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The Club King

Entrepreneur Peter de Savary is on a personal quest to create the perfect private clubs in some of the world's most scenic settings.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

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.


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