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Peter de Savary Turns His Passions Into Profits

Aired April 7, 2001 - 14:30   ET


PETER de SAVARY, CHAIRMAN, THE CARNEGIE CLUBS: It's the thrill of the chase and hopefully the win. But it's all in the chase. It's the adventure of it.

BEVERLY SCHUCH, HOST (voice-over): Peter de Savary is on a quest for adventure, whether racing vintage Americas Cup sailboats or buying castles, this self-proclaimed opportunist makes a living turning his enthusiasms into profits.

DE SAVARY: Well, we take a little trip on the river. I think it's saver than the Amazon, but it's still very exhilarating.

SCHUCH: In his latest business venture, de Savary is scouring the globe for the perfect locales to build exclusive clubs for the wealthy. Exotic indulgences are a specialty at his Carnegie Clubs -- falconry, snipe hunting with Purdy (ph) shotguns, and world championship golf.

DE SAVARY: When I went up there with a glass of wine and sat up on the top and watched the sun the other night, the chairs are up there, it is absolutely fantastic.

SCHUCH: It all began when de Savary fell in love with Andrew Carnegie's Skibo Castle in Scotland. The year was 1990. Britain's economy was on the brink of recession. De Savary paid nearly $10 million for the place Carnegie called heaven on earth.

DE SAVARY: I can't explain it to you, but I can only tell you the truth. I said to my wife, "Let's not get out of this car. I just have a feeling if I get out of this car, I'm going to buy this castle. And I do not need to buy a castle."

To cut a long story short, we did get out of the car, and we ended up six days later having bought the castle with nearly 8,000 acres.

SCHUCH: Indulging that whim was costly. De Savary nearly went bankrupt. He reportedly lost $100 million after buying the castle. It took several more years of hard work getting the dilapidated mansion up to snuff.

But now it's become the crown jewel of the Carnegie Club properties.

In November 2000, Madonna wed Guy Ritchie in Skibo's stately halls.

The Carnegie Clubs include Stablukerd (ph) Park and London Outpost in Britain, Carnegie Abbey and Cherokee Plantation in the U.S., and he has plans for clubs in Italy and Chile. Cherokee Plantation, the most exclusive of the clubs, will have only 25 members at the princely price of $3 million per membership. De Savary says these clubs are his canvas.

DE SAVARY: I can't paint to save my life, but I can imagine what an artist does, you know, when they finally finish that painting.

SCHUCH: De Savary began his grand design with a series of commercial ventures taking him all over the world, driving trucks in North America, importing and exporting in Africa, trading oil in the Middle East, banking in the Caribbean, shipping in Europe. And he's got a talent for prime real estate. At one point in Britain, he owned Lands End and John O'Groats.

(on camera): You have a dizzying array of businesses and enterprises, from oil to import-export to maritime to industry to real estate. You know...

DE SAVARY: What about undertaking? I used to own the largest undertaking business in the U.K. You see, nobody ever mentions that, because it's not very glamorous. And I didn't have it for very long. I mean, imagine going to a board meeting, and you're the only one not in a black suit, and then you ask the marketing directors to speak, and his entire sales budget is based upon all the research he can do to find out how quickly wealthy people are going to die so they can budget some expensive funerals.

And after listening to this for some time, you get quite depressed, and you say, Well, it's maybe profitable, but I'm not going to stay in this business. So I sold it.

SCHUCH: But why? I mean, why this array? Can't you just stick with something?

DE SAVARY: No, you see, I'm a little bit of a gypsy, and I'm an opportunist. I'm an enthusiast.

SCHUCH (voice-over): But de Savary's life has not been all smooth sailing. After chasing opportunity to the top, he came face to face with the ultimate challenge, death.

The adventurous life of Peter de Savary, chairman of the Carnegie Clubs, next on PINNACLE.


DE SAVARY: I love coming down here in this cypress swamp. It's quite cool, and it almost feels medieval, doesn't it? It doesn't feel of this world.

SCHUCH (voice-over): For Peter de Savary, the road to opportunity has been paved with danger. It's been a theme in his life ever since his birth during World War II.

(on camera): The legend has it that you were born during an air raid in World War II?

DE SAVARY: Absolutely. The -- my mother tells me the bomb landed literally as she gave birth, and I arrived with a bang.

SCHUCH: Seriously?

DE SAVARY: Yes, absolutely. It landed right in the farmyard. I was born on a farm, a pig farm, and in the country, and it landed literally in the middle of the farmyard.

