How Paul Oberschneider overcame addiction to build a property empire

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS: The real estate entrepreneur on hitting rock-bottom and getting out just days before the financial crisis.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 24 Oct 2016

I grew up in the cornfields of Illinois, in a small town about 70 miles outside Chicago. My father was an immigrant doctor who came over from Estonia about 10 years after World War 2. He was educated in Germany and during the war was conscripted by the German Army to fight on the Russian front. He ended up in an Allied detention camp in Germany, where he finished his medical degree and came over to the states in the early 1950s.

My father was a pretty incredible guy, he spoke about 5 or six different languages and was able to come to a completely foreign country and start from scratch. He was my hero but he also suffered from a disease we knew a lot less about then; alcoholism and drug addiction. I grew up in a pretty crazy household because I never knew what he was going to be like when he came home.

That disease finally killed him when I was just about to go into my second year of university. I came home and he had gone into a coma and suffered a heart attack. His doctor basically told me that he would be a vegetable for the rest of his life so i decided to make that difficult decision and take him off life support. He was basically dead in 10 minutes.

I had to find a job because my mother didn’t want to send me back to university. I took a job at the Chicago Board of Trade, which at the time was one of the largest exchanges in the world for soft commodities and options, and eventually found myself working on Wall Street.

I promised I would never turn out like my father but promises are hard to keep. It was the 1980s, I was young, I was trading other people’s money, it was one big party. We would trade in the morning, then go down to Harry’s Bar for drinks, stay there until 8 o’clock at night, go down to Little Italy for dinner and then at 12 o’clock head over to Studio 54 or any of dozens of clubs and we’d be there all night. And then go home, put a new shirt on and go back on the trading floor.

When you’re young you can do that but I abused the privilege. Many of my friends were able to stop but I just wanted to keep going. In 9 years I over-reached anything my father had done in terms of addiction. I’d lost my job, I’d lost my money, I sold my watches, all my personal possessions. I was on that edge.

My father once took me to a 12 step recovery programme meeting. Afterwards I said ‘Dad that’s really a ridiculous thing, you shouldn’t go to that.’ I’m sorry I ever said that but when you’re 14 you say some pretty stupid things. He never went back. He didn’t realise it at the time but he might not have been able to save his own life but he saved mine. Because at the one point when I was really at rock-bottom, I remembered where to go, and that’s exactly what I did. I’m looking at 29 years of being clean and sober today, which is miraculous for a guy who loves danger and adrenaline.

I didn’t know anything about Estonia because my father never really talked about it. I spent a year studying business at graduate school and in summer I decided to take three weeks to visit the country and piece my background together. I took $400, packed everything up in storage and headed off to Tallinn.

I landed there knowing basically nobody and didn’t know the language at all. I made money by writing business plans for people I met. By the end of summer I was writing them for the ministry of the economy, a German hotel chain and some industrial groups for up to $50,000 a pop and I made a pile of money and later worked as a banker in a credit department, before being sacked.

Everybody thought I would head home but I had a feeling all this cheap real estate in Estonia would become expensive at some point. So I started a real estate agency called Oberhaus, which came to be the largest pan-central-eastern-european real estate company with some 350 brokers in six different countries. We also started a mortgage business and a property management company. At the height we had over 800 people working for us.

In 2006 I got a phonecall from a Finnish private equity group saying they wanted to talk about buying Oberhaus. That set some alarm bells off in my head because of a conversation I had 1992, in a sauna with a crazy Finn called Elvis. He told me that Finns are slow to take risk and only get into markets when they’re done. When I got that phone call I looked around and thought, we’re done. I sold up for EUR200m, getting out of the last business just a week before the 2008 financial crisis.

I moved to the UK in 2011 and invested in Vital Ingredient, a healthy food chain. It had four stores at the time, by the time I exited it had 19. In the last 12 months, I've written two books and I'm working on turning around a hotel in Oxfordshire. Looking back the biggest lesson I have learned is: do more. Buy more. When you find the right formula you should really put the pedal to the metal.

Paul Oberschneider is the author of Why sell tacos in Africa?

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