10 on the Weekend – Paul Williams: “Politicians Meddle in Successful Programs to Their Detriment”

Ten On The Weekend is a weekly feature on IMI, the concept of which is simple: Each weekend, we ask the same ten questions to a different industry figure, letting readers get to know the interviewee on a more personal and informal level than they might in an ordinary business setting.

This weekend’s guest is Paul Williams, CEO of La Vida Europe.

How do you spend your weekends?
It’s never easy to put down work at the weekend. We moved house last year and that’s absorbed a lot of free time. Likewise, family time with my wife, as well as my daughter and son, who are both in their early twenties. We have some fantastic countryside on our doorstep in Buckinghamshire just west of London and I like to spend time out on my mountain bike at the weekend but I’ll always find time to prioritize watching football when my team, Everton are playing.

We’re fortunate enough to have a structure and a great team at La Vida that keeps me away from individual client demands. So it does mean whenever I do work at the weekends it can be the more enjoyable blue-sky thinking and planning that is hard to attend to during a busy week.

What are your top three business goals this year?
We have just been included in this year’s Financial Times 1000 Europe’s Fastest-Growing Companies. We hope to be included again in 2021, which would be quite an achievement given the level of growth over three years that is needed to qualify. But we’re confident we can be there again and growth for 2020 remains one of our key goals.

Second, continuing our diversification. No one programme is more than 20% of our revenue now and we are active on more than 15 programmes. We expect any single dependence to come down further this year largely driven by growth in our new markets. For our offering to clients, it’s important for us to have that balance as it helps us offer truly independent advice. But equally important is that it mitigates any risks in programs we deal with and allows us the flexibility to walk away from any country or program due to change or commercial reasons.

Third, we’ll be looking at the next stage of our expansion. We have one central office now that deals with thousands of enquiries and our consultants have witnessed every possible program, client country, and client situation. It gives us strength in knowledge and expertise in one centre so that – with a single call – our clients find what they need. Our challenge going forward is rolling that out without compromising our margins and quality of service.

What’s your biggest business concern right now?
The perception the industry has and our difficulty in countering the negative press that arises from a few instances despite the many positive aspects of the industry that we have. I feel, sometimes, that our industry is on the back foot, defending and justifying rather than promoting the positives and taking the initiative. It’s not surprising given the conservative background from which our industry evolved. But the world and our industry are changing fast and we need to adapt. Let’s all get a bit bolder and start getting some positive news out there!

Which book is on your night-stand right now?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s an insightful look at the development of human society and how we got to where we are today. Despite the title, it’s not that brief. I’m also reading The Flight of the Golden Geese: How the 1% Matter to the 99%. It was written around five years ago before the recent explosion of programmes in our industry. But it questions how countries with progressive tax systems have an extreme overdependence on the top 1% of taxpayers and what options those 1% may have in a world with increasing mobility and choice. [Editor’s note: Flight of the Golden Geese was co-authored by David Lesperance, a frequent contributor to IMI and the subject of his own 10 on the Weekend interview.]

How and when did you first get into the investment migration industry?
La Vida has been operating since 2005 promoting real estate for international buyers. Back in 2012, we learned of the initiative by the Spanish government to issue a golden visa for a EUR160,000 real estate investment. We spent the next year developing our marketing and web presence ready to be first movers and corner this exciting market!

When it finally launched at $500,000 without any government communication or support it was a big disappointment in a small corner. We gave a lot of free advice and got little back. So, we looked at neighbouring Portugal and went about building a structure and business model there. It took another six months to finalise our first client. A year later, we launched goldenvisas.com and rapidly built our programme offering from there, first in Europe and then worldwide.

What was your proudest moment as a service provider?
It’s difficult to pick one moment. But perhaps our inclusion in this year’s Financial Times European Top 1000 Fastest Growing Companies is a culmination of many of our achievements over the last few years resulting in sales today in over 80 countries across 15 programmes.

We’ve remained focused and chosen our partners carefully in an industry that has many distractions. Our focus solely on promoting gives us the ability to advise clients across many programmes without a conflicting agenda.

But I’m most proud of the team we’ve built enabling us to achieve this. Their calmness and the systems and structures we have, which does not see us unduly stretched or overwhelmed, meeting our clients’ needs while maintaining our margins and not having to compromise on quality as we continue our growth path.

Which investment migration market development has surprised you the most in the last year?
Perhaps the ability and temptation for politicians to interfere and amend successful programmes to their detriment. We saw it in Cyprus last year, which has seen its programme suffer from the changes introduced and we are likely to see it soon in Portugal. The meddling may well continue on an EU level as politicians forget the experiences of 2008 – 2012.

These programmes helped to generate investment for the likes of Greece, Portugal, and Cyprus who faced potential catastrophes without economic growth in those subsequent years. 

But perhaps most surprising is the continuing delays our clients face with applying for some programmes. If only some of the energy of government, ideas, and reforms could be focused on those issues. If you look at these programmes as products within a business environment you would be hard-pressed to find similar commercial situations where a customer wants to pay you several hundred thousand dollars or euros and you take 12 months or more to accept it. Increasing competition between programmes will surely focus the mind on these issues and the best programmes will prosper.

If you could go 10 years back in time, what business decision would you change?
Luckily not many. But we had one disastrous JV contract three years back that took investment and failed miserably bringing in zero revenue while diverting valuable resources. We exited after six months but we learned lots of lessons. Focus on your core market, cash is king, ask the difficult questions, careful what you sign, and if it looks too good to be true it probably is.

What investment migration industry personality do you most admire?
There are a few. Chris Kälin, for selling an idea to St. Kitts that helped form our industry and the work he did in building Henley & Partners to what it is today. Also Armand Arton for his philanthropy work and what he has achieved with the Global Citizen Foundation. But also Christian Henrik Nesheim for his work in building IMI Daily as an invaluable resource in understanding what is happening within our industry and also a voice in support of it to the outside world which is much needed. (I’d like to add that I have not been paid for any of this.)

If all goes according to plan, what will you be doing five years from now?
I’m unlikely to be permanently lying on a beach within that time as I enjoy being involved in business day-to-day. I don’t see my position as CEO at La Vida changing but I hope that what I do within my role will evolve to focus solely on our strategic direction as we grow and build our business.

More from the 10 on the Weekend interview series:

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