SCHUCH (voice-over): At age 2, de Savary became a world traveler. After his parents divorced, his mother followed her heart to South America, where she married an employee for Shell Oil.

DE SAVARY: The correspondence led to an invitation to my mother, Why don't you bring your son and come and marry me in the jungle? I'm pretty lonely out here. And my mother did just that. We took a ship to Halifax and a train to New York and a banana boat to Venezuela.

SCHUCH: De Savary returned to Britain at age 9, spending more time with his father and getting a formal English education.

DE SAVARY: I was quite good till the age of 16. I only became naughty when I was 16.

SCHUCH (on camera): I don't know a 16-year-old who isn't naughty.

DE SAVARY: And I did one of those things you shouldn't do, I found myself...


DE SAVARY: ... yes, in bed with the headmaster's au pair, and this was probably what he'd been planning all summer and hadn't succeeded in achieving. So he was seriously angry that I had succeeded, and just asked my father to take me away from the school. You know, he said the school really had no need of me.

SCHUCH: You never went back, you never finished school, then?


SCHUCH: You could have done that, certainly.

DE SAVARY: I really wanted to get out into the world. I wanted to be a free spirit.

SCHUCH (voice-over): De Savary's dad had other plans for his roguish son. He wanted Peter to become a woodworker's apprentice and work his way up in the family furniture business. Instead, Peter fled to Canada, where his mother and stepfather were now living. Once there, he got his job as a landscaper. He discovered a love for the land and a talent for making shrewd business deals.

DE SAVARY: I started doing people's gardens, and then I found some of them had children, so I said, well, did they need any baby sitting? Because you don't do gardening at night. And they said, well, it would be very good, yes, you could baby sit. Then I thought, well, maybe some of them would like English tuition. I'm English, that's, you know, something different where I was. So I said, would any of the children like tuition? And some of them said, yes, that would be good too. So I got three jobs from one.

SCHUCH: Even with three jobs, Peter de Savary -- or PDS, as he likes to be called -- was finding it difficult to make ends meet. By age 18, he had a wife and a daughter. They all returned to the U.K., where PDS had to endure working at his dad's business.

But in 1969, a trip to see his mom turned into a safari for riches.

DE SAVARY: During that Christmas visit, I met a lady, a widow, whose husband had previously had a little import-export business with Africa, and machetes and raincoats and quite a small-scale business. And I said, I'll look after this business that he's left you, and if it works out, you'll do well from it and I'll do well from it. And would you like me to do that? And she said, yes, well, why don't you have a look?

So that led me to buying a ticket on borrowed money to go to West Africa. I didn't even have the money for the ticket. And in fact my wife was very angry with me because I bought a first-class ticket. And it would have been one thing to buy an economy ticket, but my view was that I needed a proper tropical suit and a briefcase, because people there would notice how I arrived and how I departed.

SCHUCH: Did it work?

DE SAVARY: So -- absolutely.

SCHUCH (voice-over): On the plane, fate intervened. PDS struck up a friendship with a man who happened to be the brother of the president of Nigeria. PDS agreed to supply goods to the wartorn country. His new partner would distribute them.

That stroke of luck made de Savary a millionaire before the age of 30. He and his partner supplied Nigeria and other African countries with wheat, flour, and steel. He was soon working on his second million as an oil trader.

DE SAVARY: I do think, you know, the whole closing mechanism is a formal procedure. There's a technique to closing, there's a...

SCHUCH: De Savary's tastes soon rose to the level of his bankroll. He found he disliked all five-star hotels. They were too crowded, filled with people he considered unattractive and ill mannered. So in 1979, PDS created his own hotel chain, the exclusive St. James Clubs. The five international clubs could blackball any prospective member and made all members pay high dues. In the late 1980s, he sold the clubs for more than $100 million.

De Savary began making headlines. In 1983, he spent more than $8 million of his own money trying to win the Americas Cup for Britain. During his second attempt at the Americas Cup, de Savary attracted the attention of the feisty British press and began a contentious relationship.

(on camera): Let me put some adjectives to you that have been attributed to you in the various columns that I read, and they're pretty colorful, in the London papers, anyway, and tell me how you plead. "Brash."


SCHUCH: "Intimidating."


SCHUCH: ... to think.

DE SAVARY: I think "brash" is another word for being extrovert. I am an extrovert. "Brash" is a rather vulgar, unattractive description, and it has connotations of rather obnoxious behavior. I think what they mean is extrovert. "Intimidating," I wouldn't say I'm intimidating. I'm extremely fair. If you shake hands with me, you better understand what that means to me. If someone takes advantage of me, I think it's fair to say I get upset. Perhaps one could call that intimidating.

