Profile: Just par for his course: For Elliott Bernerd, acquiring the Wentworth golf club marked another great round in a career of spectacular deals. Martin Tomkinson reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If joining a golf club is a dream for many people, being the person who actually owns Wentworth must rank as their ultimate fantasy.

Elliott Bernerd currently holds that fairy-tale position. This afternoon, while millions watch the televised climax of the Toyota World Matchplay Championship over Wentworth's West Course, the 47-year-old property tycoon can savour the occasion.

Compared with his last bout of publicity, when he was revealed as the provider of David Mellor's Mercedes and the flat where the then Heritage Secretary, his close friend, met Antonia de Sancha, Wentworth's autumnal splendour will make a welcome change.

He controls 52 per cent of Chelsfield, the company that owns the golf club. So Wentworth is more or less his to do with as he pleases.

But that, in part, is also Mr Bernerd's problem. First and foremost a businessman, he has made changes to Wentworth that have not been to everyone's liking. He has added a third, reportedly excellent course, is redeveloping the clubhouse and facilities, and upgrading the catering. Unfortunately, such improvements have to be paid for. The result has been that some veteran members have left. Others, who are being asked to pay a full subscription of pounds 2,150 next year, have stayed, while making their discontent known.

Their main grouse is that their distinguished, private club has been thrown open to the great unwashed, as long as they pay a green fee or their company purchased shares when Mr Bernerd sold 40 per cent of the club for pounds 32m last year (40 shares were sold at pounds 800,000 each).

For them, golf is a deep, abiding passion. In the case of Mr Bernerd, who is a fitness fanatic but not a mad-keen golfer, Wentworth appears to be just another stunningly successful property project. In 1988, Chelsfield and Benlox, a property investment company, paid pounds 17.7m for the club. Then Benlox sold its 40 per cent share to Chelsfield for pounds 12.5m. That was followed by last year's share issue valuing the whole club at pounds 80m.

A few months ago, Mr Bernerd scored another coup. In 1986, he bought a flat in Eaton Square, in London's fashionable Belgravia, for pounds 2m and has since spent about pounds 1m doing it up. But last May he was made the sort of offer that no one could refuse - pounds 10m from an unnamed Arab, widely believed to be Wafic Said, a Syrian-born businessman and former associate of Mark Thatcher.

At a time when the property market is at rock-bottom and although the flat, described as 'the finest in London', only has a 20-year lease from the Duke of Westminster's Grosvenor Estates, Mr Bernerd turned a quick pounds 8m.

Mr Bernerd, divorced with two teenage daughters, is immaculately groomed from his mirror-glass shoes to his Savile Row lapels. Darkly good-looking, he sports a permanent tan, jet black hair and undeniable personal charm. He mixes with City grandees on one hand, and on the other with distinguished figures of the arts; he is chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a regular at Glyndebourne and a serious purchaser of modern art.

Elliott Bernerd was born in May 1945. An only child, the son of a film producer father, he was seven when his parents divorced, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. He went to a number of schools, finally ending up at Davies Tutorial College in Holland Park which he left at 15, determined to make his way in property.

He started at the bottom, as a tea-boy in the offices of an investment trust, but soon moved to Michael Laurie & Partners, commercial estate agents, as a trainee.

He immediately hit it off with young Stephen Laurie, and at the tender age of 20 he became the fourth partner in the firm, and a full equity partner a year later.

His first deal was the letting of a shop in Wealdstone High Road to Radio Rentals. His lack of paper qualifications as a chartered surveyor worked to his advantage, as he was not prevented by any professional code from doing his own deals while also acting as an agent.

By 1972 the business had so flourished that the two young men received an offer from Barry East's Town & City Properties and they sold out, becoming non-executive directors of the larger company.

The property crash of 1973-4 proved a formative experience. He recalled: 'It was better than any Harvard course. Stephen and I had learned how to create assets from nothing. Then we had to find solutions to the balance sheet in a property market where there were no buyers at all. It was important to see how well some leading institutions and banks behaved and how badly others behaved. It was experience which only comes from being at the coalface.'.

His next test was more personal. In 1979, Stephen Laurie, his close partner for more than a decade, died of a brain tumour. Bernerd was devastated - 'Whatever happens, I know it can never be as bad as losing my partner' - but he somehow managed to weather the loss and went on in the Eighties to build a formidable array of City connections, including Sir Jeffrey Sterling, Stuart Lipton, Jacob Rothschild and Roger Seelig.

He also formed links with a solicitor turned private investigator called George Devlin.

Mr Bernerd has described the value to him of Mr Devlin's profession thus: 'I make reconnaissance a key feature of everything we do today. If you lose deals because your reconnaissance has not been fulfilled, it doesn't matter. There will always be other things to do.'

By 1986, Mr Bernerd was finally able to realise his own dream and form Chelsfield, his property company, and Mr Devlin became a founder-director. That year Mr Bernerd also became chairman of the LPO trustees, despite boasting that he could not distinguish a crotchet from a quaver. It was in this capacity that he first met David Mellor, another trustee and then a rising star in the Tory party.

By now he was being described in the press as the greatest deal-maker of his day - a single coup, the rescue and subsequent sale of the near-bankrupt Stockley Business Park, netted him a personal pounds 20m profit.

But a minor and innocent involvement in the Guinness affair revealed some of the pitfalls that go with such a reputation.

In the past, Mr Bernerd had dealt with the stock market player 'Black' Jack Dellal. He knew Mr Dellal, a multi- millionaire, and members of his family well. So when his friend Roger Seelig was looking for investors to support Guinness during the 1986 takeover battle for Distillers, Mr Bernerd offered to talk to Mr Dellal's sister, Swiss-based Victoria Seulberger-Simon, who agreed to buy pounds 17m of Guinness shares. When Mr Seelig subsequently stood trial for allegedly masterminding the illegal Guinness share support scheme, Mr Bernerd played a different role - as a prosecution witness. Mr Bernerd did not allow Guinness to divert him from deal-making. The past two years have seen his name linked to a succession of rescues for ailing property giants such as Mountleigh. However, his route now seems to be the public flotation of Chelsfield. The savage recession in the property market seems to have caused even Mr Bernerd some second thoughts, but word in the City is that the flotation will go ahead before the end of the year.

It seems that he will end up beneficially owning 52 per cent via the Bermuda- based company Chelsfield International. According to the offer documents for Laing Properties (mounted jointly by Chelsfield and his old friend Jeffrey Sterling of P & O in 1990), Mr Bernerd now beneficially owns about 80 per cent of Chelsfield International. These documents do not reveal who owns the remaining 20 per cent, except to state that 'the other two shareholders in CIL are foundations (each of which holds 10 per cent of the shares of CIL), the main objects of which are charitable'.

Earlier this year, it was revealed Mr Bernerd and along with his friend Mr Mellor were able to advise the Chelsea Football Club chairman, Ken Bates, in his battle to preserve the club against the wishes of its landlord, Cabra Estates. In a neat turning of the tables, Mr Bates was able to buy up around 29 per cent of Cabra's shares, becoming the largest shareholder. To observers, the football chief's timing smacked of the cool, steering hand of Mr Bernerd - although Mr Bernerd is not known as an ardent football fan. As with golf, football is business: at one time or another, Mr Bernerd has expressed a possible interest in redeveloping both Stamford Bridge and the jewel in Cabra's crown, Craven Cottage by the side of the Thames.

As the golfers wend their way around the West Course, nicknamed the Burma Road, this afternoon, it is hard not to recall the words of one old associate: 'Mr Bernerd is a creature of the jungle.' In the midst of the slump, animal cunning has served him well, so far.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments