Business Monday

Q&A with Pierre Charalambides: Resort developer talks timing, luxury demand in the Caribbean

Pierre Charalambides is co-founder and managing partner of Dolphin Capital Partners. Charalambides was photographed Aug. 27, 2015 at DCP, 404 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.
Pierre Charalambides is co-founder and managing partner of Dolphin Capital Partners. Charalambides was photographed Aug. 27, 2015 at DCP, 404 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. mhalper@miamiherald.com

When Pierre Charalambides was looking for an office from which to oversee development in Latin America and the Caribbean, he got to Miami and stopped.

“My wife didn’t want to go any further south,” said Charalambides, founding partner of Dolphin Capital Partner, a private equity firm that focuses on land and real estate investments. “That was her limit.”

After starting with a focus on the Mediterranean, the company turned to projects in the Americas to diversify its portfolio.

And Charalambides said that “hopefully, one day” there could be a resort or condo closer to his office in Miami Beach.

“It would have to be a very unique development: luxury resort, condominium tower, probably be branded with a top operator that is not already present in Miami,” he said. “We like to buy cheap and we like to have one of the best sites in the region. Obviously in Miami, we kind of missed the boat since 2009. But there will probably be other slowdowns.”

Q. The company you co-founded has offices in Greece, Cyprus, the British Virgin Islands, Miami and holdings in [Greece] as well as Cyprus, Croatia, Turkey, Panama and the Dominican Republic. What led you to establish a corporate presence in Miami Beach?

Q. We started the company out of an office in Athens, Greece, back in 2005 with a vision to acquire some of the best coastal sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and develop them into luxury branded resorts with residential units for sale.

At the time, there were many resorts in the Southwest Med (France, Italy, Spain and Portugal) but there were none of quality in the Eastern Med (specifically in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Croatia).

Following our expansion in 2005-2007, we became one of the largest owners of developable coastlines in the Mediterranean with many projects under development and a few hundred employees.

Following that growth, in 2007 we took the conscious decision to expand and diversify our resort portfolio into the Caribbean and Latin America. The reasoning was to diversify our holdings from economic and political fluctuations in one single region (like those that happened recently in Greece and Cyprus), to generate more synergies and economies of scale through a global platform, and to capture a larger part of the global luxury resort demand.

During 2007 and 2008 we made two large investments in the Dominican Republic (with Playa Grande, www.playagrande.com) and in Panama (with Pearl Island, www.pearlisland.com). With those acquisitions, we made a conscious decision to establish our regional offices in Miami, which is of course a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as a growing destination for Europeans, and now the Asian market.

Before making Miami our final choice, I traveled with my family to other feasible locations from which we could establish a base for our Americas expansion, places like Panama; Nassau, Bahamas and Mexico, but my wife decided that Miami was the place to be, and I learned a long time ago that “happy wife, happy life.”

Q. What are some of the major benefits of working in Miami-Dade?

A. From a business standpoint, I can truly attest to the fact that Miami is one of the world’s evolving international destinations, and consequently ideal for our business. From a personal standpoint, we love living in Miami. Having lived in many other larger cities in the past like London, Paris, New York and Athens, we find Miami a wonderful place to raise a family. We live on the water and enjoy numerous sports throughout the year due to the fantastic weather. Everything is close by and accessible making life easier: the kids’ schools, the airport, restaurants and going out places, getting out to sea etc. It is also a city that is close and well-connected to the Northeast United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America, all markets to which I travel frequently.

Q. What are the drawbacks? What do you think would make the county or city more business-friendly?

A.There are two things that could further improve Miami:

(1) Raising the level of education and improving the quality of the workforce. Having lived in numerous large cities with first-generation immigrants, such as New York and London, I am a huge advocate of education and it is crucial that we continue to foment programs that create ‘opportunities for success’ in order to fast-track Miami’s work force; and

(2) Having mountains.

We are never going to get the latter but Aspen is only four hours’ flight away. And the former has been improving significantly since we moved here in 2008. One of the things I always heard about was the area’s brain-drain, smart kids who went away to college and never came back due to lack of opportunity. That is clearly changing as more and more young professionals move to Miami. I am also so pleased with the new museum, cultural amenities and activities being added to the city.

Q. Have you considered developing any resorts in the United States or in South Florida specifically?

A. Yes, this is something we are looking into both within South Florida and the U.S. in general. We are extremely selective and typically like to buy the best sites at the right price. Also, since we have large development assets in the Dominican Republic and Panama, we wanted to focus on opening those first. But we are always looking for viable opportunities.