SCHUCH: "Ruthless"?

DE SAVARY: I always think of myself as being rather kind.

SCHUCH (voice-over): The incredible story of how Peter de Savary nearly lost his life and family, when PINNACLE continues.


DE SAVARY: It probably is the closest I've been to death.

SCHUCH: That's Peter de Savary's memory of a Christmas week in 1987, a family vacation to St. Bart's. It was a favorite spot for his wife and three children, but the trip began with an ominous sign from the pilot.

DE SAVARY: And he was fiddling with the engine. I said, "Is there a problem with the engine?" He said, "No, no. No, no problem with the engine, just checking." Anyway, we got in the plane, took off. Approaching the little airport, a wind squall, which made it very difficult for him to land the plane, showers, wind, so quite rightly, as the runway ends in the sea, and I'm looking out of the window, I can see the beach coming very quickly. He decides he will not make it, he will not be able to stop before he gets in the sea. So he takes off again. But as he takes off, the engine that he'd been fiddling with starts coughing and spluttering, and he's obviously got problems. And he's fiddling around trying to sort it out with all the knobs and levers in the plane. He's looking at all that. And as he's doing that, the engine stops. And then he looks out of the window. And you have to make a left-hand turn at about 800 feet at St. Bart's, else you hit a mountain.

And he suddenly saw the mountain. My God, we've got to make a left-hand turn. And he made a left-hand turn, and he had what is technically called a wing stall. And the plane at about 800, 900 feet just fell out of the sky sideways.

It is an absolute truth, you see every single thing, virtually, of your entire life in those seconds. It's like an ultra-high-speed movie. I can't describe it to you any better than that. And you know you're going to die.

SCHUCH: So dramatic is his story that British television went back and produced a recreation of the family's terrifying ordeal aboard the Cessna plane.

DE SAVARY: And somehow, nature says, Don't open your mouth, and don't breathe, else you're going to drown. Within seconds, I thought, Very funny, being dead is like being upside-down in the water. And then I suddenly realized, I am not dead. I am upside-down under the water. It's very hard to get that seat belt off. But you manage to get it off, and you surface, and you realize that you only have about this much air. And then of course you're immediately -- as you gasp some air, because you haven't been breathing under water. Is your children and your wife, and you start shouting for them.

And we couldn't hear the 13-year-old. She was with the co-pilot, and that the plane had crushed in so there was no way to get there. So the urgent thing was to get out of the plane, because obviously the plane's going to sink and go down, and then you have no hope.

I can't remember twisting anything or doing anything, but the door opened. So then one by one I had to get them to swim, taking the baby and dive under the water and swim, and then you pop up, and you're on a Caribbean reef with all the white breakers. So I had to swim the children and my wife to the boats through the reef, and of course I had to go back to get the 13-year-old. And as I'm going back to get her, I see the pilot, the captain, swimming to the shore, shouting at him across the ocean, "Where's my daughter? Where's my daughter?"

And he's signaling she's in the plane. And I remember thinking, it shows how you shouldn't judge things too quickly, You bastard, you left a little 13-year-old girl in the plane, and you're swimming to the safety of the beach? When I get to the beach, I will kill you with my bare hands. Right?

I get to the plane and I climb on the plane. By a miracle there's a hole in the plane, and she's managed to get her head through it. SCHUCH: Tugging at the fuselage, unable to free his daughter, Nicola, de Savary prays. A miracle happens. The biggest, strongest man he's ever seen jumps into the water and swims fearlessly toward the plane. The man, it turns out, is a Vietnam veteran and had crashed during the war. He'd been rescued by a good Samaritan, and he felt he had a debt to repay.

DE SAVARY: We managed to rip the plane apart. We got her to the beach. She was completely blue and gone. And three great doctors were on the beach that day. There's no hospital on the island, but there's a little sort of nursing place where you can go and get some Elasto-plast and that sort of thing. And as we carry her in there, there is the pilot on the floor, dead.

And I remember thinking to myself, I should never have wished him dead.

As it happens, these three men were just geniuses. She revived, she got better, she recovered. She got a scholarship to Oxford University. And next year she'll be a fully qualified doctor.

SCHUCH: More with Peter de Savary when PINNACLE continues.


