'I've lived through half a dozen coups and putsches so I wasn't frightened'

In the mid 1970s, Andre Jordan, now 62, lost his flagship resort in Portugal to political upheaval. However, the entrepreneur fought back to build a $300m property giant
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It looked like a mediaeval scene. We had gone to see Joan Sutherland in Verdi's La Traviata at the 19th-century Sao Carlos opera house in Lisbon. The president of Portugal, Rear Admiral Americo de Deus Toms, was there too, and during the intermission the political and business establishment lined up to pay their respects to him. On the way home that night I turned to my wife and said: "I don't think this can continue." A week later our maid woke us up at 7.30. She had her transistor radio and turned the volume up so we could hear Communique Number One from the new revolutionary government.

I have lived through half a dozen revolutions, coups and putsches in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela so while this concerned me, I wasn't personally frightened. But this was the one that hurt my business the most. My company, now called the Andre Jordan Group, was taken away from me, and by the time I won it back its debts had soared 10-fold.

I was born in Poland, but my family fled in 1939 when the Russians and Germans invaded. We eventually settled in Brazil and I was educated there and in the United States. As a young man I worked as a reporter, writing a nationally syndicated column, and ran a few small businesses. I had an art gallery and produced plays, films and ballet. They were mildly successful, but were done more in the spirit of the day. There was an explosion of the arts in Brazil at the time.

My father was a prominent property developer and I joined him in the business for a while in my early 20s. When he died in 1967 I discovered that he had spread himself a bit thin. I took the option of liquidating his affairs to leave my sisters with some assets, and got a job in America with Levitt, which at that time was the world's biggest house builder.

After seeing the travails of my father's adventurous business life I thought what I wanted was the security of being an executive with a big company. But one weekend on a beach in Puerto Rico I started questioning what I was doing, and I realised I was not an executive, at heart I was an entrepreneur.

For a while I worked as a property consultant in France, but in 1970, while on a trip to Portugal, my main client went under. Resort development in the Algarve was just beginning and I realised there was an opportunity to develop American-style country clubs.

All I had at the time was $2,000, my contacts and my professional reputation but I managed to raise $3m to start Quinta do Lago.

Sometimes when you look at a property you have an instant view of what you are going to do. There was no road access to Quinta do Lago so I had to drive along trails and through pine woods until I came to a high point overlooking it, with the ocean on the horizon. Within 10 minutes I had the concept for the whole project in my mind. I wanted to create a high- quality resort that reflected local character and style, not just a transplant.

The first part of the project, a restaurant in the old farm house, opened in 1972 and the project was an instant success - until the revolution in 1974. The market dried out totally in a matter of weeks. I had mixed feelings about the revolution. On the one hand I supported the end of the dictatorship; on the other hand I saw this very successful business I had created from scratch slipping through my fingers.

There was more political turmoil over the next few months, and eventually the new government set about nationalising banks and industries. I persuaded my board of directors to give power of attorney to our workers committee, but that didn't stop the bureaucrats from taking over.

At that point we had a debt of $3m, with my shares in the company as collateral. The government intervention put a moratorium on debt repayment, but there was virtually no income, and the new managers kept going to the nationalised banks for more loans to keep things going.

By the time I got it back in 1982, Quinta do Lago was $30m in debt, and with interest rates at 40 per cent that doubled in a little over a year. My financial people said we needed to sell 10 plots a year but in 1982 we sold only one. I realised that we couldn't get enough momentum selling them individually, so I set about repositioning the project. We designed new villages and sold them to big companies, the first to Shell. After that came Bovis, P&O and a Saudi prince who put up a hotel. After that we sold 50 plots a year.

By 1987 I had completely paid down the debt and was starting to get bids for the company from Shell, Bovis, Forte and Deutsche Bank. Eventually I sold it to David Thompson, co-founder of Hillsdown, and Roger Abraham, a City stockbroker, for $30m.

I grew up in a culture of risk, but not everyone has had that experience. My main advice to budding entrepreneurs would be to look within themselves to see whether they have the perseverance and courage to take risks. That's the essence of creating a business.