By 2009, Richard Homburg’s glitzy, buzz-worthy annual office parties had become corporate Halifax’s post-Christmas social hot ticket. Two hundred of the city’s elite investors, investment advisors, developers, lawyers, accountants and assorted corporate hangers-on would gather in the January freeze to mix and mingle at Homburg Citadel, Homburg Invest’s global corporate headquarters. A modern building insinuated into the base of Citadel Hill in the shadow of Halifax’s Town Clock, it has a commanding a view of the downtown banking and financial towers.
“Anyone who was anyone would be there,” recalls Kevin Cox, the then-managing editor and investment columnist at allnovascotia.com, a business web site, who was one of the few journalists to score an invitation. While the catered canapés and well-chosen wines may have been “marvelous,” Cox was more interested in the events’ journalistic possibilities. The receptions usually capped a Homburg Invest board meeting, “and there was always the sense of big things happening.”
The highlight of the evening was invariably Richard Homburg’s . . . “Ah, I’m not quite sure how to describe them,” admits an investment advisor who was also a regular at the soirées. “I called them Richard Homburg’s ‘state-of-theworld’ speeches.”
After about an hour of socializing, Homburg would take to the microphone and pontificate for anywhere from half an hour to an hour: about governments — local, national, international — about global politics, world economics, interest rates, the investment climate, Asia, Europe, the future . . . His own publicly traded company was often little more than an aside in these ramblings, but he was always worth listening to, says the investment advisor, “because he wasn’t your typical corporate CEO. He was eccentric and he would say outlandish things.”
And because Richard Homburg was also incredibly successful — a self-made immigrant entrepreneur who headed a $4-billion, Halifax-based global real estate company with assets in Canada, the United States and Europe — people paid attention.
“He wasn’t a name dropper,” adds Cox, “but there was a depth of knowledge and he gave the sense that ‘I know this’ from the inside. ‘When I was in Austria . . . When I was in Germany . . . ’ He was very much a world citizen.”
No wonder then that Homburg’s January 2009 ‘state-of-the-world’ address was so eagerly anticipated.
In 2008, the world had gone straight to hell on a runaway train filled with corporate collapses, bank bailouts and murky financial finagling. It was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and many traced the knocked-down dominoes of major banks, investment houses, financial institutions and economies to the gigantic whoosh from the belatedly pricked balloon of an insanely out-of-control real estate market.
Real estate, of course, was Richard Homburg’s life. His own businesses had been far from immune to the economic meltdown. Just two months before, Homburg Invest had announced it was pulling out of a $128-million joint venture to buy more than 30 U.S. properties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Homburg blamed his change of heart on “recent unprecedented financial events [that] have caused the virtual financial collapse of world capital markets.”
Surely, Richard Homburg would have something to say about what had been going on in the world.
He did. The financial system is crumbling, he complained. The banking system is in a mess because of debt. There will be at least two more years of down markets. But . . . but Homburg Invest was just fine, thank you very much.” Those things are happening to other people,” Cox paraphrases Homburg’s essential argument, “because they’re not as smart as me.”
The investment advisor was aghast. “The world had become a very scary place, but Homburg continued to wear these rose-coloured glasses when it came to his own company. And yet his own company was in exactly the same situation, and he had done nothing to protect it, reduce its debt load. He was always the ultimate salesman, the guy who always had an explanation whenever anything went wrong. The problem was the market stopped buying.”
Shortly after that, the investment advisor stopped recommending Homburg Invest to his clients. He wasn’t the only one.
By November 2011, when the Toronto Stock Exchange finally suspended trading in Homburg Invest, the company’s shares — which had traded as high as $70 a share in 2007 — were worth just 80 cents.
What had gone so wrong so quickly — and why?
RICHARD HOMBURG’S up-by-the-bootstraps tale, as he’s unfolded it in various interviews over the years, begins in the Netherlands in the aftermath of World War II. The first seminal event in young Richard’s life — his father’s death — happened when he was just four years old. His mother then married a man who didn’t have much hope for his stepson. He told Richard he’d be lucky to end up a garbage collector.
At first, that pessimistic prediction seemed about right. Richard dropped out of school at the age of 12 and began working as a drudge in a local bakery, hefting 50-kg sacks of flour. But he saved his guilders and, perhaps to prove to himself “my stepfather had no control over me,” he invested in his first piece of real estate even before he was of legal age.
By the time he was 20, he had established his own business, an import-export company he optimistically called Homburg International. “The idea,” he explained, “was that I was going to do it more than just in the Netherlands. I dreamed about going to Australia or Canada . . . I had my mind set that I was going to be successful; I had my mind set about what car I wanted to drive and all the things I wanted to do.”
In 1972 when he was still only 23, Homburg traveled to Nova Scotia to visit relatives. “There was a great beach,” he would recall years later. “I just had a great summer and kept hanging around.” He established a beach-head for his import-export business, then invested his profits in local real estate. At first, he bought low-rent units in Dartmouth’s poor north end but, by 1977, he’d also acquired a firm that built houses and apartments. He leveraged each new property to acquire more — and more prime — real estate. He swallowed up properties — residential, commercial, industrial, undeveloped — in Alberta, British Columbia and the United States, as well as Nova Scotia. In 1991, he took control of Uni-Vest N.V., a publicly traded real estate fund in the Netherlands.
