Merchant bank and operational risk management business Salamanca Group has sailed from start-up to global enterprise in 13 years. Chairman and CEO Martin Bellamy explains how the company navigated the choppy waters of recession and why, after launching an ambitious new superyacht venture in Barcelona, his next destination is Cuba
The boardroom table at the London HQ of Salamanca Group stretches out between floor-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views of the city skyline and a wall covered with a huge map of the world. Standing in front of the map for Director’s photoshoot, just to the American side of the Atlantic, chairman and CEO Martin Bellamy looks down at the expanse of water to his left and smiles wryly. In 1997, Bellamy and fellow army captain Mark Mortimer rowed across the Atlantic in a boat called Salamanca. “It took 75 days,” he says of the gruelling but successful crossing. Has he ever done anything tougher? “Yes,” he jokes. “Running this business.”
It’s a statement you might expect a finance boss to make without irony, given the experiences of recent years. But Bellamy really is – at least half – joking. While other merchant banks have sunk in the wake of the crisis, Salamanca Group has set a determined course to calmer, more bountiful waters. Founded by Bellamy and fellow ex-army officers David Livingston and Tom Welch in 2002, the business now employs around 250 people, has advised on investments worth in excess of £1.7bn, and has offices in diverse locations including Accra, Lubumbashi, Rio de Janeiro and Tripoli. In Barcelona, it has just completed a $100m (£63m) regeneration of the 1992 Olympic Games harbour Marina Port Vell, while in Cuba it is on the brink of opening up what Bellamy calls “a seismic opportunity for UK businesses”.
“One of the best things we did early on was decide that we were not going to be a business interested in looking at venture capital or speculative capital investments,” he says, as he considers Salamanca’s recession resilience. “Instead we were going to invest in established businesses, with strong management teams, where our capital could be used to grow those businesses. The other formative thing is we have been brave enough to go to some of the frontier, emerging markets.”
What started as an investment business has rapidly diversified. While Welch left in 2005 to join Lloyds, in the same year Livingston launched Salamanca Risk Management – offering clients services to mitigate onshore and offshore risk for their global ventures, from expert insights into cyber crime to physical protection of company assets in turbulent territories. A business intelligence unit was added to aid customers with disputes and financial investigations, and a private office established to provide management assistance to clients with increasingly complex portfolios. The investment side, meanwhile, expanded to include a corporate advisory function – helping businesses through upheavals such as mergers, acquisitions and restructures – and a real estate arm, affirming Salamanca’s focus on tangible assets rather than speculative investments.
Not bad for a leader who admits finding the transition to business from the army – where he served as an officer between 1989 and 1998 – difficult: “It wasn’t easy, there were quite a few people leaving the army at that time and there weren’t many opportunities,” says Bellamy, who eventually took up an associate director role at Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP in 1999, before moving to an executive director position at business process outsourcing film Williams Lea in 2000. “The army is an institution, in many ways it’s like being in a school environment – you know where the corners of the box are. The reason I think it takes people time to adapt to the commercial world is that it does not have clearly defined edges. In the army it’s relatively black and white, but there’s a big grey space in business where it is questionable what is right and what is wrong – it can be quite cut-throat.”
But, says Bellamy, those from the forces who can adapt to the business world are preconditioned for success: “Those that do fit, they fit very well – largely because the experience and leadership skills they have translate effectively. On the other side, in business you can have very talented people who don’t really know what leadership is all about,” he says. That said, Bellamy found that his progress working for other people’s companies wasn’t as swift as he would have liked, and it nurtured a desire to set up alone: “I wanted to be in a position where I could design my own business, be in control of my own destiny, I was ambitious,” he says. “But looking back I often say it was a mixture of determination and ignorance that broached the decision.”
And what were the start-up pains to which he was uninitiated before launching Salamanca Capital? “Inevitably when setting up a new business, you know you’re going to work harder than at any time in your career – it can be tiring and stressful,” he says. “But things that stick in the mind are that when you first set up no one’s heard of you – you desperately want the phone to ring, for people to back you, and it’s a real uphill struggle to get any form of traction. Getting someone to give you credit to buy IT equipment, or a regulator to give you a licence, are some of the challenges you need help with in the early stages. And then, when you get to a certain size you have the growing pains, the people issues that require so much of your time.”
The breakthroughs came though and, says Bellamy, there have been landmark deals that have allowed the company to grow: “We had a number of very successful investments in China in the early days – including into Rongsheng Heavy Industries, one of the largest privately owned shipbuilders in the world,” he says. “And the acquisition of Investec Trust [from Investec Bank in February 2014, adding a trust and fiduciary function to Salamanca Group’s private office arm] was good for us. We’re opportunistic by nature.”
Perhaps the most striking example of this opportunism came in 2010, when Salamanca bought Marina Port Vell in Barcelona – a harbour developed for the city’s hosting of the 1992 Olympics. “It was presented to us by a friend of the business working in Barcelona at the time. My first impression when I went to have a look was ‘this is a very big asset right in the centre of the city’ – it was a phenomenal location, albeit pretty unloved and run-down,” says Bellamy. “It just so happened that a W Hotel had recently opened near to the marina – I looked at it and thought it was a seriously brave move, sticking something that looks like the Burj Al Arab right on the end of the port. I thought ‘they’re either really stupid or really smart’, but we concluded it was going to change the shape of this part of the city.”
