Robbie’s return: Tchenguiz plans to resume deal-making on a smaller scale
Five minutes into our interview, Robert Tchenguiz breaks off to take a telephone call from his friend Gill, who invites him to the World Cup final today. ‘I don’t want to go to Moscow; we lost yesterday,’ he says, the morning after England’s semi-final defeat to Croatia. ‘Come and stay with me on the boat at the weekend.’
By ‘boat’, Tchenguiz means My Little Violet, the 49-metre yacht moored in the South of France where he spends each weekend. So far, he appears to be every inch the Riviera playboy – the reputation he earned thanks to his wild yacht parties in Cannes and penchant for dating supermodels.
In the years leading up to the financial crisis, Iranian-born Tchenguiz became one of Britain’s most successful property tycoons, amassing a fortune of more than £2 billion by buying stakes in some of Britain’s biggest companies, such as Sainsbury’s, House of Fraser and pub group Mitchells & Butlers.
But his office is now piled high with lawyers’ papers alongside the plaques commemorating his multibillion-pound corporate deals with BT, BAE Systems and the Odeon cinema chain. In fact, the luxurious Curzon Street HQ is not technically Tchenguiz’s office. It’s in the hands of receivers in Guernsey – as is his £20 million mansion in Kensington.
Tchenguiz’s assets in the family trust have been frozen since the collapse of Iceland’s Kaupthing bank in 2008, which led to Robbie and his older brother Vincent being arrested for suspected fraud in a 2011 dawn raid by the SFO. Tchenguiz jokes: ‘My colleagues in Abu Dhabi used to say, “For Osama Bin Laden they sent 40 people. For our man in London, Robert, 165 policemen.” ’
Following a decade of legal battles, he says he is finally close to getting justice. His £600 million-plus claim against accountancy firm Grant Thornton, Kaupthing’s liquidator, will reach trial in October – and Tchenguiz, now estranged from Vincent and fighting alone, believes that information that came to light in the SFO case could finally prove his claims of a conspiracy between Grant Thornton and Kaupthing. ‘I have evidence of their wrongdoing, and in October I’ll be able to prove it,’ he says.
Grant Thornton strongly denies Tchenguiz’s claims.
Three months away from D-Day, Tchenguiz, 57, is in good spirits, but smokes heavily, stubbing out Marlboro Lights in a heavy glass ashtray. He has spent tens of millions of pounds on lawyers’ fees over the past decade, with costs escalating to between £3 million and £4 million per month over the last two years.
He says his business has been significantly damaged by his arrest – it took three years for the SFO to admit it acted unlawfully and pay £1.5 million damages, plus costs. His R20 firm employs around 40 staff and he is meeting his outgoings thanks to ‘supportive friends’. ‘Every month I have to put millions into court as security for costs,’ he says. ‘How do you do business in those circumstances? You still have to run an office, pay salaries, run a home.’
Tchenguiz’s personal life came under an unwanted level of scrutiny in a recent BBC2 documentary called Robbie’s War: The Rise And Fall Of A Playboy Billionaire.
In an unconventional arrangement, he shares his Kensington home with girlfriend Julia, 27, and estranged wife Heather, 48. Tchenguiz said the documentary ‘misrepresented’ him and threatened to sue the BBC – although he has now decided to drop that battle. ‘I’ve got too much on my plate,’ he says. Tchenguiz’s five ongoing legal spats include a dispute against Aabar Investments, a branch of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, over a €2 billion deal to gain control of the Spanish HQ of Santander bank. Last month, a judge ruled in Aabar’s favour, but Tchenguiz plans to appeal and insists his testimony is sound and he did not lie.He says: ‘There were two separate valuations for the bank HQ, and so the detail got confused to the point where it appears there was an inconsistency.’
Tchenguiz also maintains that his joint loan venture with Aabar was upheld until 2015, when a new management team ignored a previous agreement that he would not sell his stake until the deal finalised. ‘They wanted me to sell to one of their colleagues, which I wasn’t prepared to do,’ he says. The gladiatorial tycoon says the strain of fighting on so many fronts for so long has caused him ‘anguish’, but he keeps going because of his children. ‘It’s a cruel world, and you have to prepare your children,’ he says. ‘People see the nice things, but all the money and the fame comes with a lot of responsibilities. When somebody makes a fortune, they lose a big part of their life to get there.’
Tchenguiz worked up to 20 hours a day to build his business empire after starting out in the 1980s under the eye of his late father Victor, a jeweller who ran the Iranian mint.
Between 2000 and 2007, he did 58 deals, all of which were worth more than £100 million. Many of his property and private equity deals were fuelled by debt, provided by banks still ‘buoyant’ before the credit crisis. ‘Even my social life was work; I was very ambitious and we were making a lot of money,’ he says. ‘I owned 12 per cent of Sainsbury’s, and 29 per cent of Mitchells & Butlers.’ In 2006, Tchenguiz was named ‘Property Entrepreneur of the Year’ at an industry awards ceremony. But he lost more than £1 billion after Kaupthing collapsed two years later, and his reputation was tarnished by allegations of fraud.
He coped with the pressure by partying with a circle of friends that includes Topshop mogul Sir Philip Green, restaurateur Richard Caring, and fellow property tycoon Bruce Ritchie, the co-chairman of the scandal-hit Presidents Club dinners. ‘Going out kept me alive,’ he says. ‘I never had moments to be on my own, thinking about the challenges.’
For the end-game of his ten-year crusade against the SFO and Grant Thornton, Tchenguiz is being advised by some of the ‘top QCs in the world’ including a team from Debevoise.
Once it’s all over, he has no desire to rebuild his sprawling property empire, but will resume deal-making on a smaller scale. The property world has changed since 2007 – and so has Tchenguiz, who says he is ‘calmer’, and now goes out to favourite haunts such as Caring’s Mayfair club Annabel’s only once or twice a week. ‘I am up at 6am – and I used to go to bed at 6am. I just don’t have the energy any more.’
Inspecting his entrepreneur of the year trophy, he muses on his rollercoaster story of boom and bust. ‘I have gone from entrepreneur of the year to criminal,’ he says.
‘I never believed there are innocent people in jail, but if I didn’t have the money to fight the SFO, I wouldn’t be in a position to secure justice.’