Lunch with the FT: Nick Candy

Nick Candy arrives 20 minutes late for our lunch at Scott’s, the seafood restaurant in Mayfair. The self-styled king of luxury property sweeps on to his seat, puts his mobile phone on the table, and explains that he has recently arrived from New York, has had three hours’ sleep and a busy morning.

The boyish face, normally accessorised with a thin-lipped grin, bears slight witness to his travels, though his eyes, dewy and crinkled at the corners, look tired. But Candy, 40, is pumped up from his morning’s work: if all goes to plan, he says, he will later that day sell two £60m apartments at One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, London. “OHP”, as Candy refers to it, is the world’s most expensive residential development, built with his younger brother Christian, 38, and Waterknights, the international property development company owned by Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

The transactions will, says Candy, take them to within three sales of finishing the £1.15bn project, which has turned the British brothers into the best known and, perhaps, most disliked property barons since Donald Trump. Depending on who you ask in the property world, the Candys are either spivs or geniuses, wide boys or visionaries.

Pouring himself a glass of sparkling water, Candy launches into a spiel about his past few days, zestfully describing the New York pad Christian is living in. In doing so, Candy has rolled into one of his favourite topics of discussion: his brother – the two are inseparable, in both brand and fraternal intimacy – and high-class real estate. “It’s the biggest penthouse in the Plaza Hotel, 7,000 sq ft. It’s incredible. Three storeys, it’s a triplex. But it is the biggest and it faces the whole of Central Park and the whole of Fifth Avenue, so it is amazing.”

Candy’s descriptive style, machinegun like in pace and delivery, is a prime example of marketing uptalk; everything he describes is pitched as an improvement on all previous attempts. Buttressing this, Candy lets it be known that he knows the right people. During our lunch, I learn that he is friends with pop star Kylie Minogue, London mayor Boris Johnson and Lionel Barber, editor of The Financial Times and my boss. This last connection is sidled repeatedly into our conversation, presumably as a reminder that I should take care with this account.

Candy & Candy – Nick as frontman and Christian the quieter, finance-focused counterweight – had been written off by many in the property world when, during the early stages of the financial crisis in 2007, they embarked on a project to build the world’s most expensive apartment block. Peerless in its cost – One Hyde Park flats fetch between £5,000 and £7,500 per sq ft, nearly double the average for the surrounding area – and, to many, in its vulgarity, OHP has become synonymous with the excesses of new wealth.

The development features four towers designed by Richard Rogers which loom over their Knightsbridge neighbours. The tenant register is dominated by shell companies registered in tax havens, testimony to the discretion that accompanies only the most extreme wealth.

. . .

This secrecy has become a Candy brothers sales gimmick. As willing as he is to brag about the success of OHP, to proclaim, without prompting, its “unrivalled quality of finish”, Candy won’t be drawn on the tenants. This concealment goes to the heart of the project. The owners, many of whom spend only a few weeks a year in their apartments, have no desire to be known and pay big to keep it that way; the price reflects Nick’s deftness at playing frontman, deflecting attention from his clients.

To celebrate the near completion of the project, the brothers recently posted a documentary on their website “Building the World’s Best Address” is a half-hour of backslapping, featuring the brothers and their business associates describing their “ingenious solutions” to “impossible challenges”. I found the video a little confusing, I explain, through a mouthful of breadstick, because it is positioned as a documentary but is obviously an advertisement. Candy replies that it is “an understated statement”. One Hyde Park, he continues, has “moved the market” for London property prices.

It is this sort of braggadocio that splits opinion among those who have come across the Candy brothers. They are either a wide-boy duopoly, fluffed up by a fine-tuned publicity operation (complete with their own glossy biannual magazine, Candy, the latest issue of which showcases “haute couture on the streets of Knightsbridge”) or they are two canny kids from nowhere who had the nerve to bet heavily when everyone else was pulling out.

