Interview || The Resident spoke to Chris Howell, Oceânico Group Chairman, to learn what steps are being taken to ensure the group’s future and how it plans to maximise on the potential of its golfing and real estate assets in the Algarve.
As often noted in the depths of the turmoil now almost a decade old, golf was not immune to the effects of the global financial crash. Its impacts permeated the game, from grass roots participation through to golf course and real estate development.
There were many casualties but, for the Oceânico Group, the story of the past nine years reads as a tale of resurgence, as the company sits on the cusp of managing the successful sale of its highly-respected, and now profitable, golfing and leisure assets.
Having successfully negotiated through some difficult years, the Oceânico Group has seen a huge turnaround in its fortunes led by its Chairman, Chris Howell, and he anticipates a bright future for the Group.
A 30-year veteran of managing, restructuring and overseeing the sales of previously underperforming businesses, across a broad range of sectors, Chris was appointed to oversee the consolidation of the Oceânico business by Anglo Irish Bank (now the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA)) towards the end of 2009. Considerable restructuring experience and a fondness for the sport, made him the perfect man for the position.
His first task: implement an independent business review, which highlighted a number of immediate steps required in order to protect the ongoing viability of the business.
“For the last 25 years, I have worked with significant companies facing a broad range of challenges,” said Chris. “My mandate initially with the Oceânico Group was to evaluate the financial viability and strategic options open to the business. I was appointed as Chairman shortly after this initial stage, taking on ultimate responsibility for the day-to-day management and strategy of the business going forward.
“This project, however, was unique. While there was barely a business sector and very few players in the property industry who were not negatively impacted by the global financial crash, and we were of course no exception to that, the potential of our assets was clear.”
Although unknown from the outset, over the ensuing years, Howell’s relationship with Portugal would become a defining aspect of his career. Indeed, his current tenure, which has just entered its 10th year, is highly unusual considering previous advisory roles have typically lasted up to 12 months only.
Having been a Portuguese resident for a number of years, and a self-confessed lover of the country where he had been a frequent visitor in the two decades prior to his appointment, it is no surprise that this current project is one that lies close to the heart.
Chris said: “My current tenure here has seen Oceânico Group’s outstanding team cover a tremendous amount of ground, completely transforming the business, including a complete change of shareholders in recent years. And, therefore, the remaining assets being successfully transferred into new ownership is personally important to me.”
In 2016, he successfully oversaw and completed on the sale of Oceânico’s Vilamoura golf course portfolio, including the renowned Old Course and Victoria Course (the latter playing host to the European Tour’s Portugal Masters since its inception in 2007) to KAY CC Portugal, a consortium led by English investor Keith Cousins and the Dom Pedro Hotels Group. The sale completed in September 2016, ensuring the continued profitability of one of Europe’s most popular golf destinations.
Following the sale of Oceânico Golf, the focus has become the sale of Oceânico Group’s remaining assets. These encompass Amendoeira Golf Resort, close to the historic town of Silves, and Belmar Spa & Beach Resort situated near Lagos. Now profitable and enjoying year-on-year increases in visitor numbers, Chris points to the potential of two outstanding properties.
Over the preceding three years, interest in the properties at Belmar have been significant, such that less than 10% remain currently unsold or with reservation, with the much larger site of Amendoeira continuing to gather pace of sales and interest from all corners of the globe. Following an encouraging start to the year, further growth in 2018 is to be expected.
“The quality of both of these developments is abundantly clear. Belmar’s location, right on the beach at Porto de Mós, in one of Portugal’s most scenic sites of natural interest, is very attractive and has been gaining traction particularly with the French and Swedish markets, as well as native Portuguese.
“Amendoeira is an even more all-encompassing proposition. With everything from luxury five-bedroom villas situated adjacent to two award-winning championship golf courses, as well as incredible practice and training facilities, it is a haven for golf and sport lovers. In fact, last summer we saw our rental business at 100% capacity.
“As a resort it improves every year, as do the golf courses, designed by legends of the game, Sir Nick Faldo and Christy O’Connor Jnr. We are also lucky enough to have a floodlit, 9-hole par-3 golf course, which is absolutely unique in Portuguese golf. Furthermore, our gymnasium has just been significantly upgraded, completing an already impressive list of amenities.
“Away from golf, we have also become an attractive destination for some of Europe’s most high-profile sports teams. We have first-class facilities for football, including state-of-the-art all-weather pitches, and so continue to welcome teams from Europe’s premier leagues and international sides for their warm weather training camps, such as former European Champions, Ajax Amsterdam, and the French ladies national squad. They enjoy the privacy and the quality of both the service and the facilities we offer, and are becoming an increasingly important part of our business.”
While he refuses to be drawn on the sale of the remaining assets, other than to say the group is “in exclusive discussions with a party which we are confident would be able to take the Oceânico Group to the next stage of its successful development”, he is confident that any future owner will inherit a business ready to make further progress, and one that has learned well from the lessons of the past to prepare for the opportunities of the future.
“The problems of previous years are now firmly in the rear-view mirror, and we now have a profitable and well-established business, with a wealth of experience amongst our staff,” said Chris. “We have to appreciate that following the global financial crisis which commenced in 2007, the whole property market significantly de-valued and that had an impact.
“Despite these challenges the business has continued to flourish due to the commitment and efforts of the team and I think we can all be genuinely proud of what has been achieved here.”
Placing great importance in the potential of hosting mass-participation events, in 2018 Amendoeira Golf Resort will look forward to staging a number of significant occasions.
Following the Amendoeira Resort Classic staged in partnership with the PGA of Portugal from March 11-13, the Oceânico World Kids Golf Championship will celebrate its 10th year between July 24-29 and is set to be an occasion not to be missed. It is a World Amateur Golf Ranking event open to boys and girls aged between seven and 18, giving them the opportunity to show off their talent, and attracts some of the continent’s finest young players. Broadcast to millions worldwide via a Sky Sports Golf and Sport TV broadcast to be aired shortly after the event, it is a tremendous showcase for the resort’s commitment to grass roots golf and for its outstanding facilities.
The finale of the Europro Tour’s ‘Race to Amendoeira’, the Sky Sports Tour Championship, was also aired by the broadcasting giant towards the end of the 2017 season. Welcoming the best-ranked players on the third-tier tour – a satellite to the prestigious European Tour and an important circuit in helping to develop elite golf’s next generation – the event cast the spotlight upon Amendoeira for golfers across the globe, contributing to the continued growth in popularity for the destination.
Photo: BRUNO FILIPE PIRES/OPEN MEDIA GROUP