Q. How would a project in the U.S. be different than what you’ve done in Europe or the Caribbean?

A. After doing business in many emerging markets for the past decade — like Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Turkey, Dominican Republic, Panama and Brazil, where it can be very difficult and time-consuming to get things done — it would be a big relief. The U.S. is just more structured and organized and with a great pool of talent and demand to support the successful execution of real estate developments.

Q. How have slowdowns in the Mediterranean region and especially the economic crisis in Greece affected your business there?

A. The Greek crisis has had the biggest negative impact on our share price since our investment company, Dolphin Capital Investors, is listed on AIM of the London Stock Exchange. With the current challenges and uncertainty of Greece, many institutions and investors have been selling off shares of companies that had anything to do with Greece, even companies like ours which really only had 30 percent of their assets there.

The economy, however, has stabilized since then, and with new Greek elections coming up, it is clear that Greece committed to remain in the Eurozone and improve its economy. Despite the recent economic troubles, tourism is booming in Greece and 2015 is expected to be another record year with over 25 million tourists visiting the country this year.

We are the owners of Amanzoe in Greece (www.amanzoe.com), the top luxury resort in the Mediterranean. The resort is performing better each year (reaching full occupancy throughout the summer) and is particularly popular with celebrities, dignitaries, CEOs and other ultra-high net worth individuals from across the globe, so the fundamentals for our sector remain strong there.

Q. What was the thinking behind the Amanera resort at Playa Grande opening this year in the Dominican Republic? How long has that been in the works?

A. When we decided to expand our company to the Caribbean in 2007, we were introduced to Playa Grande by Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts.

After visiting the Playa Grande site, we immediately realized this was one of the most beautiful places in the world and that, if developed correctly, it would become the top resort in the Caribbean to complement our Amanzoe resort in Greece.

Playa Grande is a sprawling 2,000-acre parcel with seven miles of unspoiled coastline, beaches, cliffs, jungles and mountains.

The project also has an existing golf course that was originally designed by Trent Jones Senior and that we have now renovated with his son Rees Jones. The course is known as the Pebble Beach of the Caribbean and is the course in the Western Hemisphere with the most holes on the ocean (10 holes on direct ocean).

We bought Playa Grande in December 2007, and we all know what happened next with the real estate and resort crisis that started in 2008. So for a few years, we hunkered down and managed our costs as carefully as possible, until we felt the market would come back and it was time to develop again.

For the first phase of the project, we are now completing our Amanera resort and integrating it with the renovated golf course. This makes Amanera the first golf integrated Aman Resort in the world. We are opening the resort on Nov. 23 and expect it to become the top luxury resort in the Caribbean, as there has been very limited new luxury supply coming to the region during the past seven years.

Q. How much of an appetite do you think there is for this type of product in the Caribbean right now?

A. There was none or limited appetite between 2008 and 2012. But since then the resort market has recovered significantly, following the recovery of the North American economy.

We think that the opening of our Amanera resort this November will coincide with a booming resort market and will be one of the only new resort destinations coming to market in seven years (since most other Caribbean developers could not obtain funding to complete their developments during that period).

Q. You have another project in the works in Panama. What will that include and when will it debut?

A. We own Pearl Island in Panama, a magnificent, natural, extremely biodiverse 4,000-acre island on the Pacific side of Panama. The island is only 40 miles south of Panama City. It approximates the size of St. Barts or Capri and is being developed into the largest luxury island resort in Central America.

We have already completed the infrastructure on the island with an airport that can connect to the Panama International airport in 15 minutes with our planes, along with 30 kilometers [about 50 miles] of road, beach club, marina, service pier, etc.

The island has already sold over 80 homes and condos to regional high net worth individuals that are being delivered this year. For 2016, we look to start the construction of an 80-suite Ritz Carlton Reserve hotel that we plan to establish as one of the top luxury resorts in Central America.

Q. How do you decide when the time is right to move into a new market or make a bigger push into a market you’re already in?

A. We look at:

1. The macro fundamentals of the market. For example, when we entered Panama in 2008, it was obvious that the economy would grow at an average rate of 7-8 percent per annum for many years to come, due to the Panama Canal expansion and the significant foreign investment and development taking place in the country.

2. Keeping our focus on what we already have and managing our human resources appropriately (the most precious of which is time).

3. Synergies and economies of scale with our existing business. For example, we have recently expanded into Brazil and are looking at other regional markets to make our Americas platform more profitable and scalable.

Pierre Charalambides

Title: Founding partner, Dolphin Capital Partners

Time in post: 10 years

Previous positions: JPMorgan Investment Banking, Hilton International

Education: INSEAD MBA

Age: 44

Residence: Miami

Personal: Married 17 years with four children. Priorities for a limited amount of free time are spending time with family, participating in sports, reading and socializing with friends.

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