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The Club King

Posted 10th November 2009 | Press Articles

Entrepreneur Peter de Savary is on a personal quest to create the perfect private clubs in some of the world’s most scenic settings.

By Gordon Mott from Cigar Aficionado

Why does a man with no interest in golf build four world-class golf courses? Why does an investor put $40 million into a fantastic, bay-side resort-style development on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, and make it a private club? Why does a cigar smoker who enjoys seven to 10 cigars a day quit for three months every couple of years? You might consider such a man a study in contradictions. But it doesn’t take long to accept that British entrepreneur Peter de Savary is a man of strongly held opinions with no lack of confidence about using them to get things done. “It’s simple really. If I played golf, I would have an opinion and a view, and I would be paying the bills. I would influence the outcome because of what I expected and what I wanted,” says de Savary, puffing on one of the oldest Cuban cigars in existence, a nearly 150-year-old cigar made for a Scottish noble. “As I can’t play golf, I can’t say much other than to make comments about landscape architecture, which is my hobby. My only input is about the backdrop of the scenery, and I let Donald Steel and his partner, Tom McKenzie, do the rest.” Peter de Savary, 59, is the creator of The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland, Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina, Stapleford Park in England, and Carnegie Abbey in Rhode Island, where he spent the month of August this year. Each is a private club with golf courses and other amenities—clay pigeon shooting, falconry, horseback riding, tennis—depending on what fits with the club’s local environment. A bald, dapper gentleman with a closely cropped beard, de Savary has spent the last 10 years trying to develop what he calls “unique pieces of real estate in a different way.”

His first venture into the hospitality realm was the St. James’ Clubs in the late 1970s, in Los Angeles, London, Paris and Antigua, which he sold in the late ’80s to help finance his purchase of Skibo Castle. The bulk of his 32-year business career has been spent in the shipping and oil sectors; he once owned or managed 13 shipyards around the globe. Today, he retains one shipyard in the United Kingdom, and he still has a global oil-trading and refueling business. He never went to a university, and his first business successes occurred in Nigeria through contacts he made back home in England.

It’s not always easy to read between the lines of a person’s account about key personal events. De Savary clearly had a moment, or perhaps two moments bunched closely together, that changed his life. The first was a plane crash in late December of 1986. He was departing St. Barthélemy in the Caribbean with his pilot, a nanny, his pregnant wife and his four daughters. The plane went into a stall, plunging into the Caribbean. “We should all be dead,” de Savary says. “We were in the ocean, upside down, the bloody plane was full of fuel and I couldn’t get the door open.” The pilot, who did not escape, died, but de Savary and the rest of the passengers miraculously got out, though one of his daughters had to be revived on the beach by rescuers. Two and a half years later, in June 1989, de Savary underwent a life-threatening operation and lost part of his intestines. “At that point, my philosophy on life changed a little,” de Savary says.

“When you genuinely look death in the eye twice, you know that nothing’s going with you, and life is but a thread. It’s a pretty tenuous thing we’re hanging on to. So, what is the point of making money? I concluded it certainly isn’t for accumulating it. That’s the most stupid thing I ever heard of. So, there can be only one point, and that’s to spend it. Now, I’m not ridiculously wasteful, but I may be slightly extravagant. As Andrew Carnegie said, to die rich is to die disgraced.”

That approach to life has led de Savary to do things in a somewhat unconventional way. And despite, or perhaps because of, the trauma of his two near-death experiences, he manages to focus on doing things that give him pleasure, like cigar smoking.

“I’ve been smoking cigars for 42 years,” says de Savary, recounting a story of how his father got him to quit smoking cigarettes by giving him a big fat cigar at the age of 16 and telling him to inhale deeply. It didn’t work quite like it was supposed to. De Savary loved the experience, and he’s been smoking cigars ever since. “I probably smoke between seven to 10 a day. I alternate between a double-corona size, and a Partagas D4 or robusto size. It’s probably about two-thirds double coronas and one-third the nice, shorter ones.”

De Savary is an avowed Cuban cigar smoker. “I’ve never found anything that is the equivalent of a Cuban cigar, and no one outside of Cuba has ever made a cigar that you could shut your eyes and not tell the difference,” he says. His preferences run to Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, Partagas Lusitanias and Punch Double Coronas, but he does not like the bigger sizes of Montecristos.

Because of the popularity of cigar smoking at Skibo Castle in Scotland, de Savary buys his cigars in bulk directly from Hunters & Frankau Ltd., the U.K. agent for Cuban cigars. Skibo was his first club-style property. He developed it by restoring the castle, originally built by Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900s. “We have a great cigar room there, and we have a very wide selection of Cuban cigars, both for men and ladies. Lots of small ones for the ladies.” De Savary also frequents Desmond Sautter’s shop in London’s Mayfair, where he keeps on the lookout for pre-Castro Cubans, a specialty of Sautter’s.