Nestled into a corner table next to four women enjoying a lunch bookended by champagne and espresso, Candy appears in his element – or at least ready for a photoshoot in his magazine.

He is wearing a three-piece suit of impeccably fitted grey wool with ash-coloured pinstripes, white shirt and dark navy tie. His only jewellery, besides a wristwatch, is a wide, diamond-looped wedding band given to him by Holly Valance, the Australian pop star and actress he married six months ago in Beverly Hills. (She announced their engagement to her 150,000 Twitter followers by posting a picture of Nick proposing to her on a beach in the Maldives, with “Will you marry me” spelt out in flaming torches behind them.) “I’m loving married life,” he says, sounding genuinely smitten, but holds back from further discussion on the subject.

The waiter arrives to list the specials. Candy’s phone vibrates on the hardwood table. “Just excuse me one second,” he says to the waiter, stopping him in mid-sentence, “it’s my brother.”

“Hello, Christian ... ”

The next 15 seconds are incomprehensible to me. Candy speaks so fast that it sounds like a made-up dialect. “Seventeen-and-a-half ... Five working days ... Fifteen working days completion ... Transfer ... Car-parking space ... ” is about as much as I can make out.

Five years ago, Nick lived in Monaco with Christian, where they shared a £200m penthouse called La Belle Époque. As well as two yachts and a powerboat called Catch Me If You Candy, the pair amassed a fleet of sports cars. Leaning into the recorder, Candy reels off the list: “Rolls-Royce Phantom, Rolls-Royce Convertible, Mercedes SLR McLaren, 430 Ferrari Spider, 575 [Ferrari] Maranello, two Range Rovers, a Cherokee Jeep and a Renault Clio. It was a lark. We liked cars.”

The waiter returns, raising a censorious eyebrow at the flashing triptych of two BlackBerrys and a Dictaphone fanned out on the table between us. I order sole goujons to start before hesitating over my main course. Candy cuts in, staccato-like, to place his order: “Do you have the Dublin Bay prawns? I’ll have six large ones.” The waiter offers to “shell them out” for him. Candy declines and moves to his main course. “A Dover sole, please. Grilled. A small one. Off the bone, please, and I’ll have some fresh peas.” I order a steak. Candy orders a glass of white wine for each of us.

“Are you going to Davos?” Candy asks, referring to the annual high-table economic gathering that starts in the Swiss Alps a week after our meeting. I reply that the newspaper sends only a few, carefully chosen emissaries. “So Lionel goes?” Candy inquires, before explaining that he himself cannot attend this year as he has a hectic schedule. “I’m in the south of France tomorrow morning, Cap Fountain, and then back in the afternoon for Australia Day with my wife. It’s my 40th on Wednesday, then Thursday I leave for Australia for a wedding ... Then I’m going to Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, home. One day in each.”

. . .

Our starters arrive, along with two generous glasses of Chablis. Candy attacks his huge prawns with vigour. He explains that the restaurant belongs to a friend, Richard Caring, a restaurateur and rival property developer. My sole is exquisite but far too plentiful for a starter. Hoping for a good interval between courses, I tell Candy there are a lot of different versions of how he and Christian came to be where they are and ask him which is the right one.

“There are a lot of opinionated people in this industry,” he says dismissively before giving a detailed account of their early career. The Candys grew up in Surrey, the sons of an Anglo-Italian father, who ran his own advertising production company, and a Greek-Cypriot mother. After attending Epsom College, Christian went to King’s College, London, to read business management while Nick studied human geography at Reading university.

The pair dipped a toe into the property market in 1995 with a £6,000 loan from their grandmother and a promise from their father to guarantee the mortgage for a £122,000 one-bedroom apartment in Fulham. Nick, then working at J Walter Thompson as a junior advertising executive, repainted and recarpeted the apartment. Eighteen months later, the brothers sold it for a £50,000 profit. The next purchase, six months on, netted them £109,000.

