Not satisfied with taking on the print unions, millionaire businessman Eddy Shah is breaking into housebuilding by constructing a luxury property development on a golfcourse.
Eddy Shah strides imperiously across the dining room of his leisure complex. “I’m terribly sorry – dinner may be late,” he says. “Apparently, the local chaplain is hosting a rotary meal next door and they’re having an hour of silent meditation.” He stares around the table. “My waiting staff can’t work out who’s having the fish and who isn’t, as nobody will speak to them.”
The millionaire businessman displays no emotion as he takes his seat. His entourage look at one another anxiously, unsure whether this is a joke. Suddenly, Shah – who with his tanned complexion and the glasses clipped to his shirt would look more at home on a Mediterranean yacht than a Wiltshire leisure complex – claps his hands. “Isn’t this wonderful? It’s just like something out of Midsomer Murders.”
Shah’s unpredictability is his most striking characteristic. It is what led him to drive forward a revolution as head of the Messenger newspaper group in the 1980s, becoming the first person to invoke Margaret Thatcher’s industrial laws to battle the print unions, then helping to drive mainstream journalism out of Fleet Street with the launch of his union-free Today newspaper.
It is also one of the qualities that persuaded his wife Jennifer, then an actress – she was one of David Niven’s squeezes in the spoof Casino Royale – to marry him back when he was a floor manager at Granada television in 1968.
Now, Shah’s energy has found a surprising new target: housebuilding. The 63-year-old entrepreneur has transferred his “mission to drive down costs” into development, forming a business venture with his wife to build a 240-acre holiday village on the site of his golf course and leisure centre.
But rather than throwing up second homes for wealthy golf fans, Shah has a more radical idea: he is building 44 luxury properties that he believes, if sold as permanent homes, could be priced at as little as £100,000. He hopes the three showhomes already built will persuade the council to give him the go-ahead to test his theory by building a larger village of permanent homes, taking on the major developers at their own game.
Right now, however, Shah’s attention is on the dinner debacle. “That chaplain wanted to be a resident here. Isn’t it ridiculous?” says Jennifer, glancing at her husband. “What on earth would we need one for? I think he thought we could be his flock …”
Shah laughs. It is apparent that his wife is a calming influence: this is the first time this morning he seems relaxed. “Jennifer calms me down. Earlier in my life I was out of control,” he says, before adding: “But I’m still half out of control.”
Bringing down the houses
Keeping Shah in check must be some task. “My life’s been about bringing costs down, and the cost of housing is over the top,” he barks at the start of our tour of the complex, crashing through the double doors that lead out of the dining room towards an intimate bar area. “I don’t have to exaggerate what I’ve done. I’ve done TV, I’ve done newspapers, and now I’m doing housing. My mission is to bring costs down.”
Shah, a former director of Wentworth golf course, began developing golf clubs in 1994, but only recently started adding housing to the schemes. He says the venture was prompted by boredom and a desire to find a project he could share with Jennifer who, after recovering from cervical cancer, is suffering from a walking disability brought on by radiotherapy.
“Our kids left home. A lot of marriages break up then, so we wanted to start a business,” he says, with typical directness. “We had three courses, we kept one, and thought why not build … hello, goldfish bowl.”
Shah, catching sight of one of his female employees working behind a giant curved glass screen – to him, a goldfish bowl – interrupts his train of thought to greet her.
This happens throughout our tour: Shah has a word of encouragement for each of his employees, many of whom he greets by their first names. It is a cross between regal condescension and a restless interest: Shah is unable not to get involved.
He has a clear vision of the holiday home, and eventually permanent residence, he wants to build: timber construction is used to cut cost, as well as being environmentally sound (without “over-the-top” fawning on the green lobby), and with individuality. “I can’t stand those Scandinavian sheds,” he says. “Simply awful.”
