I grew up in Rome, but came to boarding school in England at the age of 15, because I loved to play football. That was my first taste of the country, and I knew I’d be back. I then moved to France to study at the American University of Paris, and while there, got into sailing. When you say that, people always assume you have some sort of luxury yacht, but no – it was a 12-metre catamaran. Every time there was a break in my studies, I’d fly to the boat, sail it a little further and fly back. I eventually sailed halfway around the world on it, starting from Antibes on the Côtes d’Azur and ending in Hawaii. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer distance involved, but even just going from Ecuador to Hawaii feels like going across the Atlantic and all the way back. That might be why I decided to stay in Hawaii for a few years!
I got my MBA in finance on the Hawaiian island of Oahu while I lived on my boat, then sailed to San Francisco and stayed there for a few years getting some experience in the field. At the beginning of 1997, it was time for me to return to London, where I spent the next 10 years working in the hedge-fund business. At one point, I decided I wanted to enjoy other things in life than staring at screens all day, and I had always had a passion for real estate. I’ve lost many girlfriends just because I wanted to walk around and look at buildings! So I started working with a friend to learn about the property business about 10 years ago, and two years ago, I joined Northacre.
When the company started in 1990, the luxury residential space we are so familiar with today didn’t exist – we had to create it. And it’s still really in its infancy, even with London being at the forefront: super-premium real estate has only been around for 10 or 15 years. Everyone has jumped in, but not many people have taken a step back to pause and think. The question we should be asking is: what is luxury living? That’s why I was so excited when Northacre partnered with the V&A’s current exhibition, What Is Luxury.
In 2015, luxury is not necessarily always about vast consumerism and materialism. There’s a brilliant piece in the exhibition about getting lost and not knowing exactly where you are and what you’re doing next, and that is such a premium in our over-connected world. In real estate, there are not many people taking this step back to appreciate what genuinely constitutes contemporary luxury; but I think Northacre is.
Developers need to understand that you can never underestimate the buyer’s nuanced view of luxury. They will always be more sophisticated than we expect, have bought more properties than we ever will in a lifetime and have friends who own the best houses in the world. Their eye is trained to spot luxury much faster than the developer’s is. We have to be careful as we’re going to hit a time when the customers’ taste level and understanding of true luxury is ahead of that of many developers.
Development in London is not going to slow any time soon, but we have to be conscious that we’re in a market that has been consistently increasing for 20 years, with just a single negative quarter, in 2008. If we were discussing any other asset class in the world and I expressed the opinion that we were going to have two or three years of flat market, people would be thrilled with the result. Imagine if it were the stock market, for example – it would be triumphant. But people are used to 10 per cent year-on-year growth with London property. I think it’s time for a pause. It’s going to be slower, and there is still a lot to do in central London. Earl’s Court, Battersea Power Station – these places are humungous and will house a lot of people. You have to consider these changes to the market and whether you really understand your customer. I believe the players in property who have come in late and don’t fully understand the environment in London, or think there is infinite demand for these homes, will be weeded out.
I think at Northacre we genuinely do understand what our customer wants today. We don’t buy dozens of sites – we’ve bought probably on average one every four years. But each one of these has been true to our values and have a lot of things in common – and I’m not just talking about the fact that we specialise in reimagining historic buildings. We don’t always pick the most obvious postcodes, but we buy places we can turn into destinations. We make the postcodes landmarks, and that is Northacre’s greatest strength.
The Lancasters is a prime example: people said nobody would want to live north of Hyde Park. They were wrong. They said Kings Chelsea was on the wrong end of the King’s Road. Incorrect. If you buy an asset that has enough scope to create a destination, and you are meticulous in providing world-class amenities, then people will come. At No. 1 Palace Street, our latest development, opposite Buckingham Palace, you can buy the penthouse or a one-bedroom apartment – and either way you’ve got a cinema, a dining room you can book out, an on-site restaurant, a library and 10,000sq ft of leisure facilities, including a 2,000sq ft wellness centre.
This is because Northacre does not want to create more empty, dark-windowed, often-deserted prime real estate in the capital. We want to create places where people buy the property to live in and enjoy. And they will only do that if you make the home the destination – not a stop on the journey.