When it came to negotiations with local authorities for the purchase, Bellamy says Salamanca’s UK heritage played a major role: “We had a willing seller and as a British company we were seen to be relatively politically agnostic – the transaction went through pretty quickly, it took about three months,” he says, adding that ‘Brand Britain’ is something other UK companies should deploy when chasing opportunities overseas: “I think the British brand has really good currency around the world, people like to deal with UK businesses, they respect the rule of law in Britain, the regulatory regime.”
And so the company set about investing £63m into the four-year regeneration of Marina Port Vell, with a specific customer in mind – the ultra-high-net-worth owners of the most expensive single asset purchases in the world: superyachts.
“At the top end of the scale, the superyacht industry is unbelievable,” says Bellamy. “But it’s still a fragmented industry. Our vision was to create a marina that catered for larger vessels, but also created a holistic service for them, bringing in businesses related to the sector – an environment where there’s a restaurant club, gyms and offices and so on. We saw the potential to create the best superyacht hub in the Mediterranean in Barcelona – and, without a doubt, that’s what we’ve done in my opinion.”
In anticipation of managing this new enterprise, last October Salamanca Group launched OneOcean Ventures – a Monaco-headquartered provider of advisory services and facilities to the superyacht industry. And earlier this year, the company launched the exclusive, members-only OneOcean Club at Marina Port Vell – intended to be the first of a network of similar venues across the globe, each under the same brand and offering sky-high standards of eating, drinking and relaxation to superyacht owners at a stunning marina-side location. The overall Marina Port Vell project has also generated 35 partnerships with local businesses and created over 100 jobs.
Our man in Havana
Bellamy is determined that one such future location for a OneOcean Club will be Havana, Cuba – where Salamanca Group has been exploring a range of business opportunities for the past two years. “We have become very focused on trying to develop our business in Cuba, and one of the coincidences about doing this is that Havana has one of the most exciting opportunities for the yachting sector,” he says. “If you go back to the 1950s, then Monte Carlo, Florida, Havana… these were the places to be. I think there will be a huge renaissance for Havana if and when the blockade is lifted – it will become one of the most exciting destinations in the world.”
He refers, of course, to the long-standing US embargo on trade with Cuba – a political ice wall that appears to be on the thaw since Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro pledged to restore ties between the countries last December, and met in Panama in April [in July the US and Cuba agreed to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana].
Should relations between the nations move to the ‘normalisation’ being suggested, then this could open up a vast well of opportunity for companies around the globe: “In terms of the Cuban economy opening up – and there is clearly a will from the current administration to see foreign investment into Cuba, albeit in a controlled and sensible fashion – the opportunities are staggering,” says Bellamy. “I would say to anybody looking to make their mark in a new market, Cuba is probably the most exciting there is at the moment.
“In Cuba, we want to be in the foreign direct investment space as a British business. There is a requirement in almost every sector – areas such as food security, energy security and beyond that a massive play in terms of the extraction space, tourism and so on. There is a vision to redevelop Havana bay specifically for all things marina-related, with the whole commercial port moving to Mariel, about 50km down the coast – that’s probably a $10-$15bn (£6.3-£9.5bn) project.”
To achieve this, Bellamy says Salamanca Group has been “pursuing investment opportunities for the last 18 months”, and has had meetings with senior Cuban officials. Instrumental in bringing this together has been Lord [David] Triesman – the former chairman of the FA, who previously served as parliamentary under-secretary for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with responsibility for territories including Latin America and the Caribbean. Triesman joined the company as executive director in September 2013.
“David is a full-time employee here, a member of the board – not an adviser or part-timer,” says Bellamy. “He’s an incredible individual, a sleeves-up person and he has a very long-standing and powerful relationship with Cuba. He’s very excited about the Anglo-Cuban relationship and is very well respected there. They are very welcoming of British companies and in particular of people they really trust like Lord Triesman.
“If we are able to consummate the relationships we’ve been developing, to build the business we hope to build, then I would hope to see us as an incredibly powerful conduit through which businesses can enter Cuba. It’s going to take a lot of time and patience. We need to understand how they want to operate moving forward and vice versa.
I genuinely think it’s worth the effort and I don’t think the challenges are going to be any greater than operating in other emerging markets – but I do think it’s a seismic opportunity for UK businesses.”
As Bellamy takes another wistful look at the map dominating his boardroom wall, you get the feeling that it won’t be very long before Salamanca Group unlocks yet another seismic opportunity waiting across the water.
CV – Salamanca Group chairman and CEO Martin Bellamy
1969 Born in Birmingham
1989 Joins the army, serves as an officer for 10 years
1997 Rows across Atlantic with fellow army captain Mark Mortimer
1999 Joins WPP as associate director
2000 Moves to Williams Lea Group as executive director
2002 Launches Salamanca Capital with ex-army officers David Livingston and Tom Welch
2010 Salamanca purchases Marina Port Vell in Barcelona
2013 Business interests merged to create Salamanca Group
2015 After a $100m (£63m) refurbishment, the new Marina Port Vell opens. Meanwhile, Salamanca Group develops next big project in Cuba.
Watch Martin Bellamy launch the OneOcean brand in Monaco in 2014