In the fourth article of our series, we look at who owns the Truman Brewery and reveal its complex, offshore-based ownership structure. Read the third article here.
Despite wielding enormous influence on the built environment and social composition of an area, those behind large-scale developments often remain anonymous to large sections of the community.
Jason Zeloof, the owner of the Old Truman Brewery Limited leading the controversial Truman Brewery development, is no different. A member of the Zeloof family that has built the largest property empire in Spitalfields and Banglatown, he remains largely unknown to the community in which he operates.
The origin story of Jason and his family, like the origin stories of the wealthy the world over, often collapses into mythology.
Sheltering from the stultifying sun of a mid-July day, I sat with an interviewee in the cool of an air-conditioned café on Bethnal Green Road, hoping to demystify the source of the wealth funding the latest corporate development in Western Tower Hamlets.
Jason’s father, the late Eliahou ‘Ely’’ Zeloof, he told me, had been a parking attendant in the Old Truman Brewery until the time of its closing in 1989.
According to this source, Ely and three of his sons had managed to acquire a ‘’small fortune’’ in the six years between 1989 and 1995; and with this small fortune, he said, they had acquired the Old Truman brewery.
The brewery was then run by the three brothers – Jason, Ofer, and Oren – who restored it and in doing so, the story went, acquired their riches.
The Rag Trade
The story of the Zeloofs began when Ely Zeloof, the patriarch of the family, was born in August 1936 in Baghdad, Iraq. His wife, Amira, was born in the same pulsing metropolis, ten years later.
The pair had both moved to Israel in early adulthood, and Amira had become pregnant by the age of eighteen.
The couple had two children together in Israel before moving to London in 1972, where it is believed two of Ely’s brothers already lived. In London, two more children followed, but only three of these, their sons, Oren, Jason and Ofer, would go on to take prominent roles in the family business.
Ely, who passed away in 2011, and Amira, who is alive and living in the family home in Hampstead, made their fortune in the rag trade.
At first, Ely worked in the rag trade with his two brothers on Fashion Street and nine years after moving to London, he and his wife started their own garment import and export business, calling it, Ely & Sidney Ltd.
In the early years, the company operated from 106 Commercial Street.
Ely & Sidney Ltd got off the ground with the help of two experienced directors from a Hong Kong-based company named Jan Sin Mee (UK) Ltd, who loaned them £25,000 in 1982.
The Jan Sin Mee group was a behemoth in garment manufacturing and one of the largest contemporary garment manufacturers in Hong Kong.
In the early 80s, at the time they were working with the Zeloofs, the Hong Kong company was reporting record sales and opening offices and factories internationally.
Ely & Sidney Ltd imported garments from the Far East before exporting them mainly to West Africa. In their first year, their turnover was already at £4 million.
In 1986, the Zeloofs began to branch out, with Ely and his eldest son Ofer taking over M.G.C Trading Ltd, which sold household goods, as well as Avonsand Management Ltd, which the family used to manage the garment business.
In 1987, when demand was burgeoning in the rag trade, the family’s eldest son Ofer acquired his first shares in Ely & Sidney Ltd. By 1990 the company was turning over £24 million.
The business boomed throughout the early 90s, although enquiries by the Inland Revenue and Customs into overclaiming of duties and VAT on exports and under-declaration of sales resulted in the family’s flagship company having to pay £1.3 million in tax liabilities for previous years.
Ely & Sidney Ltd continued to make healthy profits for a few years but the adverse trading conditions of the late 90s forced them to drastically decrease their garment operation in scale.
By that time though, the Zeloofs had made enough in the rag trade and had already begun diversifying their business empire.
Ofer’s reign: Diversification and real estate
As well as Avonsand Management Ltd and M.C.G Trading Ltd, Ely and his son Ofer had also been running a retail business called Meadport Limited and, in 1995, the family purchased the brewery site, which filled up quickly with rent-paying traders.
They were moving into other sectors. In 1998, Chalesand Limited, which Ofer directed alongside his father, was set up with the purpose of developing real estate.
Ofer’s stature began to grow in the early 2000s as he set up and took over a catalogue of businesses. Ely maintained involvement in a handful of operations up until 2007 when he would fully relinquish control of his businesses to his sons with Ofer taking the lead.
In the 2000s, Ofer was at the pinnacle of his career, running the brewery and acting as director of 20 companies.
Ofer was also a director of Old Billingsgate Limited, which organised the events in one of London’s most sought-after event spaces, the original Old Billingsgate Market near Tower Hill.
