Driven by the demon fear of losing it all

Property star Nick Leslau is planning a string of ultra-chic hotels across Europe. Tom Stevenson finds out what motivates him
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The Independent Online
Nick Leslau's demons seem curious to the rest of us who rub by one pay cheque from disaster. A multi-millionaire 10 years ago in his late 20s, the property world's brightest young star says he puts in hectic 12-hour days not because he needs the cash but because he's scared.

"Abject fear of losing is what makes you keep doing it. Insecurity, of failure, of losing everything, of moving back to a bedsit in West Hampstead. Which is probably absurd. There's a fun element to it of course, but none the less a rather sad side."

It certainly does seem absurd for someone with such an apparent golden touch to worry so. Ever since he reversed his tiny property development company, Burford, into partner Nigel Wray's quoted company, Chartsearch, in 1986, netting pounds 4m in the process, he has hardly put a foot wrong. Burford prides itself on having grown its net assets seven or eight times faster than the rest of the pedestrian property sector ever since, and the company has a fan club in the City to match.

It's hard not to like Leslau, despite the fact he's the sort of bloke you'd really love to hate. At 37, he's got it all - nice house in Hampstead, young wife, nice kids, and a puzzled look on his face when trying to work out whether it's pounds 20m or pounds 25m he has tied up in one of the businesses he has successfully spun off from Burford.

But he genuinely does not seem to care about the embarrassment of cash he's piled up through a string of astute deals that have included buying the Trocadero, a leisure sector white elephant in London's Piccadilly Circus, acquiring the rights to Noddy and other Enid Blyton characters and, most recently, flying off at another seeming tangent to set up a joint venture with New York's most stylish hotelier.

"I have no interest in the having of it. Once you've got a nice house, you don't need more than one. I don't have the toys, the boats, the houses abroad."

This is a man who not only gets around town on a pounds 2,000 Piaggio scooter but is so consciously unflash the first thing he did after buying it was to rip off its go-faster stripes. So this is the motorised face of Burford, is it - lean, mean and frugal? "Well, actually I didn't use it today. I had a breakfast meeting this morning at The Ritz. I didn't really want to turn up with Scooter Helmet Hair. But I love my scooter. It's very humanising."

Looking around Burford's unexceptional head office, just off Oxford Street, it is hard to disagree with Leslau's claim that the company, despite its high-profile image, is as unextravagant as its penny-watching founder. A staff of just 28 run Britain's ninth-biggest property investor, which is now worth pounds 600m 10 years after it was started from scratch. The usual clutter of files and old desks and coffee cups in an unprepossessing office block.

Until you walk into the chief executive's inner sanctum, that is, where the real man lives - frugal he may be, but this is a contrived simplicity, not harsh monasticism. From the corrugated iron desk (designed by his American sculptress wife, Maxine) to the bare plaster walls and the chairs that look oh so chic and are oh so uncomfortable, this is not the office of a man who dreams of running Land Securities.

This is the office where last week's move from industrial estate rent collector to drop-dead-trendy hotelier was hatched. Here, the decision to team up with Ian Schrager, who rubbed shoulders in 1970s New York with Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger and now runs the Big Apple's most fashionable hotels, including the Paramount and the Royalton, suddenly makes sense.

Burford is planning a string of ultra-chic hotels in London and in main cities around Europe where it has struck an exclusive deal with Schrager. To be designed by Philippe Starck, the hotels, often renovations of redundant office buildings, are to be the last word in urban cool.

"With Ian Schrager's brand, which is fantastic because he really has pioneered this sort of hotel, and our property management expertise, this could be a very exciting business. They're what I would call classically fashionable. Quite dark and seductive, very comfortable, really quite sexy. Great looking staff and there's a buzz.

"The idea is to be the equivalent of The Caprice or The Ivy restaurants, where even in a recession you can't get a seat. There are very few of what you've got but what you've got people want to be in."

Quite a sideways move for a company whose other assets include the freehold of a builders' merchant in Battersea, some advertising hoardings on Edgware Road and Caesars Palace casino in Luton. But not a wholly unexpected development for a hyperactive team that has already spun off three businesses in 15 months - a publisher, a retail warehouse developer and the Trocadero.

Leslau says that despite appearances he is no workaholic. "My first meeting this morning was at 7.30, but I'm always home in time to put my kids to bed. The pace I'm working at now actually means I'm probably being modestly ineffective. A lot of all this is about thinking time. The trick is to produce enough quality time so you make the right decisions."

Quality time looks like being deferred for a while yet, however. The hotels venture, in which Burford has put an initial pounds 50m, is looking at its own stock market flotation. The Trocadero, of which Leslau is also chief executive, is thinking about its very own demerger of the Enid Blyton publishing interests and grappling to solve problems with its main tenant, Segaworld. And those industrial investments won't run themselves. Time to replace the go-faster stripes on the scooter.