Hoping to emulate the success of the Saatchi brothers’ brand, Saatchi & Saatchi, Nick and Christian set up Candy & Candy, an interior design company, in 1999 and accelerated their property buying. By the end of the decade, the brothers had garnered a reputation in west London’s high-end property market as savvy buyers, attracting backing from the deep-pocketed Qatari government. “That’s why Hollywood scriptwriters have been phoning us saying, ‘We’d like to write a story about you,’ because it’s quite a success story,” says Candy.

He concedes, though, that a lot of his achievement was down to luck. “There is a time and place for all things to be successful. There is fate and destiny and opportunity, and you need all three things in line at the same time.” So would things be different if he had got into property later? “Very different, and we don’t pretend otherwise.”

. . .

The Candys are the latest in a line of brothers to reach the top of the British property market. Among those to have made, and occasionally lost, fortunes in real estate are the Reubens, the Tchenguizs, and the Barclays. Nick puts the Candys’ success down to the unquestioning reliance and trust between brothers and a visceral rapport that cannot be taught in business school. The brothers speak to each other 20 times a day: “We call it OCDC,” Nick explains, “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Candy.”

Industry rivals have been critical of the Candys’ methods, arguing that they use hype and spin to give an inflated impression of their own activities. One claim, frequently levelled at the Candys in property circles, is that they have created an inflated market for the value of OHP. By so publicly setting such high benchmark prices, the brothers have, their detractors posit, developed a property that has decoupled from the economic reality of the surrounding market.

“They want to be associated with all these crazy transactions and create a sense of being among the super-rich,” a veteran property investor behind some of London’s best-known buildings tells me a few days after the lunch.

A different waiter stops by the table with a platter of fresh sole for Candy’s inspection. Candy nods and the man heads back to the kitchen. Moments later, both our main courses arrive. Candy’s steaming fish looks small and healthy; my steak, weighty and rather too-well seared for the “medium rare” I’d requested. He is on a diet, he explains, and offers me some of his peas. “I lost a stone last year. I want to lose another stone this year if I can.”

I try to think of a polite way of asking Candy about the dawn of absurd wealth in his life and how it has changed him. I say that his unaffected attachment to money – and its spoils – is very apparent in his press cuttings. His interviewers seem besotted with his riches and resort to vague platitudes. “Ebullient” ranks among the favourite.

“It’s a brand. You want people to have the right opinion. The most important thing we can do is show more and more people our products. The more people that have a true reflection of the Candy & Candy brand, hopefully, more people will come forward. If it’s depicted badly in the press or not how we want it, then it’s going to have a negative impact on clients coming forward,” he says.

So he must spend time worrying about his media image, I suggest. Not at all, he says, waving the question away. “We don’t really spend much time on the press strategy.”

We order coffee – a macchiato for him and a black filter coffee for me – and Candy begins explaining his business plans beyond property. As well as wanting to push into new media – he has, he says, bought into a small social media business though he won’t reveal the name – he will be giving traditional news outlets competition with the next edition of Candy. “We will break news. It is going to be something the FT will want to be involved with. I have got some really interesting friends and contacts.”

As we collect our coats and head outside, Candy suggests another meeting. “I would like to have a lunch at One Hyde Park. We can ask Lionel. I can ask a few people – it will be an interesting lunch.” Only after I submit the expenses account do I think to ask my boss about Candy’s spin on their friendship. How well does he know Candy? Hardly at all, it turns out.

Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent


20 Mount Street, London W1

Sole goujons £10.75

Dublin Bay prawns £24.00

Rib steak £34.00

Grilled sole £39.00

Mashed potato £4.25

Steamed peas £3.75

Glass of Chablis Chaude

Ecuelle x2 £26.50

Bottle of Kingsdown

sparkling water x2 £9.50

Coffee Gratis

Cover charge £4.00

Total (incl service) £175.78

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