DE SAVARY: Where are we going to play (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in reality, 2,000, 3,000 rounds a year?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll be very lucky to hit that.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Peter de Savary talks a good game when it comes to managing golf courses, but when it comes to playing, he doesn't.

DE SAVARY: I can talk as an expert, look like an expert, sound like an expert. But the minute I play my first round of golf, obviously, and probably for the rest of my life, I would have to abandon my status as an expert, because the truth would be evident.

SCHUCH: He's much more interested in his sport of choice, sailing. Today he'll win the Save the Bay Regatta in Narragansett. But in 1983, during the Americas Cup, he lost the last challenger race to Australia. Australia went on to win the cup that year.

De Savary's loss was a blow to Britain's pride, but it was still a personal victory for him. He dedicated the race to his father, who died in 1980 of cancer.

DE SAVARY: I would ring my father regularly each evening in the hospital and talk to him. And what do you say to a man every night, to your father? You talk about the boat race. At least there's something different every day, well, the French did this, the Americans did that. And he said, you know, "You seem so enthusiastic about it. You should think of having a go yourself, sir."

Well, I was only enthusiastic to have conversation with him. But he died one of those evenings. And so the next day I thought, What a great idea. If I do this, I will always remember my father. I'll always remember the Americas Cup. But every time I go on a boat, which I do very regularly, I'll always have a little thought about the old man.

And so that's what I did.

This tree in front of you is 1,000 years old.

SCHUCH: De Savary's ancestry has always been important to him. He claims to be a descendant of Marechal Sattlay (ph), one of Napoleon's generals who was made a duke. But ever the Englishman, de Savary wanted a British coat of arms, which he bought in 1991 from the College of Arms for about $5,000.

De Savary is a proud father of five children. He's been married three times, once for just six weeks. But he's been married to his last wife, Lana, for 15 years. They wed at the St. James Club in Antigua. Lana, originally from South Carolina, is one of the reasons de Savary bought Cherokee Plantation.

DE SAVARY: When she left here 21 years ago, reluctantly, in a way, I said, "Look, I promise you we'll be back. We'll be back. I don't know how we'll be back, but we'll be back."

SCHUCH: Members are driven from the main house to the golf course by mule carriage for breakfast. Afterwards, they indulge themselves in a variety of ways -- fishing, hunting, a massage, horseback riding, or even a drive into the river.


SCHUCH (on camera): But you're never sure?

DE SAVARY: Never sure.

SCHUCH: Well, it's doing beautifully.

(voice-over): And don't forget golf. The Danielle Steel (ph) course at Cherokee is so well designed and manicured that it hosted an episode of Shell's "Wonderful World of Golf." The world-ranked players David Duval and Ernie Els were matched against each other but soon found themselves battling the course.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's fascinating, one out to the left, one out to the fairway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And both of them side by side, short.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lot of identical shots today, haven't they?


DE SAVARY: This, of course, is one of these great fireplaces that the Narragansett Indians built for us, and without the help of the Narragansett Indians, we would never have accomplished this project for many reasons. In fact, the chief gave me the sacred stone, the special stone, and I have to wear it at all times, and when I'm in the state of Rhode Island, and he assured me that if I do that, we will have lots of good luck.

SCHUCH: Just two hours away by private jet is Carnegie Abbey in Newport, Rhode Island. Not as expensive as Cherokee, Carnegie will cater to 375 members at a cost of $130,000 each, plus $7,500 in annual fees.

In Scotland, the country where golf was born, celebrities like Greg Norman, Charles Schwab, Sean Connery and, of course, Madonna have all visited Skibo Castle. Its 700 members pay $5,000 a year and $700 a night for a room.

DE SAVARY: I'm grooming you to be an executive, right? This is a huge improvement. Good. Don't let it hang out too far.

SCHUCH: Details have made PDS a wealthy man. And although he still oversees everything from the choice of stemware for dinner to employees' air fares, he's also more mindful of what is truly important ever since that fateful day on St. Bart's.

DE SAVARY: It gave me a completely different perspective on life. I actually know what matters and what doesn't matter in life. So making money, running businesses, doing deals -- all those kind of materialistic things -- they're really worth that.

I realized that health is very important, I realize how important your family is. I feel so guilty if I should be away and miss something that one of my children is doing. It deeply upsets me. I'd almost rather -- I probably do sometimes miss out on the deal, miss the opportunity, because I'd rather be at the school Christmas carol service.

You learn through such an experience the value of all the other things that have nothing to do with your material successes.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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