This business, as well as several others, is now owned by Jason, Oren and their sister, Lital Liann Ben-Yoav, via a Russian nesting doll of corporate structures.
Formerly one of the world’s largest fish markets, the grade II listed Victorian building on Lower Thames Street is now used for hosting fashion shows, crypto conferences and corporate galas.
Ofer also set up Fashion East (OTB) Limited, a non-profit producer of creatives for London’s fashion world, with his then-girlfriend Lulu Kennedy MBE in 2000.
Together, they launched the initiative to scout and nurture young designers with a view to showing them at London Fashion Week.
The Truman Brewery owners provided Kennedy with a salary, office, and financing to set up the label.
Fashion East has since gone on to produce some of the most revered names in British fashion, including Kim Jones, Craig Green, Simone Rocha and Maximilian Davis.
Ofer’s zenith as head of twenty businesses continued up until the early 2010s when Jason incrementally began to take his place as the face of the family businesses.
Jason has now inherited the vast majority of Ofer’s directorial roles, having taken over as owner of many of these businesses as well as setting up more of his own.
Ofer remains involved in business with his family through his directorship of E1 Productions Limited (Old Billingsgate’s in-house production company), and in his role as Partner of Zeloof LLP, alongside his mother and two brothers, who are designated members.
Ofer also still owns dormant companies including, Maxprop Limited and Maxprop Two Limited. He has stepped out of the public glare in recent years, moving to a kibbutz in Israel and allowing his younger, 48-year-old brother Jason to become the face of much of the family’s business operations. An interview magazine article in 2011 labelled him, ‘’uber-eccentric’’ and an ‘’art world fixture.’’
Any artistic temperament may have been inherited from his mother, Amira, the matriarch, businesswoman, yoga teacher and sculptor.
She has been closely involved in the family business since she and her husband began trading with Avonsand in 1981, and remains a partner of Zeloof LLP.
In recent years Amira, or Ahuva as she is known in artistic circles, has been something of a late-rising star in the world of sculpture.
Despite not beginning sculpting until her late 60s, she has had her sculpting work shown in three solo exhibitions and several international group shows, as well as receiving considerable press attention, with write-ups and interviews in a dozen magazines and papers.
Ahuva was quickly invited into the golden circles of artists with Jonathan Yeo, a portrait artist who has painted Prince Philip, Kevin Spacey, Cara Delevingne, Damien Hirst, and Tony Blair, coming to her first solo exhibition.
Given the fact Yeo attended her opening show, her meteoric rise will come as no surprise. She has already featured alongside the work of famed confessional artist Tracey Emin, David Hockney, and Sir Peter Blake who co-created the cover art for the sleeve of Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Oren Zeloof has had a somewhat more understated career in business. He has run two restaurants – Japanika, which is still open on Hanbury Street, and the now-closed You Me and the Pizza. He is also one of the owners of Ely & Sidney Ltd, alongside his brother Jason and sister Mrs Lital Liann Ben-Yoav, formerly Mrs Lital Zeloof.
Oren is also a partner in the Zeloof LLP, alongside his two brothers and mother.
What’s more interesting about Oren however, is that until 2020 he was also one of the named shareholders at an offshore Jersey-based company named Truman Estates Limited, a company which now owns swathes of the East End’s land.
From the East End to Jersey
In 2012, Oren and Ofer set up a company called Truman Estates Ltd, in the offshore tax haven of Jersey.
In the opening years of the company’s existence, Ofer held 85% of the shares in Truman Estates Limited, while his younger brother Oren held the rest.
Between 2013 and 2016 the company’s accounts held a sum of £212,192,662.
In 2016 Truman Estates Ltd reduced its share capital by paying out a sum of £100 million pounds to the two shareholders Oren and Ofer Zeloof. In the following year, 2017, the company channeled another £125,000,000 back to Ofer and Oren, leaving £11 million in the company’s account.
This Jersey-based company, Truman Estates Ltd, is of significance now as it is listed as the owner of 56 tracts of land in Western Tower Hamlets, making it the biggest private landowner in the borough.
The reasons individuals living in the U.K. may hold their property and wealth in offshore companies are manifold, ranging from tax benefits to privacy.
Jersey is a tax-neutral jurisdiction meaning that the majority of companies, with some exceptions, are subject to a rate of 0% corporate tax and not liable for inheritance tax or capital gains tax either. The jurisdictions can also be used to obscure owners of property in the UK.
