UK: Profile - Elliott Bernerd - PROPERTY DEALER AND HEAD OF CHELSFIELD. - Judi Bevan talks to a "creature of the jungle" - a survivor in the property market.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Judi Bevan talks to a "creature of the jungle" - a survivor in the property market.


Born in London. Educated at a variety of schools. Left Davies Tutorial College at 15 to join Dorrington Investment Trust, his heart "set on a career in property".


Joined Michael Laurie and Partners. Worked with Stephen Laurie in building a substantial property portfolio. "We used to spark each other off with ideas ..."


Sold property business to Town and City in return for shares. Became a non-executive director. Helped rescue the company after the crash in 1975. "It was experience which only comes from being at the coal face."


Bought Trust Securities which owned the Stockley Park site.


Chairman of London Philharmonic Orchestra trustees.


Sold Stockley to Mountleigh and sold stake in Morgan Grenfell Laurie. Made Chelsfield main vehicle and started to build it up.


Bought Wentworth Golf Club for £20 million.


Bought Stockley back from Mountleigh. Formed Pall Mall Properties with P and O to launch hostile bid for Laing Properties.

Elliott Bernerd thrives on crisis, relishes financial complexity and delights in pulling off the impossible. "I like to do things other people haven't done before," he says. His intuition rarely leads him astray.

"He is a creature of the jungle," says one old associate. "He treads lightly and will pick up the sound of the smallest twig snapping in the undergrowth. Since the age of 16, when he joined the residential firm, Dorrington Investment Trust, as an office boy on £2.50 a week, Bernerd has made the property market his jungle.

Today he heads Chelsfield, his private property company that he made his principal operating vehicle in the late summer of 1987. He had sold both his interest in Stockley plc and his stake in chartered surveyor Morgan Grenfell Laurie. "I felt it was not the right time to go into another public entity," he says, "even though I was offered several." His judgment was vindicated. The following October, the stock market suffered its biggest crash ever.

Since then scores of property companies have gone bankrupt or become moribund, burdened by debt, paralysed by falling property prices and market inactivity. Former stars such as George Walker, Tony Clegg and Godfrey Bradman have thudded to earth. Not so Bernerd. He remains aloft, living in Belgravia, riding around in a black Bentley, skiing in St Moritz, taking the sun on the Cote d'Azur, lunching at Claridge's and dining at Mark's Club. More important, Chelsfield now has net assets of £100 million and its Brook Street office still hums with activity. The word is he is about to pull off another impossible deal.

Short, dark and band-box smart, Bernerd is the kind of man who can lift the atmosphere in a room, deflect anger, create laughter. Sometimes he seems to vibrate with energy. Using his considerable charm, he makes contacts wherever he goes, forging business alliances which last decades. Lord Sterling, Lord Young, John Ritblat and Jacob Rothschild are all friends of more than 20 years.

He would never pretend to be infallible. Errors of judgement include backing Eddy Shah's last newspaper venture (though he "loved every minute of it" and they are still friends), becoming embroiled in the Guinness affair and taking an over-bearish stance too soon in the late 1980s. He is, however, a past master of damage limitation.

He also knows how to motivate people. Whether at Stockley, Michael Laurie and Partners (which he sold to Morgan Grenfell in 1987), or Chelsfield today, he has surrounded himself with young, bright, enthusiastic people who work devotedly for him - often for many years. "He brings out the best in people," says his former secretary Margaret Fielding, who was with him for 10 years. "He's a hard taskmaster, but somehow he makes you want to do your best."

Bernerd commands a loyal following both in the property sector and among City institutions. But he has also made enemies. He will charm and cajole up to a point, but when it comes to achieving something he really wants, no-one is more ruthless than Elliott Bernerd.

His early career was meteoric. He became a full partner in a commercial estate agent at 21, a director of major quoted property group Town and City at 26 and by his early 30s was recognised as one of the shrewdest property men in London with a chunky personal portfolio.

In 1984, he made his second foray into the public sector joining with Stuart Lipton of Stanhope Properties and Jacob Rothschild to form Stockley plc which transformed a rubbish dump near Heathrow into the premier business park in south-east England. Bernerd not only has the knack of spotting an opportunity but has a keen sense of timing and a natural instinct for knowing what is possible. He also chooses high calibre partners.

On two notable occasions he has taken on the old-style property establishment and won against remarkable odds. In 1985 he bought 20% of Stock Conversion and attempted an agreed merger with Stockley plc. When it refused to play, he simply sold the stake to Lord Sterling's P and O which took over the company.

Sterling was also instrumental in helping him resolve a similar situation at Laing Properties in 1990. Bernerd, wooing and cajoling the board of Lain, had stealthily built up a 15% stake over 18 months. Laing directors believed they were secure with family and charitable trusts holding 43%. Finally Bernerd formed a joint company with P and O - called Pall Mall - which launched a successful bid. In both cases no one outside the action appreciated he was really serious until the end. The directors of both Stock Conversion and Laing believed they were impregnable. On both occasions, Bernerd combined a natural cunning with an almost superhuman patience.

His lifestyle would not appeal to everybody. He is hyperactive and disdains sleep, working for up to 20 hours a day and switching off only for a punishing work-out five times a week with his personal trainer Josh, or to play tennis on Saturday mornings. His diary is always overbooked, holidays are frequently cancelled or cut short and the mobile telephone goes with him even in his speedboat in the south of France. Ski-ing in St Moritz or Gstaad is perhaps his only true relaxation.

No one person receives very much of his time. Divorced several years ago, he clearly adores his two teenage daughters, taking them on holidays during the summer and seeing them at weekends. But even his fiancee, Sonia, sees little of him and it is evident that his personal life has been sacrificed on the altar of driving ambition. There is no sign of that changing. As he approaches his 47th birthday in May, that ambition is, if anything, growing stronger.