The desire for old Cubans led de Savary smack into one of the most publicized cigar auctions auctions of the 1990s, a Christie’s event for a stash of Cuban cigars believed to have been ordered by the Duke of Buccleuch, a noble in Scotland. “I didn’t pay a lot. I paid about $22,000 or $23,000 for them.

“Usually I find people pay too much money, so I’ve rarely bought anything at these auctions because people bid like crazy and pay a fortune,” says de Savary. “But as a cigar smoker, I thought I had to bid on these—or at least say I did. I never expected to get them.

“It’s amazing to look at one,” he says, holding up the cheroot-style cigar with a slight perfecto shape. “It’s quite a fine ash, and it will hold for a long time. When I smoke one I can imagine the duke giving his order to get the cigars from Cuba, and all the palaver to get them from Cuba to the north of Scotland. It’s between Inverness and Perth. They evoke the image of the way they lived in those days, all riding around on horses, and having their little skirmishes and having a cigar.

“I suppose everyone has a different reason for smoking a cigar,” de Savary continues over lunch on the veranda of the Carnegie Abbey clubhouse. Narragansett Bay and a condominium complex under construction are visible through the screened-in porch. “I genuinely enjoy the taste. Sure, I’m a little addicted to the nicotine, too. You know, whenever you are looking for your first cigar after that first cup of tea at 6 a.m. or so, you need to have that cigar. I at least recognize that’s being an addict. So, every so often, I give it up for three months, just to prove I’m still in control,” he says with a laugh, quickly adding, “Everybody says it, my family and my colleagues, that I’m hell to live with for those three months.” But he also says that a cigar has become a necessary adjunct when he’s in the midst of a big negotiation. “If I’m in a meeting or under any kind of stress, or if I’m in an environment where cigars are not allowed, I know I perform at a lower level.”

What doesn’t add up immediately is why a man with numerous success stories in major global businesses, like ships and oil, turns his attention to building private clubs. But de Savary’s attitude toward his current passions is clear.

“I’ve always been on the adventurous side of business,” he says, with his soft but clipped British accent keeping his words clear and concise. “I’m either fixing things or repairing things or creating things. I’m not an asset stripper or speculator. I’ve never had any success in the stock market in my life; in fact, whenever I’ve been in it, I’m always losing. I’ve always been someone to add value, and where possible, recognize assets that are undervalued and in need of something being done to them.” With a small sweep of his hand toward the bay, he adds, “This land is a great example of that.”

Carnegie Abbey was the last of de Savary’s land purchases in the 1990s. Since then, he has bought two other properties to create additional private clubs: a big chunk of Abaco Island in the Bahamas, where he’ll develop the Carnegie Club at Abaco, and a piece of land in Luten, England. Both are projected to open in 2004.

The Rhode Island property is a 500-acre parcel that de Savary has leased until 2097 from the adjacent Benedictine monastery. The plan is to cap membership at 375 (there are some 250 members now, just two years after opening). The members pay a refunfodable membership fee of $140,000 and annual dues of $7,500. He expects to close the membership roster this year, to save slots for people buying into the second phase of the project: houses and condos along Narragansett Bay, starting at $750,000 a lot in a development dubbed Carnegie Harbor. The land in the second phase was once home to a Kaiser Aluminum factory.

“If you are a club, you have some ability to be selective of the clientele. Our success is to have attractive, interesting places with attractive nice people. If you’re not a club—if you’re just a resort—you have no real control over the clientele. There’s no real spirit, no real atmosphere, no real camaraderie,” says de Savary, who acknowledges that few people endorsed his club idea at the outset. Skeptics, he says, dismissed the idea of developing the Skibo Castle property in Scotland, wondering who would visit another castle in Scotland to play a new golf course in a country that already has a thousand courses, many of them famous ones that people crave to play.

“One of the privileges of working hard and having some financial success is that you can do things in a slightly different way, and perhaps end up with a special, unique product that definitely has a different feeling and sense to it than those who have to fit some criteria, or into a box created by investors or a banker’s criteria or loan repayments, all that stuff that normally happens,” says de Savary.

For now, the de Savary club empire is thriving. The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle has more than 600 members from 29 countries. De Savary poured $25 million into restoring the castle, building the new golf courses and generally establishing the framework for his club chain. The annual fee is about $5,000 a year, plus the normal daily use fees. Cherokee Plantation is a slightly different concept; it’s designed for just 25 members with a buy-in of $1.9 million; the 4,000-acre site, which is equidistant between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the most historic locations in the South.

“We are in the early days. But we are dedicated to building great clubs rather than running a business to make as much money as possible,” says de Savary. “My interest is obviously to have a reasonable business investment for the risk and the effort and the deployment of capital, but to try to create something that down the road in years to come is a bit of legacy.”

And, along the way, to enjoy a few cigars.