Since 2017, the majority shareholders of Truman Estates Ltd, and its 56 land parcels, were hidden behind the structures provided by Jersey-based companies.
Over the last 10 years, successive UK governments have promised to take measures to bring transparency to these offshore companies holding UK property, and draft legislation has had cross-party support.
On 1 March 2022, the ‘Register of Overseas Entities’ was finally introduced as part of the Economic Crime Bill in the House of Commons.
The register was created to improve transparency around British property ownership by uncovering the identities of overseas beneficial owners of UK property. In London alone, 42,500 properties are owned by offshore companies.
The register went live at the end of January 2023. It revealed that the Gulf Royals held a £1bn pound UK property portfolio through offshore companies and that the Chinese Government also held an extensive network of UK property through various offshore companies.
The register contained some unexpected revelations pertaining to land ownership in the East End as well.
It revealed that Ofer and Oren Zeloof, the last-named owners of Truman Estates Ltd, were no longer the owners of the company that held the brewery estate and the 56 land parcels in the East End.
While the Zeloof family has retained seven pieces of land in the East End and Jason is still the owner of estate management company Truman Brewery Ltd, the Zeloofs no longer own the nine-acre brewery site with which they had become synonymous.
Jason remains the ‘’overall manager’’ of the estate, as he confirmed in a planning meeting, but the land has been ceded to Douglas Ryan, a Gibraltarian businessman.
Douglas Ryan – Who owns our East End?
An individual named Douglas Ryan is the new majority shareholder of Truman Estates Ltd.
Another entity also owns part of the Jersey-based company, but the real owners’ identity still remains (legally) hidden behind a Trust company named ‘Line Trust Corporations Limited’.
Douglas Ryan, 78, divides his time between Gibraltar and London. He serves as a representative for the Jewish community of Gibraltar on The Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Board of Deputies represents the voice of the British Jewish Community and is the first port of call for the Government, the media, and others seeking to understand Jewish community interests and concerns.
A business author, accredited mediator, and officer with the government of Gibraltar from May 1996 to March 2007, Ryan has held various managerial positions in commerce including Gibraltar’s National Representative to the European Union Regional Transitional Cooperation.
On 14 August 2008, the Gibraltarian was appointed to the board of Africo Resources, a Canadian-listed mining company that engaged in developing, acquiring, and exploring base metal and gold assets in Africa.
Africo Resources owned 75% of the Kalukundi mine, a copper and cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When Ryan took up his role in 2008, the mine had an estimated value of $1.47 bn.
Ryan’s appointment came after Camrose Resources Limited, a company majority owned by sanctioned U.S. billionaire Dan Gertler and his family obtained the right to name four directors to the company’s board after Camrose had become a 62.5% shareholder in Africo Resources.
Ryan acted as one of the four representatives of Gertler’s family company, Camrose, on the board of Africo Resources as well as chairing Africo Resources Audit Committee.
As part of the purchase and reorganization of Camrose after Gertler’s shares were sold, Ryan resigned.
The involvement of Dan Gertler, Ryan’s boss, in mining deals in Congo was mired in controversy.
According to U.S. prosecutors. Dan Gertler had paid millions of dollars in bribes using funds from an investment by Och-Ziff to influence a legal dispute over the Kalukundi mine’s ownership.
Gertler was blacklisted by the U.S. in 2017 for allegedly having ‘’…amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).’’
Although Ryan, the new owner of the brewery, was a business associate of Gertler, there has been no suggestion that he was party to any wrongdoing.
Companies House was made aware of Ryan’s position as the majority shareholder of Truman Estates Ltd on 22 August 2019. On the same date, Ryan also informed Companies House that he was the PSC of Bonetti Limited and Whirlwind Limited – the companies that own the leasehold of Old Billingsgate Market.
We have seen how the aggressive corporatisation of Tower Hamlets and the consequent increases in property prices has made it untenable for swathes of the existing community to remain, leaving the borough with one the highest rates of population churn in the country.
However, the area’s gentrification is not a negative for everyone.
For Douglas Ryan, who is now the majority owner of Truman Estates Ltd and its 56 land parcels in Spitalfields and Banglatown, profits from the developments including the increase in land and rent price, will add significantly to the value of his Jersey-held assets.
In the fifth and final article of the series, we look at the property portfolio of Truman Estates Ltd as well as the remaining portfolio of the Zeloof family and potential future plans for development in the area.
Cormac Kehoe has written this report as part of The Centre for Investigative Journalism’s Collaborative Community Journalism programme, which is funded by Trust for London.
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