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An investor fights for the paradise

Georg Meck
25
Nov

An investor fights for the paradise

Financial investor Jörg Rockenhäuser has joined environmental activists. On Corfu, he defends a
nature reserve. His secret weapon? Money. By Georg Meck

Jörg Rockenhäuser’s piece of paradise comes right out of the book of Mediterranean clichés: an
estate with unobstructable sea view, surrounded by a grove of over 1,000 olive trees. For the first time,
he harvested a crop this year – a process that in itself is a science. “That alone is enough to turn you
into an eco-freak,” he jokes on a grey November day in his Frankfurt office – far away from his second
home on Corfu and his boat, which he takes out to “spot dolphins”. Or otters. Or sea lions. It’s all
there. “It’s the kind of paradise you’d expect to find in the South Seas. That kind of pristine nature is
very rare in Europe.” He shows a picture of the beach on his iPad. There is a reason why he, the
financial investor, who otherwise protects his private life, talks about it: Rockenhäuser is on a mission.
As foreign investors snatch the nature reserve – “an utterly breath-taking and pristine area” – he is
leaping to its defence. “We can’t allow nature to be sacrificed on the altar of the destructive force that
is mass tourism.”

This explains why the man with billions of euros at his fingertips has become a part-time
environmental activist. His inspiration came from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he has
long avoided podiums on financial questions (“I’m familiar with that anyway”) and rather listens to
ecologists, animal rights activists and world do-gooders. This shifted his perspective: “Anyone
fortunate enough to earn a lot of money has to give back something.”

Another, even more compelling reason is his wife, the daughter of Greek parents who was born and
raised in Germany but still holds a Greek passport. For 15 years, the couple has regularly travelled to
Greece and, over the past decade, engaged in promoting social foundations and helping children from
difficult backgrounds. Plus, of course, their hearts belong to their home on Corfu. But almost two and a
half hours’ flight from Frankfurt make it impossible to commute on a daily basis. While the pair makes
the trip about half a dozen times a year, the fight to protect their island paradise is part of their
everyday lives, regardless of where they are. Isn’t that what telephone conferences, e-mail and all the
other management tools were invented for? Rockenhäuser’s opponent is the New-York-based
financial group NCH Capital Inc. and their real estate project called “Kassiopi”. A coalition of locals is
pushing back: environmentalists, small business owners, simple fishermen and the mayor. Jörg
Rockenhäuser is right alongside them. Which is quite paradox, considering he would normally be on
the other side of the fence, with the investors.

The 53-year-old German financial expert grew up in the Rhineland and has worked in the industry for
two decades. For Marxist leftist, that makes him an agent of international financial capital. In his main
occupation, he is Head of Germany, Austria and Switzerland at Anglo-Saxon private equity company
Permira. Which puts him squarely in the category of what Müntefering referred to as locusts. The
guiding principle behind Rockenhäuser’s business is buying and selling companies preferably with a
maximum profit. In German-speaking countries, Permira has invested in Debitel, Hugo Boss and
ProSiebenSat.1, among others. Iglo fish fingers and Rodenstock glasses have also passed through
the investors’ hands. Just recently, Rockenhäuser handled Swabian software company TeamViewer’s
IPO. And what a coup that turned out to be. It was Germany’s biggest stock market debut of the year.
Permira enjoyed a spectacular return, and it was a great deal for the managers involved.

Just to be clear: Rockenhäuser still loves this job. “I’m an investor with heart and soul.” Corfu hasn’t
converted him overnight into an anti-capitalist, who regards money and foreign investors as the evil
incarnate. Quite the contrary, he is fighting to protect the nature reserve with these very weapons – in
a battle that has generated a lot of coverage in Greece and led to many petitions to parliament. The
dispute is over a desolate stretch of coast called Erimitis in the North East of the island of Corfu, 1.5
million square metres of protected woodland with a view of the Albanian coast opposite.

Under circumstances that are not entirely clear, the Greek state, represented by a privatisation
company, sold one third of the land to aforementioned property developer NCH Capital. Founded in
1993, the New-York-based property developer was active primarily in Moscow and the splintering
Soviet republics in the 1990s. Today, the company manages three billion dollars in assets, a large part
of which is real estate. According to its own figures, NCH Capital holds one of the world’s largest
agricultural portfolios. The company now targets to break new ground in pioneering sustainable
tourism on Corfu. At least that’s what the brochure says. The plan is to build a luxury hotel, plus
dozens of villas on a 36,000-square-metre site. They have promised to plough in 120 million euros and
deliver growth and prosperity to the local population. So far, however, not even 20 million euros are
said to have reached Greek state coffers.

