July 25, 2014

Meet Joe Lewis, the Handshake Billionaire

Mark R. Howard | 10/1/2009

 Joe Lewis
It’s possible that the individual institutions that comprise Medical City, over time, would have found their way to Orlando. But if there’s one key player in their arrival at the same time on the same site, it’s Joe Lewis and his investment company, Tavistock Group.

Lewis’ influence on Florida’s effort to build a life sciences sector extends back to the very origins of the effort — to the vision of bringing a research institution to Florida around which a biotech cluster could form. “Joe Lewis was the catalyst for me to go out to San Diego and meet” Scripps executives, says former Gov. Jeb Bush. The governor, who had met Lewis previously, was reintroduced to him by David Brown, an attorney with Broad and Cassel in Orlando and a neighbor of Lewis as well as a Bush supporter and fund raiser. Lewis “wanted to replicate what had happened in San Diego,” Bush says. “If not for Joe, I don’t know if I’d have gone out there. He piqued my curiosity, which was a dangerous thing to do when I was governor.”

Lewis, 72, an Englishman, lives only intermittently in Orlando, dividing most of his time between his primary estate at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas and another on more than 50,000 acres in Patagonia in Argentina. His net worth is estimated variously at between $2 billion and

$5 billion. You can call him secretive. You can call him reclusive. Or you can just call him a private man who prefers to avoid the limelight. But you can’t call him to ask which he prefers because he rarely talks to reporters about himself — even more rarely on the record.

Business beginnings

Here’s a distillation of the story his surrogates at Tavistock and other media accounts tell: He grew up in modest circumstances in post-war London, where his family lived above a pub, the Roman Arms. He worked in his father’s catering business and became wealthy building a theme-restaurant chain and a string of tourist shops. Selling food, faux atmosphere and sweaters to tourists introduced him to the vagaries of the foreign exchange markets, the investment arena in which he became enormously wealthy. Along the way, he earned the nickname “the Boxer” — a double entendre reflecting both his heavyweight status and the similarity of his name to that of the late American champion Joe Louis. To this day, Lewis sometimes operates under corporate entities like “Boxer Asset Management.”

Lewis’ biggest currency coup came on Sept. 16, 1992 — “Black Wednesday.” Lewis was among a group of traders, including George Soros, who bet that the English pound was overvalued compared to other European currencies and would fall in value as Britain sought to align it with those currencies. It fell like a stone, and the British government was forced to spend billions propping it up before withdrawing the currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Soros made $1 billion; Lewis may have made as much. A few years later, Lewis reportedly reaped another massive windfall betting against the Mexican peso.

Orlando coups

Lewis first came to Orlando in the 1980s, when Disney tried to hire him to run the English Pavilion at Epcot. An anecdote reflects Lewis’ eye for creating value: A golfer and tennis player, he liked the area, particularly the community of Windermere southwest of downtown Orlando. Through country club connections, Lewis met Arnold Palmer, who led the group that was developing the exclusive Isleworth community near Windermere. Palmer’s effort had been clobbered by slow sales and a lawsuit from local residents, who objected to fertilizer runoff and other pollution from the golf course development streaming into the area’s many lakes. The property went into bankruptcy in 1990; Palmer’s group may have expected to buy it back and proceed, but Lewis swooped in and bought Isleworth out from under Palmer’s group in a courthouse-steps auction. He then shocked local government officials accustomed to developers wanting more density and asked to be allowed to build fewer homes at Isleworth. He also planted thousands of trees and shrubs and cleaned up the lake, ultimately winning a number of environmental awards. Lewis built a mansion there, and Isleworth has become an ultraposh haven for the rich, and often the famous, including Shaquille O’Neal and Tiger Woods, who has been quoted calling Lewis a business mentor.

Similarly, when an English family developing the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club ran into financial trouble, Lewis acquired that development in 1996. Along the way, he became a formidable, if understated, presence in Orlando business and philanthropic circles. In 1997, through the Orlando-based family foundation his daughter runs, he offered $7.5 million in a challenge to jump-start fund raising for the local M.D. Anderson Cancer Center — a model he repeated in donating toward the construction of the UCF medical school.

The foundation, along with Tavistock’s main office, is housed in palatial quarters on an outparcel at Isleworth. The company controls about 170 companies in 15 countries, including well-known names in apparel like Gottex and Puma, restaurant chains, biotech startups and real estate developments [“Tavistock’s Empire,” below]. At one point in the 1990s, Lewis was the largest shareholder in Christie’s, the art auction house. The company, says managing director Rasesh Thakkar, maintains a focus on quality and creating long-term value through both investment and management.

In the course of pushing the creation of Medical City, Lewis has been active and frequently visible but always prefers to have his managers at Tavistock define the company’s public profile. True to his preference for a low profile, he asked that the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center be named not for himself, but for his father, who died of cancer in 1987. Lewis reportedly declined an offer to have the medical school named after him, saying the naming rights should be leveraged into another large donation to benefit UCF.

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