Ten years later, Homburg transformed himself into the chair and CEO of Homburg Invest — a new, publicly-traded company incorporated in Alberta, headquartered in Halifax and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange — in order to gain access to the cash he would need to fund his voracious global real estate appetite. “Unlike many real estate investment companies,” Homburg noted in his first annual report to shareholders, “we will not specialize in one specific type of real estate or one region of the country . . . We have set ambitious goals for Homburg Invest Inc. but we believe they are realistic.”
Richard Homburg more than achieved even his most ambitious goals. From just 28 properties with a net value of $89 million in 2001, Homburg Invest’s growth exploded exponentially. In one six-week period in 2005, for example, Homburg Invest closed deals in the Netherlands and Germany worth $1.2 billion. By 2006, Homburg boasted the company had not only joined the “billion-dollar club” but “we’re now focused on becoming a company with $8-billion in assets within five to seven years.”
Homburg’s universe did keep unfolding — and expanding — as he said it would. In 2007, the company bought Munich-based Infineon Technologies AG’s newly completed headquarters and business campus for $564 million; began developing 13 new properties in Calgary, including the $376-million Homburg-Harris commercial centre in the heart of downtown Calgary; announced plans to transform CN’s venerable Montreal train station and corporate office tower, which it had acquired for $370 million, into a “multi-use upscale” development; and forked over another $550 million to gobble up the assets of Montreal commercial landlord Alexis Nihon.
In 2007, the company’s year-over-year profit increased by 245 per cent — from $23 million in 2006 to $79.2 million.
By then, Homburg had acquired an $11.2-million corporate jet to ferry him between homes in the Netherlands and Nova Scotia, not to forget corporate offices and investment interests everywhere.
Though the company had become publicly traded, the company was really Richard Homburg. It reflected his passions and quirks. Since Homburg speaks Dutch, German and English, he insisted employees at his foreign holdings had to be multilingual too. After he almost died as the result of an illness, Homburg became a fitness fanatic, installing a gym in the office and pushing his own employees to be more fit.
Homburg also established himself as a major Maritime philanthropist, most notably donating $5 million to Saint Mary’s University in Halifax for construction of the Homburg Centre for Health and Wellness.
And somewhere along the line, he grew to like watches so much he bought a Chinese watch-making company. According to the company’s web site, Homburg “is one of the keenest collectors of exclusive watches with mechanical movements. He loves classical mopeds as well,” the website adds whimsically, but that is quite another story.
And then . . . the bottom fell out.
“Homburg’s growth plan worked so long as property values increased,” explains the investment advisor. “But he was so highly leveraged that once the markets turned, it became a house of cards.”
“Richard,” sums up Kevin Cox, “lost his magic touch.”
HOMBURG INVEST’S slippery downward slide was lightning-greased by global events over which Homburg had no control. His was far from the only company to go bust after over-borrowing during the heady global real estate boom. But there were other factors at play too. And most of them had to do with Richard Homburg. He had “put his name on the door,” as one investor described it to me, and that made him the personification — for good and ill — of his company.
“If you’re a private company you can be low profile,” Homburg once mused. “It’s between you, the tax department and how you feel when you look at yourself in the morning.”
As a publicly traded company, however, there were inevitable, pesky questions about how Homburg — who effectively owned 46 per cent of Homburg Invest and controlled 72.5 per cent of its shares — actually ran the company.
In one prospectus, for example, Homburg Invest says it paid $52.5 million in 2006 a variety of companies personally controlled by Richard Homburg in return for close to a dozen different “services,” including asset and construction management, property management, even insurance. In 2010, when Homburg Invest decided to roll its Canadian assets into a real estate investment trust, the company agreed to pay Homburg Canada — a private Homburg-controlled company that was responsible for overseeing the administrative side of Homburg Invest — $21.6 million in “termination fees” in addition to the $47 million it had paid for management services the year before. As one investment advisor deadpanned at the time: it was “a move that will raise some eyebrows.”
Although those related transactions were described in company documents, Cox, who regularly examined such corporate governance documents, confesses “Homburg’s spider web was the only one I could never penetrate.” Homburg wasn’t much help. No one but Richard Homburg was allowed to speak for the company and, when he did grant interviews, “they were more of an audience. He expected to be treated with a certain amount of deference.”
“He would have been a brilliant politician,” adds the investment advisor, who also found the Homburg network of inter-related companies impenetrable. “You’d ask a question he didn’t want to answer and he’d talk and talk, go off on five different tangents but he’d never answer your question.”
While no one seemed to fret too much about this lack of transparency when the company was flying high, the questions became more pointed after the company’s fortunes began to crumble.
In April 2010, the Dutch Authority for Financial Markets, a regulatory agency, formally ordered Homburg Invest to provide it with more information regarding a murky tax dispute between Richard Homburg and Dutch authorities.
What was that all about? No one knows for certain, even now, although Cox believes it may have had at least something to do with Homburg’s personal style. “Richard doesn’t take regulatory people seriously. Regulators worry about ‘i’s’ and ‘t’s.’ Richard thinks on a big scale.”
Homburg also clearly still continued to think “big” when it came to his company’s future — even after its future seemed all in its past.
“Homburg hammered in ‘08,” screamed a Halifax Herald headline over a report on Homburg’s $96-million loss in 2008. Four months later, Homburg had to tell shareholders — whose once-$70 shares were now worth less than $10 — they would receive no dividend that year. The next year, share values plummeted another four dollars.