Tine Willumsen’s first meeting with Christian Volkers was some years ago. Völkers was, and is, the chairman and CEO of Engel & Völkers, a real-estate company that operates in 22 countries. Willumsen is an aquiline Dane who was a marketing director at de Beers, and had been in luxury brand management for seventeen years; ‘I even have an MBA in luxury brand management from Paris,’ she says. Willumsen and Völkers bumped into each other at a shoot in northern Germany.
Soon they were chatting about a subject of mutually absorbing interest. ‘Whatever you want to call them, the ultra-high-net-worth individuals of today, they have become very global,’ says Willumsen. ‘Christian had the idea that the top end of the real-estate market was looking for better service. And, whether you are selling them big expensive stones or whether you are selling them real estate they are expecting something… more.’
Private Office, the fruit of this conversation, is run by Willumsen in partnership with Engel & Völkers. It opened its doors on the third floor of 18 Upper Brook Street in Mayfair last year. ‘Our aim is to be the real-estate equivalent of private bankers,’ says Willumsen. ‘And it was quite extraordinary. We had demand from day one. We did our first viewing in Switzerland before we even printed business cards. So we have been growing from there. And faster than we were planning.’
That comment is meant seriously: ‘We are out there to conquer the world. We want to be very small, we want to be very flexible and very discreet.’ When it comes to selecting properties to handle, Private Office is intensely picky.
‘We are taking castles, islands. The properties or places need to be unique. We have an amazing apartment in Palma de Mallorca. A thousand square metres, right in the port.’
The price tag is in the tens of millions. A price tag on their larger properties might be £50 million. How big is Private Office’s portfolio? ‘More than a dozen. But not fifty.’ A typically circumspect remark, discretion being all
‘This is one of the most prominent hunting estates in Germany,’ says Willumsen, leafing through photographs. ‘There’s a very extensive armour and arms collection there, too. And the family own the two neighbouring castles also.’
Onto the second offering. ‘This is in Tuscany. It’s going for about $50 million. It needs to be completely rewired, but it’s going to be exactly as it was before
‘It has eleven vineyards. There’s a beautiful rose garden. It’s truly stunning. And they have 2,700 olive trees.’
As to their potential client base, Willumsen calculates that there are something like 1,000 billionaires in the world and perhaps 80,000 individuals with liquid assets of $50 million-plus. ‘Wealth has shifted a lot,’ she says. ‘In the old days it was the Americans, the Japanese, the Germans. But now what we are seeing, directly in our books, in terms of the properties we have and of the clients who are buying, are the Indians, the Russians and the Chinese. Of course, there’s the Middle East still. And when you are looking at the billionaire list there are still 55 Germans, which is the highest number in Europe. So you have a mix of people.’
And the number of Private Office’s clients is growing. ‘Last year, I was in New Delhi. There’s a couple of streets there that everybody in India wants to live on. And when you have a billion people, the houses there are going from ten to fifteen million dollars. And it’s not going to stop there.
‘It’s the same thing in Moscow. Buying up palaces, and redecorating. And the prices are going crazy. And that’s going to happen in other countries, too.’
Private Office makes it its business to get on top of this. ‘The amount of information that comes and goes through our computers is quite mind-boggling. But that is the nature of our business. We advise our clients, so we need to be well-informed.’
The first step is dealing with the potential seller. ‘We obviously meet the clients wherever they are – the Caribbean on Monday or St Moritz on Thursday. Or they come here because they have business in London. And then we go and see the property. And if we think it’s appropriate, we take it on.’
When Private Office has secured the property, the next phase of work begins. ‘We do a mixture of things. We spend extensive time in research on the history. Whether you are dealing with the properties of maharajahs and princes or Hollywood people, it’s really important to understand the spirit of the estate. We print coffee table books, create movies or whatever is necessary.
