antisemitism and poverty. The persecution of European Jews and the British Government’s insipid response turned him into a young Zionist.
Evacuated with his brothers at the outbreak of war, David ended up in Weymouth with Godfrey. He left school at 16 and returned to London aiming to become a political journalist. However, the significant newsprint reduction during the war depleted jobs. Instead David opted for accountancy, became an errand boy for an accountancy firm and took a correspondence course.
He was in London during the Blitz, and endured 57 nights of uninterrupted bombing by Germany. Rationing started, but life had to carry on and the shop had to keep going. Now living in Stamford Hill, David’s father became ill, so David handled the finances.
Against his father’s wishes, David volunteered for the RAF as a navigator. He joined a New Zealand Squadron in Bomber Command, trained in Canada, and was stationed in Norfolk, England. He flew in a Lancaster Bomber as a navigator and took part in a number of missions over Germany, at first dropping bombs then, after the war, dropping food as part of Operation Manna - statistically the most dangerous job in the Allied Forces.
David’s father died just before the end of the war, leaving a poorly stocked shop and a family with no income.
When David was finally de-mobbed, as the eldest male he took over the role of family leader and adviser. While his brothers helped their mother with the shop, David pursued his studies qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1950. He launched his own practice and waited for the clients to walk in. Strangely enough, they did.
At about the same time, his brother Bernard was trying to secure a new shop for his mother, this time selling clothes. David negotiated the lease and helped to arrange finance for the shop-fitting and shop stock. The gamble paid off. The shop was successful. In 1951 he married Ruth Benjamin.
In the early Fifties, the brothers developed their fledging fashion retail chain. As chairman, David took responsibility for property, finance and legal matters. Their first provincial shop opened in Hull, in 1958. Eventually Lewis Separates, spread throughout the United Kingdom and by the 1960s, transformed into the young mass fashion boutique chain, Chelsea Girl.
The conversion proved immensely successful, and the business grew to well over 100 shops. Today, as River Island, the family retail business has over 300 shops in a dozen countries.
David began investing the profits from the family business and his first property deals were in London where he proved his negotiating and financial talents. He soon built up a valuable and stable portfolio.
Aware of the 1960’s growing package holiday market, he invested in resort properties in Spain - first targeting a development project in Mallorca. It proved immensely successful.
David launched a new business as an operator of, as well as investor in, resort hotels. He soon developed and managed a chain of hotels and holiday apartments in the Ballearics. His Spanish Hotel Chain, Iberotel, was eventually sold in 2006 for many more times what they had cost.
But the 1973 Yom Kippur war profoundly affected him, inspiring him to help wounded Israeli soldiers with a new foundation. The Lewis National Rehabilitation Institute in Israel was followed by the Lewis Fellowship Scheme to fund the training of Israeli doctors in Britain.
In the mid 1970s, David sold his accountancy practice to concentrate on fashion retailing, property, hotels, and charity work. He formed the Lewis Family Charitable Trust, which annually supports a large number of charities in Britain and abroad. Towards the end of the 1970s, following an approach from the then Israeli Minister for Tourism, David saw his first opportunity to invest in Israel. The minister persuaded David to take a look at a sleepy seaside town on the edge of the Negev called Eilat. His venture was revolutionary and tremendously successful. More hotels opened under the brand, ‘Isrotel’ and continues to expand.
David also supported the family’s investment in property in the United States, eventually handing over to his eldest son Julian.
David was as passionate about sailing, skiing and flying as he was about business. He owned boats and was one of the world’s oldest qualified commercial pilots.
In the last years of his life, he combined business with community projects, developing a new hotel in the Negev and a new marina in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, both successful undertakings.
David has advised politicians in Britain and Israel. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks praised his remarkable support for Israel, and his enormous contribution to its hotels and tourist industry - with an unflagging energy.
“He was a man of passionate principle whom I greatly admired, a loyal Jew and passionate lover of the land and State of Israel, who will be greatly missed.”
He is survived by Ruth, his five children, and 12 grandchildren.
David Lewis: From River Island to a place in the sun