The head of the Von Essen hotel empire was like the Tom Ripley of that industry.
It transpires that this grand collection of some of the country’s finest properties, amongst them Cliveden, famed its role in the Profumo affair, and Ickworth Park, where the Marquess of Bristol famously went wild, was just a company built on the fantasy of a man who invented his heritage, where he went to school and much more.
Andrew Davis pictured with Jonathan Ross
Founded by an “entrepreneur” named Andrew Davis, Von Essen’s rise was as meteoric as its crash. Described most recently as a “flamboyant five-star fantasist” by Catherine Ostler in the Daily Mail, this self-styled “buccaneer” began his buying spree in the mid 1990s purchasing country house hotels including Ston Easton Park in Bath, Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire, Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh and Sharrow Bay in the Lake District. Each purchase was more exotic and in 2002 Davis leased Cliveden and the Royal Crescent hotel in Bath, which became the jewels in his crown, for £50,000,000.
Von Essen was not a company that stood still. One of his bankers, in a recent article told of Davis’ “ambition to acquire The Lanesborough and - should it ever come to the market - the European division of Orient-Express Hotels, which includes Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and Hotel Cipriani in Venice.” Here was an empire builder who plainly saw himself as the Warren Buffett of the hotel world.
From when it was founded however, Von Essen was shrouded in mystery. Many wondered how financing of this scale could be raised by someone who emerged from nowhere. Matthew Goodman, for example, in The Sunday Times in his 2004 piece the “Strange world of Andrew Davis” asked: “Where does his money come from?” Most on the society circuit, though, found him hospitable and generous and were willing to accept his claims of having made a fortune dealing diamonds and fine art before turning to hotels.
Reports to the contrary state Davis was not known for his tact or even respected by fellow hoteliers. On one occasion he is said to have decided he wanted to have lunch with friends on the lawn of one his properties. He radioed ahead from his helicopter to be told that a wedding party of paying customers were clay pigeon shooting on the required lawn. His not so gracious response was supposedly:
“Tell them to move or I’ll fucking land on them and throw them out of my hotel.”
At Cliveden, Davis was famed for demonstrating the quality of the mattresses. On one occasion he was said to have knelt on a bed in front of a journalist and stated: “You get a good shag here.” On other occasions semi-naked girls and half-naked men served him sushi in the library.
Countless pieces vilify Davis as a namedropper with a “wink wink, nudge nudge” style: He’s a man who claimed to have been educated at Gordonstoun. It transpires he went to Reigate Grammar. He suggested his group was named after his Austrian aunt, the Countess Von Essen, who helped him get started. Nobody has been able to trace her. He lived splendidly in Belgravia and had a fleet of luxury cars. Catherine Ostler reveals that most of them were just leased.
Meanwhile banks backed the group without question and their directors, such as Mark Stokes, of Lloyds Banking Group’s large corporate division, fell under the spell of a business that he claimed was “defying the downturn” and publicly offered a “£500,000,000 facility to finance further expansion.” It appears the Lloyds connection ran even deeper with the daughter of Mark Newman, head of investor relations at Lloyds in the West Country, even acting as one of Davis’ spokesman in her role at Brighter PR.
Davis was a maverick who, like Howard Hughes, thought himself invincible and one who had, to the end, the willing ear of financiers who fell for the glitz and glamour of grand addresses, a fleet of helicopters and supercars. He was famed for hosting glistening events, such as a £500,000 party for Dame Shirley Bassey’s 70th birthday, and these kept his image as a successful hotelier in the spotlight.
By late 2010, as losses mounted, reports emerged of companies such as Tosca Penta Investments being in talks to buy out Von Essen. Davis spun that this was “ to further growth” but with unpaid suppliers blocking the drives of his hotels, the wheels fell off the caravan and the administrators moved in on a £250,000,000 debt shared by Lloyds and Barclays.
Whilst Davis had claimed to have a £292,000,000 fortune, only £17,000 in cash had been located by June 2011 by Ernst & Young, who are handling the administration. Creditors are owed at least £1,200,000 and county court claims total £276,000. The administrators accused senior management of being “obstructive” before handing documentation to the City of London police and also have begun to prepare a case against Grant Thornton, the company’s auditors, who had happily signed off Von Essen’s accounts for many years.
A Von Essen Aviation helicopter
Adding further to Davis’ woes it emerged in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that Deloitte has been appointed to review his last remaining business, Von Essen Aviation. Bought in 2007, this company owns the Battersea Heliport and a fleet of aircraft and vehicles including 2 Lear 45 jets, helicopters, an Aston Martin Virage and 3 Range Rovers. Von Essen Aviation’s net debts for 2009 were £32,500,000 but it assumed Davis’ total debts could be considerably higher.
Christie + Co, the agents selling Von Essen’s assets, detail 26 country house hotels in the UK along with 1 in France and 1 development site in their sales literature. With 654 bedrooms between them, these properties generated revenue of just under £55,000,000 in 2010 and are marketed with a guide of £203,250,000. The deadline for bids for Von Essen closes tomorrow, 12th July, at twelve noon but even if this price is achieved there is still a significant shortfall on the debt the company owes.
Detective MacCarron states towards the end of The Talented Mr Ripley: “Check a fact before it becomes a fact.” Those who backed Mr Davis ought to have done just such prior to investing in his luxuriously debt-laden world.
For more information on the sale of the Von Essen group contact Simon Hughes of Christie + Co at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +44 (0) 20 7227 0700.