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The savvy Mr de Savary

The savvy Mr de Savary

Real estate baron builds a resort "as good as it gets" with The Abaco Club on Winding Bay

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 1, 2006
January 1, 2006
Tina Novotny

He’s a golf course impresario who doesn’t golf. He’s an extremely wealthy entrepreneur who’ll get on his knees to show housekeeping staff how to clean into the corners. He builds legends to live beyond him, but swears nothing should bear his mark. He has the touch of Midas, but says everyone should remember that we all die broke. Welcome to the paradox that is Peter de Savary.

If force of personality is the currency of wealth, then Peter de Savary should be a lot richer than he already is. Not that it’s easy to estimate his personal net worth, because “PdeS,” as he likes to be called, doesn’t work with financial backers, has never gone public with any of his endeavours, and says he has never been beholden to partners. In fact, the creator of the recently opened Abaco Club on Winding Bay, an upscale club resort, golf destination and residential development, says he doesn’t really care about money. Good thing, because the project’s budget has climbed from a projected US$140 million to some $250 million.

British-born de Savary has always been able to spot a trend, if not create one. Believing that this region was a perfect playground for Americans, and increasingly popular with Europeans, de Savary decided to build in The Bahamas, a country where he’s been a longtime member of Nassau’s exclusive Lyford Cay community.

“Americans get bored with America but they don’t want to go too far. They don’t want to go to Indonesia or South America,” he says. “You have all these people who have arrived, with the baby boomers maturing and so many high tech business people, so there are a lot more people with a lot more money.”
In signature de Savary style, he personally scoured The Bahamas and the Caribbean region acre by acre, by land, sea and air (despite a Caribbean Sea plane crash he survived with his wife and daughters in the late 1980s). He finally found the ideal location for his club in the Abacos, often referred to as the sailing capital of the world.

“I spent four years of my life to find this property,” says de Savary. “I know more beaches and more bits of land in the entire Caribbean than any other human being. Four years, and I couldn’t find the right land. It’s like finding the right woman: Don’t rush it.” When he first flew over Winding Bay in November 2002, the site inspired him immediately. On a return trip by boat, de Savary ventured ashore, machete in hand, and hacked his way up the adjacent hillside through an overgrowth of casuarina trees and brush. From the summit, the full view: a vista of divine design and the setting for a vision. “I don’t want to change the environment. I don’t want to do Florida in The Bahamas. I want character and adventure. No curves on the edges. No black top on the roads. This place should look like a bunch of islanders built it the best they could. Nothing should look like Peter de Savary came here,” he says.

“Here” is Winding Bay, a geographical gem in South Abaco, just outside the local community of Cherokee Sound and about a 40-minute drive from the island’s largest settlement, Marsh Harbour (pop 4,700). Protected by rock outcrop-pings, the bay has both crashing surf and a pristine, shallow beach. Along the shore on 520 acres, 20 cabanas have been built (beautiful open-concept guesthouses, available to non-members on a one-time basis for $1,000 per night) and some 60 estate lots are reserved for exclusive private homes and priced from US$1.5 million to upwards of $4 million. More than two-thirds of the lots have been sold, and several homes are already built and occupied by prominent families. Across the bay, an impressive cliff top presents the clubhouse, a spa and the first grouping of what will eventually be 75 “cottages,” gorgeously decorated turnkey homes that range in price from $1.7 million to $2.3 million. To reach this Shangri-La, you fly into Marsh Harbour airport, where de Savary has built his own terminal and keeps The Abaco Club Fairchild Merlin IV-C ready to ferry in members and guests.

A golfer’s paradise
A key attraction is The Abaco Club golf course, billed as the world’s first tropical links. It was designed by the renowned duo Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie–their seventh de Savary project. “From my travels around the world, the entire package is as good as it gets,” says Scott Kauffman, a golf journalist based in Florida. “The Abaco Club is certainly unique. They’ve pulled off a true links-style course. It’s impeccable. The Bahamas is exploding right now but [de Savary has] got something very special because of its non-commercialized nature. Other resorts are a dime a dozen. He’s delivering world-class golf and giving people a real Bahamian experience. It’s as fine a development as I’ve ever been to.”

“The location has to be practical as well as emotional,” says de Savary. “It has to have that ‘feel-good’ factor, so that people would want to be here when I finish it.”

From the start, one of the most practical things about this location, from a developer’s view, was that a majority of the land was available through a private purchase from one owner. Still, Crown land ran through key stretches of the planned golf links and landscaped beach. To encourage development and give a boost to the local economy, those lands were initially leased then sold by the government for an undisclosed sum.

South Abaco Member of Parliament Robert Sweeting lobbied to preserve some of the area for parkland, but public debate over the 187 acres in question soon ebbed away. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-development,” says Sweeting, who sits in opposition to the ruling party. “I know Bahamians don’t have the means to employ all our people and de Savary has created jobs and opportunity. He’s a great businessman. But I still feel strongly that we gave up too much … One senior customs official I spoke to said de Savary got the most liberal deal by a foreign investor to date,” says Sweeting.

