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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

(continued from page 1)

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 refundable 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.

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