Peter de Savary: smelling the nutmeg

British entrepreneur Peter de Savary is making major investments in Grenada. He told Lisa Allen-Agostini why

Peter de Savary. Photograph by Joshua YetmanThe beach at Mount Cinnamon. Photograph by Joshua Yetman

A world-famous entrepreneur who has made and lost more than one fortune, Peter de Savary (PdS to his staff) has invested heavily in Grenada’s development. In the past five years he has bought several properties, including the fantastical Azzura Castle; two rustic plantations, Mt Edgecombe and Tufton Hall; and a formerly derelict stretch of natural harbour facing the Carenage in St George’s, the capital. The latter he has already transformed into Port Louis, one of the most modern marinas in the Caribbean; he sold the marina to a UK-based yachting company for US$50 million and has kept the surrounding land to develop into a chi-chi villa complex.

PdS first came to the island in 1952 on holiday with his family. They stayed at a plantation house overlooking Lagoon, where Port Louis is now. “We used to come here to this beach every day with a fisherman in a little boat. He taught me all about boats and the sea and sailing. And ever since, I’ve been a big sailor.” He has gone on to twice captain the UK challenger for the Americas Cup.

“This childhood memory has stayed with me all my life. I could smell the nutmeg.”

Sketching it out like this does no justice to his richly detailed story, told over coffee on the verandah of Savvys, Mount Cinnamon’s main restaurant. At 67, PdS is a raconteur par excellence, weaving a narrative that starts with his birth on his family’s pig farm in England during an air raid, and continues with his parents’ divorce and his mother’s remarriage to an oilman who relocated the family to Venezuela. He talks about a youth spent in Canada waiting tables, selling encyclopaedias and used cars, doing landscaping, giving private lessons and babysitting. By the time he makes his first fortune – selling steel, wheat flour and cement to the Nigerian government at the end of the Biafran War – the listener is completely charmed.

“I don’t need to make anything up,” says PdS this Saturday morning at Savvys. He’s missing his trademark cigar, but he does have his honey-coloured longhaired chihuahua Monty with him. “I have so many wonderful, exciting things happen to me in my life. I think it’s probably because I’m an enthusiast. I only look for the best in anybody, in any circumstance and any situation. My natural instinct is to try, as if it’s a challenge, to find something attractive, positive, appealing, about anything, however awful it looks. I get more rewards than most people in life – I’m not talking about money now, just talking about emotional, intellectual satisfaction – because I’m a huge ‘benefit of the doubt’ person.”

Mount Cinnamon, where we’re talking, was formerly Cinnamon Hill, an old apartment complex overlooking an abandoned lot where goats grazed amongst discarded appliances and other rubbish. When PdS bought it he refurbished the complex and redecorated in the bright Caribbean colours that dominate its theme today, cleaning up the vacant lot across the road and making it the resort’s gateway to the pristine white sand and silky, warm water of Grand Anse Beach.

“Most people would have looked at the Lagoon, as they did for 25 years, and thought, ‘I can’t do anything here.’ Most people looked at this piece of land and never got inspired. How could that be? With that beach?”

When he bought the land at Lagoon, it was full of old boats and scrap metal – and people. Some 80 families, hundreds of people, lived there as squatters. PdS and the Grenadian government relocated them to purpose-built communities where they would own new homes. But critics said the new communities lacked basic infrastructure and left residents marooned in a sea of mud when it rained. In the past few years Grenadian Internet pages were afire with accusations of property speculation and corrupt practices in the Port Louis development.

But that’s not how de Savary sees it. “My criterion every day of my life is to find opportunities, not waste them” – he pounds the table for emphasis – “and take proper, honourable advantage of them.”

Honourable? “That’s most important.”

His staff love him. Men like Danny Donelan, the marketing manager of Port Louis Marina and a former employee of PdS, speak of him in nearly reverent terms even when they’re fondly chuckling over how much he talks. PdS says he values loyalty above anything, and in Grenada he seems to have succeeded in creating it. “People will do more for you with loyalty and respect than with money. I hope after these five years people trust me.”

