The brothers who love the high life

 
Steve Dinneen
Follow Steve
VINCENT Tchenguiz’s 40ft yacht lies empty at a port in Cannes, a party scheduled for tonight on indefinite hold after his arrest. Its bombastic name, Veni Vidi Vici, has been the source of some amusement since the brothers’ vast empire began to unravel in the wake of the recession. If things continue as they have been, he may be inclined to add perdidi to the boat’s title: I came, I saw, I conquered, I lost.

At first glance Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz’s life seems like a classic tale of rags to riches. His father Victor fled Iraq to neighbouring Iran in 1948, raising the brothers and their sister Lisa in Tehran.

Vincent boasts of starting his business empire buying chewing gum at American football games and selling them on to his friends, before officials got wise and confiscated his loot. After moving to the UK in 1979, the brothers rapidly rose to the top of the booming property industry, first renting accommodation to students, later to the new- and old-money elite.

They soon held London in their thrall. Their hedonistic parties, frequented by the likes of Formula 1 billionaire Bernie Ecclestone and EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, were the talk of gossip columns and glossy magazines. They were regularly snapped leaving London’s trendiest night clubs, usually accompanied by a string of socialites.

Before the recession, Vincent boasted of winning £1m a year playing poker; hitting a £1m jackpot when Greece won the European Championship and staking £750m a day on currencies, futures and bonds trading. The depth of his personal wealth was vast. Mayfair, South Africa and Côte d’Azur were among the places he called home. He boasted three yachts – one 130-footer – a fleet of supercars and at least half a dozen off-roaders.

Robert famously dated supermodel Caprice, before marrying glamorous anti-ageing cream entrepreneur Heather Bird.

Lisa, not to be outdone, married Vivian Imerman, the South African businessman dubbed The Man From Del Monte after he sold his stake in the fruit company for £396m, as well as banking a fortune on the sale of whisky giant Whyte & Mackay.

An acrimonious divorce saw Imerman locked out of the office he shared with some-time business partner Robert; his computers raided for evidence of hidden wealth (later ruled inadmissible by a judge).

The brothers’ business philosophy was to leverage to the max and reap the rewards. They were among the first to bring securitisation to the UK, borrowing against the promise of future earnings.

Even at the height of their empire there was an intense rivalry between the brothers. Vincent, the eldest, saw himself as the more astute, numerate of the two. He was also the more cautious. While he remained largely a trading and property tycoon, Robert branched out, investing in listed companies, attempting to grow his property empire from the boardroom of firms including Sainsbury’s and Mitchells & Butlers.

Robert become both a stakeholder and major client of Icelandic bank Kaupthing. His relationship was so strong he was featured in Kaupthing’s 2006 annual report, next to the words “Robert Tchenguiz knows a good deal when he sees one”. His borrowing from the bank – much of which was used to pay debts to other lenders after the onset of the recession – eventually exceeded £2bn, more than half of Kaupthing’s total capital base. Almost overnight Robert lost near to £1bn as his investments were seized. Later, after Kaupthing itself collapsed under the weight of its profligate lending, the extent of the exposure of the Tchenguiz family was revealed.

Both sides have made claims and counter-claims. Vincent is pursuing £600m in damages, alleging he was a victim of a conspiracy by Kaupthing’s former management.

Vincent and Robert have vowed to clear their names. After buying, selling and losing more than almost anyone in London, it is doubtful this is the last we will see of the Tchenguiz brothers.

PAST AND PRESENT | THE TCHENGUIZ ASSETS

Robert Tchenguiz bought a near 10 per cent stake in Sainsbury’s ahead of a rumoured bid from the Qatar Investment Authority in 2007. The stake was sold at a loss in 2008.

Robert Tchenguiz built up a 29.7 per cent shareholding in the managed pub group Mitchells & Butlers, whose brands include All Bar One, but sold it in 2008 after failing to force through a takeover. He also had a stake in the Laurel pub group.

Vincent Tchenguiz created a business around ground rents and other property holdings, although recently he has been in talks with banks to trade some of the debt in his Peverel business for equity.