For Rockenhäuser, the whole thing is a farce. In his words, it’s “madness” and a “gift” to the
developers. As he tells it, things first turned bad in 2012 when the authorities auctioned off the land to
NCH before anyone else had a chance. “From a purely commercial perspective, the price for such
high-calibre real estate should have been three to six times higher,” says Rockenhäuser. “And that’s
not taking the environmental concerns into account. What’s more, construction on that scale should
never have been approved. The government must decide what its priorities are – sustainable and
gentle tourism or mass tourism, which is inevitably disastrous for the ecology.”

The locals were opposed to the plans right from the beginning and turned to the region’s holiday
homeowners for help when their own financial resources ran dry. And so it came that a group of
wealthy foreigners joined forces to create a kind of super-rich citizens’ initiative. Besides
Rockenhäuser, Rob Lucas, who is also a financial investor – Managing Partner of private equity
company CVC in London – is a driving force. “In professional life, he is my competitor”, says the
Permira man from Frankfurt.

Another big name active behind the scenes is Jacob Rothschild, head of the British branch of the
banking dynasty and owner of a magnificent estate on Corfu, where Prince Charles frequently visits for
his summer retreat. Worth billions, the banker who is now in his 80s has long been committed to
protecting the environment on the island. As for the current dispute, the younger ones have to take
over, he told Rockenhäuser.

First thing the millionaires club did was to professionalise what was initially characterized by fury and
dilettantism, transforming the David and Goliath protest into a “battle of equals”, as Rockenhäuser puts
it. Resolutions were drawn up, letters addressed to the government in Athens. Online petitions to save
the coastal strip collected 12,000 signatures and today, schoolchildren wear caps and T-shirts sporting
the “Save Erimitis” slogan.

The legal battle is now no longer headed up by a philosophy professor whose attendance at a handful
of law lectures in his youth provided but insufficient ammunition to secure a single victory over the
construction project. Today, the most highly paid lawyers are on the case. One of them has
subsequently moved into politics and is now foreign minister in Athens’ new conservative government.

Rockenhäuser embraces the new cabinet from an economical perspective and regards it as a major
improvement on the former left-wing populist dispensation. Yet as an environmental activist, he is
disappointed. “Our hope was that the new government would also change things for the better in
Erimitis.” No one could have anticipated that the responsible minister would decide to use Corfu of all
places as proof positive that the government is opening its arms to foreign investors. In defiance of
other politicians who disapprove of pushing such projects through in the face of local opposition, the
lawmaker has singled out Kassiopi as a role model. Unsurprisingly, this has again ratcheted up the
locals’ concern. “A terrible mistake could be made any day now,” warns Rockenhäuser. Which is
another way of saying that the building permit could be signed any day, any day the earthmovers
could arrive.

They’re not giving up yet. But it’s a fight employing peaceful means. At most, a small trader – a “kind,
gentle soul” to quote Rockenhäuser – stepped outside those bounds and attracted attention when he
broke the law by biting a policeman’s finger during a blockade and received a brief prison sentence.
Apart from that incident, the environmental activists make every effort to champion their cause while
remaining on good terms with the local people, politicians and police.

For instance, Rockenhäuser and friends raised 40,000 euros to provide the coast guard with a faster
boat. Its four outboard engines finally give the border police a fighting chance against the drug
smugglers bringing their illicit goods across from Albania by speedboat. Such initiatives win hearts and
minds. Even when wearing his greenie hat, Rockenhäuser the investor also fights as an eco-activist
with his weapon of choice: money.

In the same vein, the German bought half a million square metres of virgin coastline and forest
bordering the Kassiopi project two years ago, “before anyone else gets it into their head to build hotels
there”. This cost the Permira man six million euros, with no plans to build on the site, he won’t gain any
commercial benefit from the purchase now or in future. “It’s probably the lowest return on any
investment I’ve ever made, but I’ve rarely been happier with an asset.”

There were times when Rockenhäuser believed that their adversary had become demoralised, since
so far no potential hotel operator has been named. Every day that passes without any progress, the
real estate developers lose money and may eventually lose their appetite for the investment: “The fact
that the project has been dragging on for seven years makes it increasingly unattractive to investors.”

As the course of both politics and the justice system are unpredictable, Rockenhäuser is now
deploying a new tactic: Why not simply buy back the land that should be preserved from the tourism
investors and turn it into a private nature reserve together with the adjoining forest? It’s a nice idea but
not an easy one to achieve. Let alone at a reasonable price. “We are in the process of forming a group
of investors,” announces Rockenhäuser. However, at the moment not everyone is on the same page
in terms of financial expectations. The man from Frankfurt cannot do it alone, he needs fellow
campaigners who are willing to spend millions without any prospect of a return. “That’s not exactly an
investor’s dream.” Nevertheless, the club is expanding. “As a group of private individuals, we have
invested more than 100 million euros in Greece,” wrote the wealthy environmental activists to the
Greek prime minister. Their message? “We want to help Greece remain the most beautiful country in
Europe. Please protect the beauty of Erimitis!”

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