André Jordan is accredited with being the ‘father’ of Portuguese luxury golf resort tourism in Portugal. After recently publishing his memoirs ‘My Life’s Journey’, the entrepreneur who created Quinta do Lago, Belas Clube de Campo and Vilamoura XXI reveals his thoughts on the past, present and future.
Special Interview by CHRIS GRAEME
Entrepreneurs like André Jordan are rare in Portugal. After inventing the concept of the luxury golf resort development sector over the past 40 years, there is only a handful of business leaders in Portugal today who can hold a candle to him.
His business empire and intriguing personal life with four marriages and a large family have coloured six decades across two continents. It is the stuff “Dallas-style” soap operas are made of and, fittingly, it is with oil exploration in 1930s Poland that we must begin.
Born Franciszek Spitzman Jordan in Drohobych Lwów, Poland in 1933, his father was an affluent Jewish businessman who worked in the oil industry.
“We came from a region called Galicia, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. These lands had significant oil reserves near Drohobych and Boryslav,” he recalls referring to an area called Galicia-Volhynia and Lodomeria and often referred to as the ‘Polish Baku’.
The family moved to Lwów, in what today is Lviv in the Ukraine, in 1937 and he admits his recollections as a young boy are sketchy. For years he says he has had recurrent dreams of fighters flying past the window, frightening him and forcing him to hide.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and surrounded Lwóv by September 14 and handed it over to the USSR five days later under the terms of the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty 1939.
“We were the only people that left; nobody wanted to leave. They wanted to stick it out and thought it would all blow over. Of course, it didn’t, and I lost much of my family in the Holocaust,” he says.
He only returned to Poland decades later at the invitation of former Polish Prime Minister Lech Walesa, but he didn’t return to his hometown. “Getting a visa to the Ukraine from Poland was complicated at the time and as for visiting Auschwitz, I thought about it but, given my heart problems, the emotional effect could have been catastrophic,” he ponders.
His family didn’t manage to get all their money out before the war because “there were very severe exchange control restrictions. However, my father did manage to smuggle money out through a German contact”.
The family fled via Romania, Italy (Venice), which made a big impression on him as a boy, and then on to Paris.
The Spitzmans spent a few months in Lisbon where Jordan attended St. Julian’s School before emigrating to Brazil. “My mother, who had been right that we should have left Poland, thought that Hitler would invade Portugal. We had a US and a Brazilian visa through Portuguese masonic contacts. That group loved Brazil and said it was fantastic. ‘Why don’t you go to Brazil? You have the American visa; if you don’t like it, you move on’,” they told him.
Big in Brazil
André Jordan’s reflections of his early teens and youth spent growing up in Brazil are positive. “It was a period when Brazil awakened, and modern Brazil was born,” he says. “Before then, Brazil slept. There was no industry, everything had to be imported. It had had 50 years of dictatorship. In 1945, the government fell. Everything awakened on the cultural, political and economic side.”
His mother lived in New York and his father in Rio where he became a pioneer of the real estate business with landmark buildings in Rio and São Paulo. The Chopin Building next to the Copacabana Palace in Rio is still one of the most famous residential buildings in the city. “Like most Poles, he loved Chopin. Every Sunday, in the centre of Warsaw, they still have an open-air Chopin concert with thousands of people,” he recalls.
“My father built up fortunes and lost them, which was the style of his generation that was indifferent to organisation. If you had a good idea for business, you made money whether it was well run or not.”
But André Jordan himself got burned in Brazil in the property development market. He says he got involved with the wrong investors and developers. He never forgot the lesson.
On the Portuguese
The entrepreneur loves the Portuguese but is dismayed by their lack of self-confidence and belief that they can achieve great things.
“All the dictators were great psychologists and Salazar was no exception because he knew how the Portuguese worked and thought, although he didn’t know much of anything else,” he ponders.