‘We have set up a network of marketers, including film directors
After Private Office has created its bespoke marketing plan, it is time to approach the potential customer. ‘Again, wherever he or she might be. Or electronically. And from then on we then take a silent marketing approach, meaning one that’s very one-to-one, very word of mouth. Sitting, saying “I have something very special. What are you looking for?” Trying to do a little lifestyle analysis.’
Characteristically, Private Office’s clients each work in their own way. Consider the Tuscan place with the eleven vineyards. ‘The clients we deal with are really the type of people who say “Hmmm, it would be interesting to have my own vineyard.” And then they think, “Do I want to have Italian vineyards? Or do I want to be in Bordeaux, Chile or California?” They look across the board.’
Private Office needs to stay on its toes. ‘Someone was looking in a location that is very, very hot, where nothing is available. And we found something that
Willumsen doesn’t believe the credit crunch will have much effect on her business. ‘What happens to the sub-prime or the general economy doesn’t have an impact when you have three, four, five and upwards billions,’ she says. ‘It’s not a financial investment. It’s about buying an asset that has some passion attached to it. Because it’s their home. It’s to do with their wives and children. It’s the family.’Indeed, what about security on an increasingly troubled planet? Are many clients looking for a safe haven? ‘Yes. We are involved in private islands in the Caribbean and so on. And, of course, clients ask about hurricanes and tsunamis and things like that. Everyone wants security precautions to be put in place. And if you are talking about crime, obviously ultra-high-net-worth individuals feel that they are a target. So if there are bodyguards doing three shifts a day, we are often asked “Where can they stay? What kind of sensing devices are there?”.’
And it helps to sell a property if some of the bells and whistles are in place already. ‘I have seen laser beams on the entire beach front of a huge estate in France. People could walk in front of it. And I did. But it was very clear that you just did not want to walk onto the lawn!’
Willumsen believes that there is an important reason for the underlying strength of her business: the law of supply and demand. ‘There’s not so much land left to be honest,’ she reflects. ‘And that’s the interesting part. Supply and demand is definitely an issue, if you want privacy. And if you are talking about a green landscape, more and more people are looking at how to preserve forest. They are buying up land in Africa. There is an interesting movement at the top end of the market. As you have more and more wealthy people with the same needs and desires, truly fine land is obviously getting more and more rare.’
One client asked Private Office to investigate an island. ‘We found out that there were three other billionaires lining up for the same island,’ Willumsen recalls. Offers escalated north of £100 million. ‘But the owner didn’t want to sell it!’ she says. ‘It was just not up for sale.’
Private Office have a strong presence in France, Spain and Italy, and are working increasingly in England, but the competition is strong, and London is gossipy. ‘There are quite a lot of properties here,’ Willumsen says. ‘But there are also quite a lot of rumours. So we tend to step back a little bit. We need to make sure that we are offering our clients something that is not typically on the market.’
So why is Private Office on Upper Brook Street and not somewhere in Continental Europe? ‘It’s very simple. For the clientele we are dealing with, London is really the gateway. Everyone comes here, whether it’s the Asians, the Indians or people from the Middle East. They spend one, two months every summer here, they have houses here. You have the Russians. Their company is not in New York now but on the English stock market. Their children are beginning to go to school here. Any American who needs to do business in Europe comes via London.
‘You have all the European countries. There’s a lot of African influence. It’s the perfect position for us. I’ve said this for years, but I think the rest of the world now agrees with me – I think that London is the capital of the world.’ – although Willumsen does have the owners’ permission to show material on two offerings. And neither requires hyperbole.- I think in 1472. Going into every room is like walking into a Tuscan dream. It’s beautifully done. Filled with antiques. Murano chandeliers, you name it.
‘The Machiavellis lived there.- actually prominent film directors who have won awards, and so on. Because there’s a poetry in great estates. There’s a soul to each of them. And some definitely merit a film. We try to think outside the box. Because our kind of client, to be honest, has seen it all. So it’s important to wake them up with something new.’was available. You need to act very fast. We sold from a floorplan. We literally just sent the client a floorplan!’