23 March 2004 – The Saturday Times
Jenny Davey talks to a reclusive billionaire whose passion for deal making keeps him in the spotlight.
Getting an interview with Simon Reuben is almost as hard as gaining an audience with the Queen. The 59-year-old double billionaire, who forms one half of the Reuben brothers, one of Britain’s wealthiest families, guards his privacy very closely.
But a recent flurry of deals, including a £250 million investment in the proposed £2billion buyout of Chelsfield, the property company, has cast him and his brother David into the public eye.
Last year the brothers took the first step towards becoming more public about their affairs with the launch of a website www.reubenbrothers.com, which aimed to dispel some of the myths about them. Sitting in the relaxed surroundings of a restaurant in Antibes in the South of France, Reuben admits that he is nervous about the interview.
“It goes against all my instincts to talk to a journalist, you know,” he says.
This is perhaps understandable. The brothers’ last interview with the press backfired when an article in Fortune magazine threw up allegations of links with the Russian mafia.
The claims followed a period in the 1990s when the brothers set up Trans-World, a metals trading business in Russia. In 2000, Trans-World was sold to Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club.
It is four years since the Fortune article was published, during which time an investigation by Kroll, the accounting firm, has exonerated the Reuben brothers of any wrongdoing.
Simon Reuben insists that the time has come to put the past behind them and move on.
“We set up the website last year because people would say we were elusive, secretive,” he says. “It got to the point where the comments became almost derogatory, so we thought the website would help to set the record straight.”
Today the brothers are primarily concentrating on property trading and corporate takeover deals. They are part of a consortium bidding for the Queens Moat Houses hotel group. They are also bidding for the UCI cinema chain.
As well as the corporate deals, the Reubens have amassed an estimated £1.5 billion property investment portfolio in the UK, primarily in Central London.
Despite accumulating this huge portfolio, Reuben says that he has no real passion for property, even though his first investments in the sector stretch back to the 1970s, “I don’t really like property, I just like the deals because they are easy,” he says.
“I just buy properties in areas I like and buy things I believe represent value for money. I don’t look at the rental income, I just consider how much I am paying per square foot and what the return will be in the end.”
Reuben says that the Chelsfield deal is an unusual one for them – sparked by a long standing friendship with Elliott Bernerd, the property company’s chairman and founder.
The decision to invest in the Chelsfield deal is a calculated gamble, Reuben admits. “We already have a lot of assets and a lot of liquidity, but we have never done property development. We decided that Chelsfield provided the best opportunity to take a punt on property development.”
The brothers have a small team dedicated to mergers and acquisitions – the deals that Reuben enjoys the most. “Maybe it is something to do with my age, but I look at things which are pretty short term.”
Clearly he doesn’t need to work, but he gets bored easily. “The way I live, I only need 1 per cent of my assets. But working is part of my life blood. I look at companies and like analysing them, its fun.
“I could just put my money in the bank, but I like to look at ways to raise my income, otherwise I feel that I am not being a good manager.”
Unlike many other wealthy entrepreneurs, Reuben shuns the showbiz lifestyle. “Life can be very difficult for me. I avoid most people. In my early years I went out and got all the best tables at restaurants. I had fast cars and did all that.”
Born in Bombay, the son of an Iraqi-Jewish textile merchant, Reuben says that many of his friends are younger, interesting people. “I’m a Bohemian in a way. I hate trendy places. Often I like just sitting and thinking, doing simple things like having a coffee,” he says.
In his youth Reuben dropped out of several degree courses including one in chartered accounting after just six months. “It was boring,” he says, adding that if he had the chance again he would do history or literature.
In business Reuben is regarded as tough and uncompromising, but privately he is considered kind and generous. Friends say that even though he is obsessive about his work, in his spare time he can be forgetful and anyone following him around would make a fortune just from picking up all the things he loses.
Reuben says; “I have a very low concentration threshold. Even on a deal I can only read one document at a time.”
Most of his time is spent at his apartment in Monaco. Reuben moved there from Los Angeles in the 1980s after being diagnosed with cancer. His health has since recovered, but he admits he has to take things easier than he used to.
Reuben is married with a grown-up daughter. Both women play a pivotal role in his life. “I am very close to my family, I married only once and I have only one daughter.”
Reuben says that his wife is much more interesting than him. “She is a total courses freak. You name she has done it, courses in music appreciation, literature, understanding September 11, understanding Islam – she would make a good interview for you,” he laughs.
Looking forward, Reuben says that he no longer has any big business ambitions.
“My ambitions are much more focused on my daughter and my brother’s children. My mood is very dependent on my daughter. If she’s happy, I’m happy, if she’s sad, I’m sad.” His modesty is part of Reuben’s charm.
But it would be wrong to underestimate him. In the past year alone the Reubens have made big waves in the property sector and their recent spate of empire building looks set to continue for some time yet.