Jordan says that, in Portugal, poor productivity has been far more the fault of management than workers. “Directors of large companies here basically got a sinecure. They didn’t really work. They just gave orders and had long three- or four-hour lunches. The tradition was not to be productive.”
However, he admits that’s changing with the new generation. These youngsters who go abroad to work get a different work ethic. Even so, all the Portuguese emigres think about is returning to Portugal; not their children, who don’t know Portugal in quite the same way,” he muses.
On politics and politicians
Of the Portuguese politicians he admires, top of the list is Jorge Sampaio who Jordan describes as a “very fair, patriotic and humanistic leader”, who was “very effective” both as a president of the Republic and as mayor of Lisbon.
“He saved Lisbon from speculative developers by creating a master plan for Lisbon at a time when there hadn’t been one and that’s why Lisbon survived an onslaught of low-quality building. He was an excellent president, very well balanced, very sensitive to the needs of the people and he was recognised internationally as a leading figure. He’s a wonderful person.”
The entrepreneur believes that Portugal’s current president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa will be recognised as an “innovator of post-ideological government” because he discarded partisan ideology, including his own.
“He judges things purely on merit and is not afraid to intervene when he thinks it appropriate, whereas Aníbal Cavaco Silva and Mário Soares were reluctant to do so. Rebelo de Sousa appealed directly to the people, without a party and any constituency of his own and the politicians didn’t know how to deal with that. He is a very interesting man who will go down in history as an innovator in the exercise of political power,” he affirms.
But he criticises a party-political system where the people don’t choose the candidates but rather lists. “The political hacks control the party and the current Prime Minister António Costa has to cater to these ‘hacks’ that run his party because they are the real bosses. It’s a rotten system which has to be changed. Some of the people in the government are good people, but their hands are tied,” he reflects.
But does he think the Portuguese political system is inherently corrupt? “Overall, Portugal is not corrupt. You have some corrupt people, but even so they are not the ones holding Portugal back. Portugal doesn’t do better because it doesn’t face reality. I think, by nature, the Portuguese are dreamers,” he muses.
A shrewd businessman, André Jordan believes it was not entirely the fault of the Portuguese banking system or even the government that led to the Portuguese economic and financial crisis, which led to bankruptcy and a €78 billion bailout fund from international institutional lenders in 2011.
“It was a consequence of the system but not the cause. The international bankers all knew what they were doing with these credit default swaps (CDS), subprime mortgage backed securities (MBS), collateralised debt obligations (CDO) and hedge funds.
“The US and European banks were flush with money, and the only area where that money could be absorbed was Southern Europe, so they flooded Italy, Spain and Portugal with cheap money. The banks here could not resist as they were making fantastic profits, some bankers taking advantage in a personal way, but that was a consequence, not the cause,” he argues.
Jordan says there was no criteria: “They paid one for the money and placed it at three. This cheap money led to indiscriminate lending to undeserving people. The psychological power of the big bankers was enormous,” he says, adding that Vítor Constâncio, the last governor of the Bank of Portugal, was not “equipped temperamentally to say ‘no’ and the system gave him too much respect, I think, and nobody dared to question the wisdom of it”.
Jordan says that there was no method or checks and nobody controlled anything. “If they had gone in with a proper audit, they could have acted immediately, but they didn’t. It was down to poor supervision,” he says of the various bank default crises that affected Portugal over the past decade.
Yet, despite the barrage of criticism thrown at the current Governor of the Bank of Portugal over parliamentary enquiries into reckless lending, André Jordan thinks that Carlos Costa has worked hard to restore confidence.
“The system has improved a lot. Not only because of Carlos Costa but also the European Central Bank (ECB); it was the European bankers who controlled the ECB who were the root cause by flooding these countries with cheap money with no criteria for doing it. The bankers got drunk!” he says.
Golf and tourism
That André Jordan has left an indelible mark on Portuguese tourism could never be in doubt. In fact, he was listed as one of the 12 most influential personalities in the tourism sector in the world.
