Eddy Offermann is the visitor every struggling resort dreams of attracting. Very rich, yet down to earth, modest and committed, Offermann discovered the ailing high-altitude Swiss ski village of Saas Fee in 2004 and invested millions to help restore its fortunes.
A nuclear physicist turned hedge fund boffin, Offermann, 52, was born in Nijmegen, a city in the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands. He studied hard and went on to lecture in nuclear physics in Germany before moving to the US. While completing his postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois, Offermann married Bosnian nuclear physicist Amra Serdarevic. They had a son, Jan, now aged 16.
Academic contacts brought Offermann to the attention of James Simons, a leading hedge fund manager and himself a former mathematics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. The meeting led Offermann to swap the intellectually challenging but materially modest world of academia for high finance. Of his new profession, he says: “As long as we’re right 50.2 per cent of the time and wrong only 49.8 per cent, it’s enough. It isn’t that difficult but it has to be done in a precise way. There’s no room for error.”
After working in equities for six years, Offermann decided to take a break. “It reached the point where I didn’t think the work was all that challenging anymore.” Offermann moved to Switzerland to work at Cern, the European nuclear physics centre near Geneva. Although Offermann stayed just one year before returning to his hedge fund in East Setauket, Long Island, in 2004, he was nonetheless seduced by Switzerland.
During his free time at Cern, Offermann looked for a holiday home. “I knew the big European resorts, such as Verbier, Zermatt, Wengen and Kitzbühel, but I’d never heard of Saas Fee. The idea of buying a place was in the back of my mind, with Switzerland seeming ideal for a nest egg as much as a holiday home. I trawled a lot of websites and visited many places, and then I discovered Saas Fee.”
Offermann says he was entranced by the “authenticity” of the small, car-free village. Unlike Zermatt, its similarly car-free neighbour, Saas Fee has seen little commercial development. “I was immediately taken,” says Offermann. “I also liked the skiing and the fact that there was a glacier, meaning you could ski all year round. Above all, though, I suppose I saw its potential. Everything was still done by locals and that had an appeal.”
So Offermann bought a three-storey, four-bedroom chalet with valley views leading to Saas Fee. “We called it Chalet Vertigo because when you’re on the balcony, you shouldn’t look down if you have wobbly legs,” he says.
Offermann’s time in the village is limited to Christmas, Easter and summer holidays, although he also comes for periodic weekends. While he continues to be based in Long Island, his heart remains in Saas Fee: “This is where I will retire. I feel accepted and at home. Fundamentally, I suppose I’m still a European. Although I’ve been in the US since 1988 [Offermann jokes that he received US citizenship and the green light to buy the chalet on the same day but that somehow the latter was more exciting] I still feel as if I’m on holiday when I’m there. In Europe, I can judge a person within minutes of their walking in the room. I still can’t do that in the US.”
But he has become sufficiently Americanised to share a familiar gripe often levelled at Europeans: “What I still have to get used to in Switzerland is that things are so slow. You talk for months and months, and only then does something get done,” he says.
In Saas Fee skiing has not kept up with the times. The area is restricted not just by glaciers but endless – and ultimately fruitless – talks about how to expand and who might pay.
“One day, I went to the village bank and asked if there was something I could invest in. First they said no – and were quite adamant. Eventually, they said Compagnie des Alpes (the French ski lift group that had taken a minority stake in the local ski lift company) wanted to pull out. That was my chance.”
Now Offermann is the biggest shareholder. He has spent the equivalent of $14m on nearly 40 per cent of the shares, which puts him ahead of the local council and other public sector owners, turning him into a local personality overnight. “I’m making good money. Other people buy themselves a yacht. I bought myself a stake in something I really love to do,” he says.
With glasses and something of the retiring air of the stereotypical scientist, he admits to having mixed feelings about his local celebrity. “I don’t like it particularly. I’m the type who prefers to be more in the background.”
Given Offermann’s increasing financial commitment to the village, keeping a low profile is proving to be more difficult. Last year he bought Dom, the village’s largest and most historic hotel, dating from 1881, after fears it might be demolished to make way for holiday flats. An expensive refit is now nearing completion to create a 70-bed boutique hotel.
But it is Offermann’s commitment to the ski company that has sealed his local fate. After years of talking, there are plans for expansion, increasing the ski area – by taking the skiing even higher – and potentially opening the way for a link to Zermatt. The scheme will cost about $100m, of which $44m will have to come from the shareholders. Offermann has no compunction about paying his $17m portion.
“People are always coming up to offer their opinion. Of course, locals see the lift company as part of their lives, and everyone has their own view how things should be done. If there’s something they don’t like, they feel entitled to tell me.”
Haig Simonian is the FT’s Switzerland correspondent
● Authentic Swiss atmosphere
● Fantastic scenery; surrounded by eight peaks
● Good skiing year round
●Rather inward-looking mentality
● Enclosed by mountain peaks
● Ski area needs expansion
What you can buy for ...
£1m A variety of larger apartments or smaller freestanding chalets
Only a small part-time agency in the village. Much done by foreigners.
● Investors in Property www.investorsinproperty.com
● Pure International www.pureintl.com