What makes Peter de Savary tick? “I learnt at a very young age that when you boil it all down, there are only two things that really matter in your life. One is your family, your blood, and the other is your health.” A plane crash in 1987 nearly cost him his then-pregnant wife and three daughters; the pilot died and one of his daughters had to be revived. Now he has five daughters and he says his family is his world. “I’d kill for them. I’d do anything for them. My energy would die if I lost my family. I would no longer be Peter de Savary. They’re the most important thing. Followed by my dog.”

He named the restaurant at Mount Cinnamon after Savannah, his youngest daughter; the marina is named after his late dog, Louis, and a staff member joked that one day soon he’ll rename the beach bar “Monty’s”.  He loves his dog because it’s a distraction, he says, and also because:  º“Every day I realise he is completely dependent on me. It teaches you that there are other people who are reliant on you and it makes you thoughtful. My little dog is a leveller.”

He came to Grenada in the past decade, just after building the Abaco Club in the Bahamas. “It’s considered one of the three best golf courses in the Caribbean,” he says, matter-of-factly outlining its features: 600 acres, homes with values ranging from US$3 million to US$25 million. “I bought a jungle on a beach like this. There was no water, electricity was 22 miles away. We made a magnificent project there. And when we made it successful, I sold it to Ritz-Carlton.

“I am more of a pioneer, a creator. I am not a housekeeper. Once the challenge’s gone out of it… the curve flats out for me. That’s for somebody else…I’m a wild artist. There’s no way, for example, Ritz-Carlton could have done what I did, in a million years. And most of my projects are like that. And I pass them on to somebody who’s good at management and they like doing that and have an organisation to do that.”

He’s been involved in over 70 hotels. “From little ones with 11 rooms to over 1,000 rooms. I enjoy the business. There are huge aspects of it that are fun.”

His first hotel was in Heliopolis, Egypt. Today, de Savary owns a number of properties. His Azzura Castle is perched on a cliff in the most upscale neighbourhood in Grenada. Its ornate, Arabic-themed living room opens to a pool, and steps lead down to a private boat dock and two private beaches. British royalty has rented it for holiday. Mount Edgecombe is a restored authentic seventeenth-century plantation house on 30 acres of secluded land planted with fruit and spice trees and vegetable gardens; apart from being a family or group getaway, it supplies Mount Cinnamon with fresh produce. Tufton Hall is in the middle of a cocoa estate; PdS plans to make it an ecotourism destination.

“In terms of development this is a very young country,” he says. “In my view it’s the greatest opportunity in the Caribbean. Everything works. And heavens, nobody’s done any development yet!”

Danny Donelan hosts a sailing party that afternoon on the Savvy, a 40-foot Petit Martinique sloop handcrafted by a Grenadian artisan commissioned by PdS. Donelan bought the boat from his former boss. The wooden sailboat is moored at Port Louis, alongside a number of yachts. Barry Collymore, the PR manager for de Savary’s interests in Grenada, says the next day, “This is not just a marina, it’s a way of life and the creation of a new industry.”

It’s a point PdS makes himself, that spinoff employment from his projects will create hundreds of jobs. He stresses that the jobs should be filled by Grenadians, not foreigners.

“Unless you can have an unofficial partnership between the foreign entrepreneur, the local people and the government of the day, I believe it’s very difficult to succeed… Unless everybody benefits, it isn’t a good deal.”

And if the Grenadian people reach a stage when they don’t want him and the development he brings? “When I’m in someone else’s country I have no rights at all. I never forget I’m a guest.”

But in the meantime, he has no plans to go anywhere. The current recession will last no longer than another five years, he predicts, and his projects here will come to fruit after that. “You’ve got to have a ten-year horizon. But that’s okay with me. I won’t even be 80 years old.”

 

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