“Tourism has been successful statistically, but statistics can be read in many ways. But we know that tourist numbers are coming down as I’ve been predicting for some time. We haven’t done the marketing and we haven’t capitalised on the asset as a brand,” he says.
Jordan says that the main problem is that Portugal is still seen as a cheap holiday destination. “That is what this current approach to marketing created: a value-for-money destination, which it is. You have quality for the price you pay here that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”
He believes that the tourism industry needs to come up with a marketing strategy aimed at higher echelon clients. Portugal, he says, doesn’t need hyper luxury hotels. The super-rich and billionaires that would use them are too few. Quinta do Lago is very successful and has very wealthy clients precisely because “there’s only one Quinta do Lago” and because “there’s no market for another in Portugal”, unlike in the United States where there are more home-grown super-rich.
“You want sophisticated, discriminating clients with good taste, who want discretion, and that’s what we need to be offering in order to create a niche market,” he says, explaining that developers should be able to offset a percentage of their VAT for investment and marketing. “The government would get that back in the long run, but I’ve been arguing for that and had zero reaction.”
His ideas about the Portuguese golf sector is that creating a quality niche market is also the key for continued success. “My theory on golf is that we are a niche market and yet we don’t always do that. We want to compete where we can’t possibly compete because we just don’t have the volume, revenues and numbers. Spain has 20 times the revenue of Portugal and is three times larger and can go in for the mass market. In Portugal, we can’t even build for the price they sell their properties. We’ve managed to attract the right type of clients to Vilamoura and Quinta do Lago. It’s a proven model. These two brands become more and more valuable every year. Catering for a mass market is not what we can or should be doing,” he argues.
Fear, death and religion
It is perhaps surprising that a man whose family fled the Holocaust should have opted to change his faith to Christianity.
“These days I have no religion, I feel great brotherhood with Christ and Our Lady of Fátima and I’ve been to Fátima several times. I’m also sympathetic to Israel. People might think that because I have been successful that I am fearless. In fact, I fear everything! In my life, I faced everything and feared it too, but did it all anyway! However, I’m very careful and try to be prudent. As for dying, I’m not overly fearful of death, but I’m in no hurry to meet it either,” he says laughing.
On marriage and relationships
André Jordan is in no doubt that women will eventually call the shots in a world where men increasingly fail to act in a responsible manner. He is shocked by the behaviour of Donald Trump and applauds the President of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi for standing up to him.
“He can’t handle elegant beautiful older women who are indifferent to his bullying,” he says but admits the pressures of being a high-powered and successful businessman did undermine his four marriages.
“There have been major changes in social rules and behaviour, which has led sex to become free and easy. It’s very hard today for marriages to survive for 20 or 30 years. Most people get bored and then divorce, but I still have good relationships with my former wives, and we all get together at Christmas.”
Thoughts on the future
André Jordan says that the two worst things that happened in the 20th century was Adolf Hitler and the discovery of nuclear fusion. Both Albert Einstein, who facilitated the development of the science behind nuclear weapons, and Robert Oppenheimer, who developed the atomic bomb, felt very uneasy and guilty about the invention, he says.
“The use of the bomb in 1945 on Japan made it clear it could never be used. Nobody has ever used the bomb, and nobody ever will because they know they will ensure their own destruction. All parties that have the bomb tacitly agree on this. This is the kind of agreement that we must make with regard to climate change and artificial intelligence. All of the advances that we take for granted may seem wonderful but have negative consequences on the environment and could lead to the destruction of humanity. Plastics and cars were two of the biggest achievements in the world. But we must devise alternative ways of living that are good for the environment,” he explains.
“For this, we also have to accept that there will be an overall lowering of living standards for everybody and everybody will have to adjust. If they don’t, then it’s the end for the human race.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been conducted prior to the coronavirus outbreak, thus some of its content will be considered out of context with the current reality.
Photos: CHRIS GRAEME