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  1. Wealth
August 31, 2008

Get Unstuffed

By Spear's

It’s vast and vastly expensive but in other ways the Carnegie Abbey Club is refrshingly relaxed and unconventional, says Daisy Prince

Brian O’Neill looks like a club man. Dressed in a blazer with gold buttons and Gucci loafers, he appears to be someone who was born to roam dark, wood-panelled rooms, gently sipping scotch while having a discussion about the finer points of his golf game. Large and charming, with a gravelly voice and devilish air, he seems easily at home in the grand surroundings of the Lanesborough Hotel, where we meet to discuss his recent acquisition, the Carnegie Abbey Club in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

The 450-acre Carnegie Abbey sporting club, with nearly 1,000 residences including a 22-storey condominium tower under construction, is quite an ambitious project for one person to take on

Though he gives the impression of always having led a life of luxury, O’Neill is a self-made billionaire who left high school at sixteen and worked as a house painter and car salesman before specialising in redeveloping industrial wasteland into luxury residences and office tracts. He comes from a large Catholic family, where he was one of six sons, and has five children with his wife Miriam, whom he met when he was eighteen.

O’Neill grew up outside of Philadelphia and first came to Newport looking for a vacation spot. (He ultimately ended up buying an historic property in Newport that had belonged to a daughter of John Jacob Astor.) ‘My wife doesn’t fly, so we looked for places that were luxurious that we could drive to. Newport became our Europe. After I purchased a home, I took a look at the Carnegie Abbey Club, thought it was beautiful, and joined on the spot.’

After spending a few summers golfing at the club, which is actually in Portsmouth about 25 minutes from downtown Newport, O’Neill noticed an abandoned aluminium factory next to the club that had been an eyesore since the 1980s. O’Neill asked British developer Peter de Savary, the owner of the club, if he was ever going to develop the property. Although de Savary initially said he would, nothing happened for the next two years, at which point O’Neill finally said, ‘You should sell it to me.’ After wrangling for six hours on de Savary’s yacht in Miami, O’Neill walked away with a lot more than he’d originally bargained for. ‘I bought the club, a couple of classic cars and an option on the entire estate. I bought him out completely.’

O’Neill had done his homework before buying. ‘I studied the US clubs and resorts and it occurred to me that the Carnegie Abbey Club was one of the most significant East Coast resort properties with the exception of Nantucket or the Hamptons. I thought it was highly undervalued.’

O’Neill also looked extensively at the way private members’ clubs in the US were failing. ‘I concluded that ultra-successful young Americans generally can’t find places where they can buy homes and join a club immediately. For example, in Newport, the Newport Country Club has a lifetime waiting list and Bailey’s Beach Club [a private members’ club where many members of the Kennedy clan are members] is an entire political fiasco to join.’

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Some US country clubs have such strict membership policies that it makes joining White’s seem easy. As well as requiring at least seven letters of introduction, many American clubs also require that people spend at least five years being ‘seasonal members’ as a kind of prolonged interview process. But even that is no guarantee. It is not unheard of for families who have spent four or five summers at a particular club not to be invited to join permanently.

O’Neill is banking on the notion that young, successful, hedge-fund-manager types would rather pay up-front than spend their time manoeuvring through such a sticky social maze. For one thing, making business contacts at the club and even discussing deals is not forbidden to members

Even so, O’Neill’s membership policy is autocratic to say the least. The membership committee consists of, ‘me, myself and I. I have a strict code of conduct, and if I
decide that someone is nice I will let them in. I don’t tolerate politics in my club.’ This must make for an expedient, if somewhat unbalanced, membership selection process.

O’Neill is insistent that despite their wealth, his members are family-oriented. Sounding almost puzzled, he says, ‘You would think that making money was their priority, but that’s what comes easily to them. They really care about their families.’

As a result, O’Neill catered for the children and wives of his members. He has created a children’s camp, complete with a top equestrian centre, polo pitch, tennis courts and golf course and the club even has courses in public speaking and theatre. O’Neill explains that ‘it’s great for a child to come onto the property and be instructed in a recreational, fun way.’

Equally, there is a European spa for the wives and an award-winning chef. O’Neill assures me that ‘we treat the woman of the house with the same stature and standing as the male. In most golf clubs the male owns the membership, so if there is a divorce then the membership goes to the male.’ So, what happens if there is a divorce at Carnegie Abbey? ‘We would ask one of the parties to buy their own membership. We don’t mind if it is the man or the wife.’

It does seem, however, like an awful lot of money for a club membership – even for very rich people. Has the credit crunch affected the sales and membership at all? His swift response is that so far it hasn’t had an effect. However much Brian asks of the members, he swears that the club and value of the properties will go up. ‘We believe in five-star service and we know that the one thing our members don’t have is time. So we will meet you at the airport, fill your refrigerator, plan your meals, and arrange for your children and family to meet you – it will all be taken care of.’

There are already 300 members but O’Neill would like to increase the membership to 399 and is hoping to fill those slots with international members. Although there are a number of members from Ireland, the UK and even as far as China, he would like to encourage more to join and to buy in the condominium. To that end, he’s in talks with acclaimed architect David Linley to help with the interior design of the tower.

The club also holds a World Leadership Series, and has hosted George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama and even Prince Albert. ‘We had all the presidential candidates come and some of our members even had one-on-one conversations with them.’ He is hopefully going to have Martina Hingis give a tennis clinic this summer.

O’Neill isn’t afraid to drop a name or two in order to get Carnegie on the international map and, with his ambition and exuberance, he undoubtedly will. Who’s to say that O’Neill’s fresh approach might not just set the pattern for how 21st-century clubs operate? — a practice that would be frowned upon in other country clubs. — even for someone as energetic as O’Neill. The joining fees for the club have to be some of the most expensive in the world: $175,000 to join and about $10,000 a year for dues.

The residences themselves range in price from just under $1 million to over $8 million for the largest apartment in the luxury condominium. Additionally, there is a waterfront golf course, a yacht club with more than 130 slips, and a second marina under construction which will accommodate yachts up to 60 metres. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a huge operation.

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