Still, de Savary swayed most of his detractors with the potential for local employment and the installation of infrastructure like roads, power and water. The original access road to the beach has been maintained, where local residents can still go to collect seashells.

To make good on his end of the bargain, the always-legendary de Savary schedule came next: a crushing deadline and a commitment to open The Abaco Club in time for the holiday season of ’04/’05.

Architect Tim Neill, a local Abaconian who designed the clubhouse (Buster’s Beach Bar is named after his dog), spa and residential buildings for the Winding Bay property, had to rev forward in a matter of months. Despite the arrival of two hurricanes, Frances and Jeanne, which damaged many of the partially built structures in Sept ’04, no extension was granted. “People were working straight through, overnight. [de Savary] was paying the local construction workers $1,000 a week or more–a fortune over here,” says Neill. “It seems he’s setting impossible standards or giving unreasonable ultimatums, but he’s always part of the process. He inspires people. He’s a very positive individual–he never chews anyone out or puts anyone down. This is a guy who does multi-million dollar deals on a handshake, but he’ll get those hands dirty.”

Trust in local talent
For his own part, de Savary says he regards the staff at Winding Bay as “an extended part of my family.” True to the motto on his personal coat of arms, which reads “Loyalty Above All,” de Savary introduced a lucrative employee incentive plan at Winding Bay, awarding $1,800 monthly to be split by the top three performers and another $10,000 quarterly. He has also established a trust fund programme for employees, to reward length of service. All are incentives to prime the team expected to sell $65,000 club memberships (118 sold as of September ’05), promote residential real estate sales and, most importantly, present an unforgettable face to the customer.

“I give them my loyalty, and I give them, I hope, a great sense of fair play. They don’t have this opportunity without me, but I cannot possibly succeed without them,” says de Savary, playfully referred to as “The Chairman” by his staff. What he wants is for visitors to Winding Bay to have an experience unlike any other: “When you go to many other resorts, however gorgeous they are, everybody looks like they were trained by a handbook. I tell my staff, ‘I don’t want you to be a clone. Use your personality to do your job well; you’re in show business, you’re in the world of entertainment. We’re here to make people happy and give them fun. What does Elton John do? We’re in exactly the same business at every level.”

The excited buzz that surrounds The Abaco Club development today echoes that of de Savary’s previous endeavours in the hospitality industry. It began in the mid-70s, with the construction of the five-star El Salam hotel in Cairo, a project prompted by then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, an acquaintance through de Savary’s earlier business connections. In the ’80s, de Savary founded, then flipped, the St James Clubs in London, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Antigua, financing his next round of restoring historic estates and building new luxury communities. These now include England’s Bovey Castle in Dartmoor National Park and its London Outpost as well as Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina–connected to The Abaco Club by the de Savary Estates name.

Philosophy to spend his wealth
In fact, much of the 61-year-old de Savary’s personal philosophy mirrors that of steel baron Andrew Carnegie, for whom he named the recently sold Carnegie Abbey property in Newport, Rhode Island. Carnegie believed that all personal wealth beyond one’s family needs should be considered a public trust, and that the rich have an obligation to contribute to the greater good. Oft quoted by de Savary, Carnegie once said that to die rich was to die disgraced.

“I like the idea that was Carnegie’s philosophy, and that’s why I subscribe to it,” says de Savary. “I can’t think of anything worse than coming to any private club, any of my clubs, and everybody’s equally successful and wealthy, everybody’s as important as the other, they’re all bloody investment bankers or whatever, all of the same culture and race. How boring is that? What we get is a mix of diversified people with different backgrounds and different ideas and that makes for a stimulating place. Over the years we’ve had a large number of people that I’ve said ‘please feel free to come back whenever you like. Just pay the bill when you leave.’ Or to some people I say, ‘don’t pay the bill: You’re on a Chairman’s Membership.’”

His longtime associates see de Savary as a man who can simultaneously think on a grand scale and find passion for every last detail. Henrietta Fergusson, club director at de Savary’s Bovey Castle, has worked with PdeS since the time he owned the 19th century Skibo Castle in Scotland–once the highland home of Carnegie himself and made famous in modern times by the Madonna/Guy Ritchie union. Fergusson was astounded when de Savary bought the neglected Bovey estate, then set a three-month schedule to re-furbish its 65 bedrooms, build a five-storey wing to house a spa, and start on 22 new lodges.

“Half the time I want to kill him, and half the time I’d walk over hot coals for him,” she laughs. “But each project is more exciting than the last one. You’ll keep hearing the words inspirational and visionary about him. But he never expects anything of anyone that he wouldn’t do. He’s very hands on.” So hands on, she recalls, that when he once decided to fix a malfunctioning alarm himself, he terrified an employee who witnessed a sudden flash and figured the boss had been electrocuted. Fortunately, it was just PdeS lighting his ubiquitous cigar. “There are hundreds of us that are just very glad he’s around,” says Fergusson.

When it comes to estimating the value of his various private holdings, even those closest to de Savary are at a loss to make a guess. “You’d have better luck trying to find out how much a Russian mobster was worth,” jokes his long-time spokesperson Sandy Gardiner. “All I know is that when he sells a property and says he’s very, very happy, he’s just made an awful lot of money.”

