GREENSBORO — Kenneth Kornfeld liked to dress in black, resembled Dustin Hoffman, had the mysterious air of Jay Gatsby and demanded the privacy of Greta Garbo.
“He looked liked he could be a Hollywood producer rather than someone selling insurance,” said Greensboro businessman Tim Burnett, who lived next door to Ken and Ronda Kornfeld on Country Club Drive in Irving Park.
The Kornfelds’ castle-like house, for which they paid $2.1 million in 1992, now stands empty.
As part of a $400 million agreement to settle a multi-billion dollar fraud suit — largest in the state’s history — the Kornfelds turned over to three Japanese insurance companies the 10,900-square foot Irving Park house, a $7.7 million mansion in Aspen, three apartments on New York’s tony Upper West Side, seven cars, a jet and beach property at gated Figure Eight Island near Wilmington.
The Kornfelds’ lavish lifestyle — details of which began to emerge in 2002 when the Japanese insurers began filing suits and one of the companies was forced into bankruptcy — became fully exposed when the settlement, reached in late 2003, was made public two weeks ago.
Kornfeld the man, however, remains in the shadows. People are reluctant to talk about him on the record. Kornfeld, who is now reportedly living in New York, has repeatedly declined requests for interviews since his legal troubles began.
But public records and interviews with friends and family members tell a story of a self-made, secretive man who grew up in a lower class Brooklyn apartment before making a fortune in the esoteric business of reinsurance in out-of-the-way Burlington.
The Japanese insurers accused Kornfeld and Maurice Sabbah of Greensboro, partners in a company called Fortress Re, of bookkeeping irregularities in managing a risk-sharing insurance pool that consisted of three Japanese companies and a Fortress Re subsidiary, Carolina Re. The parties suffered enormous losses after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked and crashed four airliners the pool insured.
Besides allegedly paying themselves exorbitant fees and commissions to manage the pool, Kornfeld and Sabbah, in the words of one lawyer for the Japanese insurers, allegedly “skimmed’’ an estimated $400 million in premiums paid to Carolina Re. Carolina Re lacked money to pay its
$600 million share of Sept. 11 losses and several other claims against the pool. The Japanese insurers had to cover Carolina Re’s losses.
Until Sept. 11, Kornfeld jetted around the world dealing in billions of dollars in aviation insurance, vacationing in Aspen and staying for periods in his New York apartments.
When in Greensboro, Kornfeld followed the lead of his more outgoing wife, hosting occasional dinner parties to benefit good causes, such as preservation of historic Blandwood Mansion.
The couple belonged to Greensboro Country Club, though neither golfed or played tennis. They sent their three children to Greensboro Day School and to two of the nation’s elite boarding schools, Lawrenceville and Choate-Rosemary Hall.
If the Japanese insurers were quick to sue when they thought they had been defrauded, Kornfeld was too when he felt wronged.
According to court documents, when a $41,000 antique desk he bought for his Irving Park study turned out to be a reproduction, he sued an antiques dealer in Vancouver, B.C., an antiques finder in Atlanta and an interior designer in Greensboro.
In the early 1990s he sued an English cabinet maker and a Pennsylvania company, alleging $212,000 worth of cabinets for the Irving Park house were flawed. He sued a Connecticut interior design firm he hired for $285,000 to do work in Greensboro, New York and Aspen. Among other contentions, he claimed doors in one of the couple’s New York apartments wouldn’t shut because the designer had installed carpet that was too thick.
And the Kornfelds said the drapes the designer installed in the master bedroom of the Greensboro house blocked their music sound system.
Kornfeld’s world of big homes and lavish furnishings — he paid the Connecticut designer $11,700 for an antique French lamp — was far removed from the life he knew as a boy living in an apartment in Brooklyn’s Flatbush area. His father and uncle, both deceased, owned a small neighborhood grocery store. After the store failed, the Kornfeld brothers worked as store managers in supermarkets.
Ken Kornfeld attended Brooklyn public schools and graduated from Brooklyn College. He met Maurice Sabbah, another Brooklyn native, during a job interview at a New York insurance company where Sabbah worked.
Sabbah moved to Greensboro and in 1972 started Fortress Re. A year later Kornfeld joined him and soon became his partner.
It’s also not clear why Sabbah, who also has repeatedly declined interviews, chose to base Fortress Re and Carolina Re in Burlington rather than Greensboro where he lived.
Kornfeld and Sabbah made no attempt to become part of Burlington’s corporate community. They didn’t join the Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups, although in Greensboro they gave generously to charities and civic endeavors, especially those related to the arts.
