Chris Blackwell: man with the Midas touch

Chris Blackwell turned Jamaican reggae singers into stars. Now, as Maggie Lee reports, he’s turning a famous Jamaican estate into a global attraction

Chris Blackwell, the legendary founder of Island Records. Photograph by Riva PRThe Ian Fleming Villa at Goldeneye. Photograph by Riva PRThe Royal Palm Villa at Goldeneye. Photograph by Riva PR

Chris Blackwell, the legendary founder of Island Records, who brought reggae and Bob Marley to the attention of the world, is focusing on Jamaica once again.

This time he’s working on the Goldeneye estate. That’s the chic coastal resort spread over 40 acres on Jamaica’s northern shore, managed by his company Island Outpost. The resort takes its name from Ian Fleming’s former rustic hideaway, where the English naval intelligence officer-turned-author wrote all 13 James Bond novels.

We are in the London offices of Palm Pictures, Blackwell’s production company, which distributes world film and music, chatting about his plans for Island Outpost. Founded in 1988, the group now runs three additional boutique resorts in Jamaica (Jake’s, The Caves and the celebrated Strawberry Hill, a favoured haunt of clients from the worlds of film, fashion and music), alongside interests in the Bahamas.

Committed to developing Goldeneye’s unique ambiance, Blackwell is, over the next two years, building and selling 80 luxury homes, a mix of cottages and villas.

“My original aim was always to develop the estate so that you could own a cottage or villa that is cared for [for] you in the manner of your own home.”

Marketed internationally, property prices will range from US$600,000 to US$3.5 million. Prospective owners will be able to borrow up to 70 per cent of the purchase price from First Caribbean International Bank (a local mortgage provider) and place their homes in a rental programme managed by the company. It’s a glamorous project that will place Jamaica high in the rankings of luxurious resorts.

Blackwell is unequivocal about the lure of the Caribbean in the face of global competition.

“If you look back over history, the Caribbean islands have always been precious. Take a little island like Nevis, which could be traded for, say, two million acres of land in Canada, or something of a similarly ridiculous magnitude,” he smiles. “These islands have always been sought after and are staggeringly beautiful.”

Islands and their unique cultures are deeply imprinted in Chris Blackwell’s genes and soul; so are hotels and music. Born in England and raised in Jamaica, the entrepreneur is arguably best known as being responsible for the disproportionate global influence that contemporary Caribbean music has enjoyed, given the islands’ small populations.

The son of a Jamaican mother and Irish father, Blackwell acquired his appreciation of music from his father and exposure to the leisure industry through family-owned hotels. After tasting success as a record producer in Jamaica in his late teens, he got his lucky break in England, where he had returned before Jamaican independence to found Island Records.

Over 30 years, on the back of his first global hit—the Jamaican singer Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop—Blackwell was to turn his independent record company into a multi-million-dollar operation. Worshipped by artists because of his ability to nurture creativity, his label attracted a diverse and stellar line-up (including Stevie Winwood, Traffic, Cat Stevens and U2). It also provided Caribbean talent with a platform to global audiences. (Grace Jones and calypsonian Lord Kitchener are among the stars he managed and promoted.)

In 1989, Blackwell sold Island Records to PolyGram for around US$300 million. He has since, through Island Outpost, turned his attention to the leisure industry, investing in properties in the Caribbean and the United States. “It got too corporate,” he explains. “I knew it was time to sell when a guy came into my office and said he needed a new title in order to show he was the boss. In my book you don’t need a title to lead, you just get on with it.”

For Blackwell, small is beautiful, and community spirit a prerequisite to success—ideals that have been at the heart of Island Outpost since the company was formed. “When I sold the record business, I’d always intended, despite a detour in Miami, to develop smallish, beautifully located properties in Jamaica and the Bahamas—in effect, create places where you feel like a guest in someone’s home. ”

Moving into hotels was a seamless transition. “As I made money in the music business, I invested in property.” And although his initial ambitions lay in Jamaica he “got sidetracked by the opportunity to pick up some properties very cheaply in Miami.” Blackwell says he was lucky to acquire what amounted to “a job lot of hotels in Miami, long before the market had seen the full potential of South Beach.”

A call on cash to finance Palm Pictures was the catalyst for change. “I sold my interests in Miami to fund Palm,” he explains. “Life works in the strangest ways. Suddenly Jamaica came back into the mainframe. I loved the heady days of Miami, but I don’t miss it. Jamaica is my home. I want to put as much energy as I can into the Goldeneye project, as you can really make a difference in Jamaica.”

The Jamaican administration is said to look favourably on Blackwell’s plans, largely as they anticipate it will bring capital and employment opportunities to the island, and because of their confidence in Blackwell as an eco-friendly entrepreneur and philanthropist. Blackwell supports local community projects through the Mary Vinson Blackwell Foundation, established in memory of his late wife.

Modestly, he is reluctant to play up his environmental credentials. “We certainly wouldn’t claim to be the best eco-resort in the world. We’re very mindful of the environment, but I wouldn’t put myself up in the same league as Brian Eno [his friend the rock star].

“Our properties are built into the environment, using local materials, without imposing on them.” Nor are his resorts fenced and cut off from the local communities.
“I’m keen that local people come in and guests can go out and experience local life.”

He is upbeat about the potential of tourism. “Whilst Jamaica may have messed up in recent years, I think the future is improving. This island is like a Garden of Eden. The soil and culture are so rich. You come to Jamaica and you’ll experience fresh food, unlike other places where the food is flown in; you’re also visiting a country with a vibrant historical culture too.”

In his customary frank and thoughtful manner he tackles criticisms about the level of violence and crime in the island head-on.

“Like other places, Jamaica does have crime, and yes, murders are committed, but there is no history of violence against tourism. When you read reports in the papers it’s easy to think you can’t go there.

“You have to remember that these incidents are generally confined to specific places. If you want to find trouble and danger and you’re stupid, it’s like anywhere else in the world, you’ll find it. If you start messing with drugs, or somebody’s girlfriend, or try to pick up a young boy, the consequences can be fatal.”

How does this man, sometimes described as “the consummate gentleman in the world of rock and roll,” explain his success?

“I was lucky,” he says philosophically. “At 70, I recognise now how random life is; you make the best of opportunities and move on.”

And finally, I can’t resist asking him about Bob Marley: what was the world’s best-known Rastafarian really like?

“A natural leader,” Blackwell replies. “Silently strong and charismatic. He led by example.”

It’s a description that matches Chris Blackwell equally well.