Peter de Savary is obviously very good at attracting wealth, but to hear him tell it, money is for spending and not accumulating. In fact, it’s completely against his personal credo to build wealth at the cost of morality.

“Everybody cares too much about money. So many people are so grabby and greedy. Everything’s measured and gauged by more and more profit, when it’s really all relative at whatever level you are,” he says. “If you don’t have much money, hopefully you can afford to buy the other guy a beer, right? And if you’re lucky enough to have made a lot of money, spend it, use it.”

For someone whose family tree includes a Napoleonic general and who personally championed the UK entry to the ’83 America’s Cup, de Savary has earth as well as sand in his shoes. He was born on his father’s farm in Essex while German bombs rained down and has returned there throughout his life to tramp the English countryside. He has also travelled to some of the world’s most desperate places, visiting Palestinian refugee camps and walking Cairo’s slums. His common touch is replete with respect for the common man, and he solicits the company of coal miners, fishermen and lorry drivers to mingle with his social registry, blue chip, A-list friends.

Peter de Savary’s worldly views have been gained first-hand. He has been a global citizen since his earliest memories when, at age two, he moved to the jungles of Venezuela with his mother and stepfather, an employee of Shell Oil. “When I was sent back to England to attend boarding school at age nine, I had to learn English for three months before they’d let me in,” he says. He stuck it out until age 17, then set off to Canada to seek his fortune. He took on a series of odd jobs in Ontario, where his parents had relocated, learning the meaning of hard work, but already busy building the de Savary mythology. He got a factory job emptying glue barrels, sold second-hand Mercedes and Volvos, and was employed as a serviceman by the duplicating company Gestetner. After a run at selling Encyclopedia Britannica, he started his first business providing landscaping services for rich families. He’d also baby-sit and tutor their kids.

An entrepreneur’s journey
Making people happy is now his stock in trade, but before turning his hand to estate building, de Savary made things move in other industries. He started in Africa, shipping bulk commodities in the ’60s, moving into oil in the ’70s and then buying a series of 13 shipyards through the early ’80s. He still owns one UK shipyard, which he proudly claims is the oldest continuously operating shipyard in the world, non-stop since 1834.

“I got out of everything in the late ’80s except for my real estate holdings, then we had a major recession in the early ’90s, and I had to scratch my head and get going again, and here I am today,” says de Savary. Where he is is a very rarified place, reinventing and creating some of the world’s best estates, clubs and residential retreats. At one point, he owned both the very top and bottom of Great Britain when he acquired the John O’Groats and Land’s End estates. So it’s hard to believe de Savary ever had to go out and make more money. With de Savary, there’s always passion at play.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you can be in any business that exists,” says de Savary, who has worked in everything from undertaking to oil. “I’m a chess player so I like to analyse the risk-reward ratio. After that, there’s one common denominator that you have to have: motivation. First you’ve got to be able to motivate yourself, second you have to be able to motivate your staff, and thirdly you’ve got to motivate your customer. That could be a ship owner, someone who wants to buy a piece of real estate, or someone who’s got to bury their dad–doesn’t matter what business it is, if you can’t motivate on all three levels you’re not going to be successful.”

De Savary doesn’t need any prompting to envision his next project, and this time he has his eye on Italy, where he has spotted a private estate about 50 minutes outside of Florence that he’s hoping to acquire for his collection of cultural experiences. “It’s the most wonderful and romantic place. I love the Italian way of life, that whole ‘get a bottle of Chianti and take three hours for lunch.’”

Somehow, three-hour lunches just don’t seem like part of a de Savary day, unless it’s a working meeting. He’s his own force field, a storm surge that pushes ideas ahead. “It’s impossible for him not to be the centre of the attention and energy.” says architect Tim Neill. He arrives [in Abaco] once a month and whips everything up and drives everybody into action. He thrives on it.”

Why does de Savary do it? “I do this because I love the creativity, I love the risk, I like the pioneering,” says de Savary. “I’ve sold my businesses, I’m basically semi-retired, but I’m an energetic person and I do this because it’s a passion. I don’t have any banks involved. I don’t have any partners breathing down my neck, asking ‘when are we getting the first dividend; will we make money?’ I’m doing this as an eccentric, as an enthusiast, as someone with a passion that has to release it. Other people need to get a canvas or need to write furiously. I think I have an understanding of what a lot of wealthy people like and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Will he ever stop?
“There’ll be one day I’ll wake up and say I’ve had enough. I’d like to do something else. I can’t tell you whether it’s next week or in 25 years’ time. As long as I’m healthy and my family are enjoying it and I’m getting fun out of it, I can put up with a lot of frustration and aggravation and I can take failure and I can take criticism. But overall on the balance sheet, the pluses need to outweigh the minuses,” he says.

Enjoying the heck out of life. Hanging out with the most interesting people, whether they have a dollar in their pocket or a billion in the bank. Making a living building homes in the world’s most beautiful places. You’ve got to admit, it’s good to be Peter de Savary.

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