Fortress Re prospered from the start, but revenues and profits didn’t seem excessive. In 2002, Insider Quarterly, a British publication covering the insurance industry, reported that Fortress Re in 1983 had revenues of $15.4 million and profits of $2 million.
But as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the company developed a new system that increased fees and commissions. Fortress Re quietly became one of the major players in international aviation reinsurance, although few people in Burlington or Greensboro knew it existed.
In 1992, according to Insider Quarterly, Fortress Re revenues had zoomed to
$584 million and profits to
$145 million — of which
$60 million was Sabbah and Kornfeld’s share.
Until the early 1990s,
Kornfeld’s lifestyle didn’t appear ostentatious. After moving to Greensboro, he and his wife lived a few years at Yester Oaks, upscale apartments on Pisgah Church Road. They then began climbing the city’s real estate ladder.
They lived awhile in a house on Highberry Drive in middle class Carriage Hills, off Westridge Road. They moved to Round Hill Road in New Irving Park and then to Hazel Lane in the same neighborhood, before jumping to old Irving Park in 1992 to an estate built in 1936 for Herman Cone, president of Cone Mills.
During the time that Cone and later his son, Alan Cone, lived there, passersby on Country Club Drive could take in the length of the long, three-story house with a tower. Kornfeld changed that, planting trees and shrubs on the grounds for privacy. The house is no longer visible from the road.
Hunter Galloway III, a lawyer and former car dealer who lives on Nottingham Drive across from the rear of the former Kornfeld house, said he frequently saw Alan and Sally Cone when they lived there. He said when the Kornfelds arrived, in addition to the landscaping, the couple built a fence along the rear of the property and a massive gate that blocked the driveway entrances.
“I don’t think I ever saw him,” Galloway said of Ken Kornfeld. “You knew he was over there, but you never saw him or anyone, except their yard people. It was a weird situation.”
Kornfeld took privacy to the extreme, according to Insider Quarterly. It reported that Kornfeld once booked four rows of seats and left them empty on a London-to-New York flight on the Concorde so he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.
While he shunned crowds, Kornfeld wasn’t a hermit and he had a certain sense of style. He was small, slim, wore granny-style glasses and, some say, liked to wear full-length, fur-collared coats.
Each summer, the couple held an elaborate party in the house and around the large pool house they added to the grounds. Bands serenaded guests. Servants circulated trays loaded with sushi.
Guests knew that Kornfeld had something to do with the complicated business of reinsurance, but little more. Rumors circulated — and still do — that Ronda Kornfeld’s family had made a fortune from Cabbage Patch Dolls. Her father did own a toy company in New York, but research on the dolls’ history reveals nothing to indicate he had a major role with the product.
Ronda Kornfeld seemed extroverted compared to her shy husband. She joined a book club, once taught crochet at the United Arts Council, took weaving at Guilford Technical Community College and gave to political candidates.
“Ronda is one of those very interesting women,” says state Sen. Kay Hagan, who got to know her through Greensboro Day School, where they both had children. “She was comfortable with who she was and she spoke her opinions very forthrightly. She was very friendly and she was fun to be around.”
Hagan was like most others who knew the Kornfelds. She knew Ronda best, exchanging only pleasantries with Ken Kornfeld at social functions.
Other than wanting to stay out of the public eye and to become super rich, Kornfeld and Maurice Sabbah seemed to have little in common. They were of different generations. Kornfeld is 57; Sabbah, 75. When at the end of a day and they left their Burlington office, Sabbah drove his Jaguar with 250,000 miles on the odometer back to Greensboro.
Kornfeld returned in one of his seven relatively new cars and trucks. The Irving Park house’s four-car garage almost equals the size of Sabbah’s one-story brick, ranch-style home on busy West Friendly Avenue.
While Kornfeld loved big houses and world travel, Sabbah stayed close to home, lived simply and spent a huge chunk of his fortune creating the nation’s first Jewish boarding school, the American Hebrew Academy. To date, Sabbah has spent a reported $100 million on the 100-acre campus that opened in 2001 in west Greensboro.
A suit by the Japanese insurance companies is still pending regarding the school. They say the school was built with ill-gotten money.
Fortress Re and Carolina Re are no longer in business. Friends of the couple say Ken Kornfeld spent his last months in Greensboro in 2003 brooding in his mansion, devastated by the loss of fortune and reputation.
One day last September, Ronda Kornfeld attended a meeting of her Irving Park book club. The next day she and Ken Kornfeld were gone, having left town for good.
Contact Jim Schlosser at
373-7081 or jschlosser@