However, he is not hitting the council with all his plans at once. “If I told them everything, they’d have a heart attack,” he says, looking through the window at an elderly gentleman running on a gym machine. “Oh, he’s okay. He’s had two hips replaced. Off to Kathmandu on a cycle ride soon.”
Nothing seems to escape his attention, which Jennifer confirms. She was fed up with him “constantly gazing” at her across their shared office and had a larger computer screen installed to avert the problem.
An exacting client
Next up, a hairy drive in Shah’s 4 × 4 – “The Bentley’s my wife’s. She thinks I’ll kill myself if I drive it” – and we arrive at a rapidly progressing development.
“I find it difficult to deal with builders,” says Shah. This is not surprising – he can not stand untidiness and has employed a forklift driver to clean the site after every day’s work so he and his guests do not have to walk through mud to view progress. But it is actually Jennifer who is more familiar with construction sites. After ending her career as a model and actress when she was 30, she partnered with a local builder to renovate unusual buildings, including a coach house. She “then got bored and did narrow boats instead”.
“I’m basically okay with builders though, because I make sure we have a fixed price,” Shah says. “It means they work faster and get out of the way quicker, so we don’t end up in court.”
Despite his hardline attitude, Shah has found a few contractors he can work with. He has employed a QS and a full-time project manager and subcontracts design and building work to local firms. Despite being vocal about everything else, he is surprisingly reticent when asked to name the companies.
Shah admits he can try the patience of those he works with, particularly his architect Richard Goddard. “They come up with a drawing and then I argue about it, then they come up with another and I argue about that one,” he smiles. “But it’s like newspapers. What is the point in owning newspapers, or a development, if you can’t have a say in them? These are living, breathing things.”
He looks across the shell of his development, which started in November and is scheduled for completion in September. “Do you know, I’d really like a pyramid one,” he muses. “It could be like Las Vegas. And Portmeirion – a little town in the hillside.” Goddard’s next impossible task seems decided.
Shah has a penchant for altering designs once they are under construction. One of the show homes, which he and Jennifer have set aside for themselves, recently had a wall removed to allow sunlight to reach Jennifer’s dressing table. “She wanted to have the light on her face. She looked so pretty. That’s what homes should be about – making people comfortable. We can do that – move walls if our customers want us to.”
Shah’s approach, evidently, is very hands on. “I could run a printing press but not very well, and it’s the same here. I want to understand everything, but I don’t want to actually do things myself as I know I wouldn’t be good enough,” he says.
One aspect of construction Shah is not keen to get involved with, however, is the Building Regulations. “I have an entire panel of glass here,” he says, waving wildly at a door in one of his show homes. “And they make me put a little spy-hole in so people can see who’s out there. Unbelievable!” he shudders.
The tour is nearly over. Shah turns to address two well-dressed prospective buyers who have arrived on a golf bike. “You’re riding that back are you? Jolly good, jolly good,” he says encouragingly, though one woman looks frightened enough at his exclamation to fall off the vehicle.
“Dealing with people is okay but it can get tiresome,” he says, when they have gone. “In fact,” he adds, “I get tired of most things. It’ll probably happen with property, but not for a while yet, if I keep changing my designs. What do you think of a church-style one?”
Perhaps that chaplain will be put to good use after all.
The Shahs on...
Eddy: People meet me and think: ‘That’s not Eddy Shah the newspaper man.’ People think I rip babies’ heads off, but I don’t. I just stand up for what I believe in
Eddy: The first time I met Mrs Thatcher, I said to her: ‘Don’t forget, it’s the people who believe in you.’ The second time, two years later, she repeated the words back to me. In between those meetings was the Falklands war. She has an incredible memory.
Eddy: I was a Communist when I first met Jennifer. I told her parents they’d have to be exterminated by the age of 65 as they would have outlived their usefulness.
Jennifer: Yes, that was the first time you met them. A wonderful impression.
Jennifer: Connery was Bond. Brosnan was good. I do hope we don’t have a Roger Moore here ...