It seems to run in the family. Anthony Armstrong Emery’s maternal grandmother, a colourful figure who propounded the benefits of sexercise, was born into a conservative Spanish family in Gibraltar in the 1920s. Breaking with convention, she married an Englishman and followed her husband to Africa, South America and Asia – her itinerant life prompting her to write a travel book.
“My grandfather, Jack Armstrong, worked for Cable & Wireless for 36 years, and was posted to over half a dozen countries during his career,” says Anthony Armstrong Emery. “My mother, of course, went with them. And I have been travelling virtually since birth, with my own passport since the age of four.”
It does beg the question why, after a bilingual, globetrotting upbringing, he settled in the less-than-glamorous Brazilian city of Natal: a city of unprepossessing architecture with a population of about 1.3m, in Rio Grande do Norte, in the country’s northeast. “That’s easy,” he says. “My [second] wife is from Natal.”
Born in London in 1969, Armstrong Emery moved to Gibraltar when he was nine. After graduating with a law degree in the UK, he continued his studies in Spain, obtaining an MA in law from Salamanca university. What followed was a roundabout path to his present position as founder and chief executive of EcoHouse Group, one of the largest property and construction companies in northeast Brazil.
“My first job was in tourism in Paraguay because it was one of just two countries in South America that my grandparents had not visited and I was curious. Then I went to Spain and started working in real estate, just as the property market took off, and made a lot of money,” he says. He arrived in Natal in 2004 after being invited to help a Spanish property company structure its new development there. “The project never materialised but by 2007 the financial crisis had hit Europe, so I decided to stay on in Brazil.”
Unsure of what to do next, Armstrong Emery started buying up land cheaply. Then, as he says, he got lucky. “In 2009, the government launched Minha Casa Minha Vida [My House My Life] to address the housing shortage in Brazil and help get people out of the favelas, where an estimated 11m to 15m people currently live,” he says.
“The aim was to create 3m new homes by 2015, and they offered partnership incentives – such as 1 per cent tax on profits – to developers. It was a golden opportunity. And suddenly, my land became valuable.”
Since then his company has become known for its high standards of social housing as well as high returns for international investors (“20 per cent per annum originally, though we are now planning to offer a more realistic 12 per cent”). Armstrong Emery is now on his third major MCMV development in Natal, and is about to embark on 400 new social housing units in the south of Brazil.
It has not all been plain sailing. “As Brazilians themselves say: south of São Paulo, things work in a more European way; north of São Paulo, it’s a disaster,” he says. “In Natal, a civil service mentality rules. People are satisfied with the status quo and think only of lining their own pockets. Corruption and jealousy are rife, nothing gets done. So you can imagine what it’s like for me, a foreigner, fighting against this small village mentality. They see me growing and growing, an unstoppable force ... They feel upstaged, and a lot of people hate my guts.”
There have been kidnap threats. As a result, his family has 24-hour security, and Armstrong Emery is driven around in an armoured 4x4 with six bodyguards in a three-car convoy. “I really hate that,” he says, “but it is necessary, especially with press reports about my wealth. Natal is no longer the safe place it was 20 years ago, no matter what people tell you. And it’s not a place where you can stroll around – everyone goes everywhere by car, door-to-door. I really miss the outdoor existence of Europe, and being able to take my two-year-old son to the park.”
There is, of course, the beach: an endless stretch of golden sand bordering the Atlantic, which Armstrong Emery’s fifth-floor apartment in the exclusive Areia Preta district overlooks. “The beaches are wonderful, especially in nearby Pipa, but there is little else. People go to the beach for entertainment or, if they have money, they go shopping in Midway Mall. But then – should you buy your wife an expensive dress, within minutes, everyone knows about it.”
For a cultural fix, he and his wife, Elilde, escape to London or Monte Carlo, where they also have homes. “Or you can go to a restaurant,” he adds, referring to the delights of potiguar [“shrimp-eater”, as natives of Rio Grande do Norte are known] cuisine. Last August, Armstrong Emery launched his own upmarket eatery, Liquid Lounge, having poached the chef from Toca da Coruja, a renowned pousada (hotel) in nearby Pipa. This may have won him few friends at the pousada but he ended up with an award for best new restaurant in the country’s popular Veja magazine.
If seen with a jaundiced eye by some, he is akin to a hero for the underprivileged of Natal. “We have several ongoing social projects in the education, health and sports sectors,” he says. “Here, people tend to give to charity only when they need good publicity; our support is continuous. There is huge disparity in wealth – why aren’t local people doing more to help their own? It’s bloody silly that it takes an Englishman to do it.” He refers to his company’s contributions to the local Varela Santiago children’s hospital and to literacy classes for his construction workers.
An avid football fan, he is also president of Natal’s Alecrim Football Club, and is building a 10,000-seat stadium. As well as serving as his team’s home ground, its primary purpose will be to home the new Telos football academy. “About 40 per cent of the intake will be free of charge, as part of our social action,” he says. “Football offers kids a way out of poverty”.
This year, Brazil hosts the Fifa World Cup and some matches will be played in Natal. “At least the city’s roads have been improved,” says Armstrong Emery. “Natal has a lot of potential. All that’s needed is the will to get things done.”
In October 2014, Brazil’s Federal Police and tax authorities announced a criminal investigation into EcoHouse Group over alleged money-laundering, tax evasion and criminal conspiracy - allegations which have been denied. The group announced on November 3, 2014, that it had suspended operations worldwide and proposed to put EcoHouse Developments Ltd into administration.
● Beautiful weather and beaches
● A small city with everything close by makes for an easy life
● Very good business opportunities in a city of undeveloped potential
● Corruption and bureaucracy
● Residents of Natal can be inward-looking and ethnocentric
What you can buy for ...
$100,000 A 55 sq metre flat in the resort of Ponta Negra
$1m A four-bedroom apartment with ocean views in the Areia Preta area