How this Englishman made a killing in Brazil’s social housing sector
Michael Schumacher… Jenson Button…. Lewis Hamilton. Come September many Formula One stars will flock to Italy’s A.C. Monza Football Club to attend what is tipped to be one of the biggest parties the region has even seen.
The bash, to be broadcasted live on Sky TV, will see Formula One drivers and Sky journalists play a charity football match in the stadium.
Who’s organising it? The owner of the club: Anthony Armstrong Emery. He’s a Richmond lad who went to Brazil to set up the £150m EcoHouse Group, a real estate company that builds social housing under the Brazilian government’s programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life).
Some £50m has been invested in EcoHouse Group in the last 18 months. It employs 1,200 people and has offices in Natal (Brazil), Richmond (UK), São Paulo, Toronto, Dubai and Singapore.
Emery, is a self-confessed “eccentric and aggressive” tycoon who has what you might call entrepreneur ADD. Known to be worth £30-40m, he controls more than 20 companies including restaurants, printing businesses, property publications, AC Monza 1912 football club and Brazil’s Alecrim Football Club among others. “Call me next week and there’ll be more,” he says.
His lifestyle justifies his attitude. In Brazil, he is chauffeured around in a three-car convoy, with his bullet-proof 4×4 in the middle. He also owns a home in Monte Carlo, where he drives a Ferrari 458 Italia.
I meet Emery at the LondonlovesBusiness.com HQ in Buckingham Gate. He walks in like he owns the place. Tall, bearded and well-built, he wears a flowery Gant shirt and is excitable and chatty, dropping wisecracks throughout our chat.
“I couldn’t find a woman in Europe, so I moved to Brazil,” he tells me, bursting into a wide grin.
The real story? After graduating in Law, Emery went to Spain for his Masters at University of Salamanca. Law didn’t excite him, so he went on to work for a travel firm in Paraguay for a few years. Tourism didn’t excite him either. He went back to Spain to set up a real estate company, from which he made a “good amount of money”.
In 2008 he moved to Natal, the capital of Brazilian state Rio Grande do Norte and his wife’s home city – and where he hit jackpot.
With Brazil hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil and the 2016 Olympic Games, the country is now the place to be. But back then, Emery says property was worth “banana money”.
“I arrived in Brazil and found that land is really cheap here. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I go and buy some land and land bank?’ I bought land for banana money, cheap banana money.
“Then in 2009 I got lucky when the government announced the social housing programme. So all that land that was banana money and wasn’t worth anything all of a sudden became ideal land for social housing. Whoopie!”
After his little property epiphany, Emery came back to London to set up a company, then went to Singapore to raise funds.
Approaching local banks in Brazil to invest wasn’t an option, because the country’s red tape would have delayed the process. So he went to retail investors.
“It’s not ideal because I’ve got thousands of [retail] investors and it’s an administrative nightmare to deal with all of them. Why? They aren’t your classic high-net-worth, sophisticated investors that invest and let you get on with work. These investors call up every day and ask you, ‘What’s happening with my money? Where’s my money?’ ”
A lot of Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Israelis and Emiratis are among his investors, but the amount of money they put in varies. Clients in Singapore will invest a minimum $23,000, he says, whereas clients in the UAE would invest $500,000.
Of course, being part of the BRIC pack, Brazil’s image of being a nation of laidback beach-lovers has now metamorphosed. But back then, foreigners were mostly interested in buying up holiday homes in Brazil. How did Emery get them to invest in the only UK company with permission from the Brazilian government to build developments under its Minha Casa, Minha Vida social housing programme?
“It was very easy. I told investors that I’m a lovely guy and gave them a smile and wink,” he says.
“No – you have to build the trust. People think of Brazil as a third-world country and there is some stigma attached to it. I told investors that your money is going to stay in England.
“I set up a managed client account through solicitors with Lloyds so all the contracts, investments and money are held here. So the money eventually goes to Brazil but it’s all protected by UK legislation. So if I do anything naughty then the investors have professional indemnity insurance. Everyone trusts the British legal system and they are assured that their money is safe.”
Emery says Eco House is able to give a 20% return on investment for a year. Isn’t that too good to be true?
“Yes, a lot of investors tell me that, but frankly, we’re making a lot more than that. When I started the company, I was not being greedy at all and gave more than I should have. I set up the return at 20% because we were so successful. But now I’m trying to remove all those retail investors and substitute them with institutional investors. I can’t keep on going on like this – it’s been a nightmare.”
How’s he going to change things? By targeting big-dog institutional investors. In fact, he already has a well-rehearsed sales pitch for them.
“Four years ago, I was putting every last penny I have into the business and not making profits at all. [Now,] I am making £40m profits a year as a company without any help. So I go to a fund and say, if I can do this without you, imagine what I can do with you!” His eyes light up.
Emery’s fast growth has made him a lot of enemies. Whether it’s an angry blog post or the threat of being kidnapped, he claims he has a lot of people ready to take “cheap shots” at him.
“There is jealousy at all levels. The real estate company that’s not making any sales because I’ve absorbed the market is thinking, ‘Because of this this bastard, I am making $10,000 a year compared to $100,000 before he entered the market.’ That’s not my fault, I’m sorry.
“It doesn’t help when the press puts numbers out [about my net worth] and it’s in the public domain. So if there’s this gangster sitting in his favela and he sees the front cover page, saying this ‘Englishman’s made $70m’ – well, I’ll tell you what goes through his head: ‘Let’s kidnap him and make 100 grand’.”
But all these threats don’t puncture this Englishman’s green spirit. He continues to invest in Brazil. Last year, he bought Brazil’s 98-year-old football club Alecrim FC. It was founded by Café Filho, who went on to be the Brazilian president in 1954. The club is best-known for its legendary player Manuel Fransisco dos Santos, aka Garrincha.
“I’m the first foreigner in Brazilian football history to own and run one of their clubs,” says Emery proudly.
“However, you have to be very clever with football. If you get too engulfed by passion, etc, you can lose a lot of money.”
Like a true businessperson, Emery has used the club to promote EcoHouse Group.
Before buying the club, EcoHouse Group was spending about $150,000 every month on advertising. “Two years ago, if you said EcoHouse, you would be hard-pushed to find someone who recognised me. But once I took over the club, [I] put the EcoHouse branding on the shirt, I’ve had more than $15m worth of spontaneous media.
“If you say my name or ‘EcoHouse’, everyone knows it. They say, ‘Oh, that developer? Isn’t he that mad Englishman who set up the club?’ ”
Emery’s next big plan is to build a 10,000-capacity stadium on the outskirts of Natal, with the option of expanding to 25,000 in future. He’
s also in talks with a big health group to launch a football academy that would be a “school of life”.
“I know there are many academies already but no one has ever made one like mine. Mine will be a school of life and I expect a lot of Messis and Beckhams coming out of it.”
A property empire, two football clubs, 20 companies and even a football school – Emery’s entrepreneur ADD is incurable, and he has no qualms admitting it.
“An entrepreneur, in my mind, is someone who doesn’t stop. It’s not about someone striking it lucky with an idea. An entrepreneur has a lot of ideas all the time. An entrepreneur needs to be a brand, like I’m a brand.”
But he does make time to let his hair down? He’s throwing one of the biggest parties Italy’s ever seen, remember?
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