While Bernerd's primary passion is for property, he is fascinated by the worlds of art and politics. In the 1970s he had a share in the Hayward Hill bookshop and these days owns a holding in Bluett's, the oriental art specialist. An impressive collection of modern art hangs on the walls of both his office and home while as chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra trustees he has taken it from the second league five years ago, to one of Britain's top two orchestras today. Since he became chairman in 1986, he has brought in new trustees, one of them cabinet minister David Mellor, and a formidable list of financial backers. He is delighted that this year the LPO won a 130% increase in its arts council contribution - the highest rise given to any arts organisation in the country. But of course, Bernerd still wants more. "Unfortunately it still does not provide us with enough money because our programme is so ambitious to improve the standing of the orchestra world-wide."

This year the LPO becomes the resident orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. "To me the orchestra is just like another kind of business," he says. His habit of falling soundly asleep at the opera indicates that his devotion to music for its own sake is doubtful.

Elliott Bernerd was born on 23 May, 1945, in Maida Vale. He was the only child of a film producer father. His parents divorced when he was seven, leaving him temporarily in the care of his grandmother. This childhood trauma may partly explain the obvious insecurity which drives him and his innate wariness of people.

Brought up in a traditional though secular Jewish manner, Bernerd is proud of his heritage but rarely attends synagogue and pays scant attention to dietary rules or holy days. He was educated at a number of schools winding up at Davies Tutorial College, Holland Park, which he left at 15, his heart already set on a career in property.

"I can't pinpoint what decided me. I just wanted to do it," he says. He wrote to various firms and was accepted by Dorrington, an old-fashioned company based in Hallam Street. "I was very proud when they taught me how to use the switchboard. It was one of those lovely old boards with plugs you pushed in and pulled out."

Soon restless, he moved to Michael Laurie and Partners, a firm of commercial estate agents where he was interviewed by Stephen Laurie. It was the business equivalent of love at first sight and at 20 he became the fourth partner, stepping up to be a full equity partner at 21.

The money to pay for this partnership came from his own earnings. Bernerd was on 10% of the house commission. He remembers his first deal as the letting of a shop in Wealdstone High Road to Radio Rentals. The next landmark was letting a major office building in the West End. The firm took £30,000 commission and he got £3,000. "You can imagine that was a great encouragement to a little kid who was only earning a few pounds a week," he says.

Those who knew him then say he always worked late, often going straight out to dinner and on to clubs. His pivotal relationship was with Stephen Laurie. They soon shared an office, sitting either end of a large dining table which Bernerd still uses as a desk in his office today. "We were complementary because he was 10 years older and more cautious. We used to spark each other off with ideas. We found that the two of us made three rather than two."

Together they began dealing in property as principals. "We always told our clients what we were doing," says Bernerd. The first building they bought was an old tailor's shop with vacant possession at 15 Duke Street, St James. They managed to borrow the £6,000 for the deposit and negotiated a delayed completion. "It was the most nerve-wracking experience," he remembers.

But before the date was up, they had found a public company as tenant who signed a 25-year lease, which they used as security against a bridging loan from a bank. They then repaid the loan by refinancing it with a long-dated mortgage with Legal and General. "We found we owned the building 100% and it hadn't cost us a penny."

It was a formula they repeated many times, forming a joint venture with Hambros and building a sizeable company. In 1972, they had an approach from Barry East of Town and City, and eventually they sold out in return for a shareholding in the larger company and non-executive directorships.

The subsequent property crash and the rescue of Town and City through the merger with Sterling Guarantee Trust were invaluable experiences for the young Bernerd. "It was better than any Harvard course. Stephen and I had learned how to create assets from nothing. Then we had to find solutions to the balance sheet in a property market where there were no buyers at all. It was important to see how well some leading institutions and banks behaved and how badly others behaved. It was experience which only comes from being at the coal face."

Above all it taught him the value of what he calls reconnaissance. "I make reconnaissance a key feature of everything we do today. If you lose deals because your reconnaissance has not been fulfilled it doesn't matter. There will always be other thinks to do."

Stephen Laurie died suddenly in 1979, something from which Bernerd has never quite recovered. "Whatever happens, I know it can never be as bad as losing my partner," he once said. Laurie's calmer temperament and experience had proved the perfect foil for Bernerd's enthusiasm and energy. Over the decade and a half they worked together they had become as close as brothers. When Laurie died Bernerd took a great deal of trouble to comfort his family. And while he can take his pick from his favourite shop, Aspreys, he usually wears the same watch and cufflinks - both presents from Laurie.

An avid follower of trends overseas, he travels each year to the Far East and the US. Stockley Park was heavily influenced by his and Stuart Lipton's observations of business parks in the US. He would never have bought Wentworth Golf Club without seeing how golf clubs operated in Japan. These days under the guidance of former Savoy Hotel manager Willy Bauer, Wentworth has increased it turnover several times and has added a third golf course. It has, however, caused uproar among some of the original members. But then part of Wentworth's attraction for Bernerd stemmed from his realisation that, unlike other golf clubs, the members could be overruled by the proprietor.

Bernerd has suffered like everyone else in the property sector from high interest rates and sluggish markets, but he is an old hand at surviving. One reason is because he finances projects on a stand-alone basis: "I have never, ever given a personal guarantee," he says. "Property is like musical chairs. When the music goes off, you have to have a chair. It does not matter how uncomfortable, but as long as you can sit on that chair, you know the music will eventually start again."

Bernerd, one senses, can already hear the orchestra tuning up.

Judi Bevan is a freelance writer.

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