Alex Vik: The Groundbreaker

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

Alexander Vik.

He was inspired to play golf at Harvard after seeing love story, built two billion-dollar companies and designed and created acclaimed hotels in Uruguay. Oh, and his vineyard in chile won best winery experience on the planet. Meet the "Most interesting man in the world", Monaco's Alexander Vik. 

ALEXANDER VIK earned his first real estate commission at age thirteen. “When my father and his close friend, Erling Persson, the founder of H&M, sold a house that I recommended they buy, they gave me a share of the profit,” recalls Vik as he sips a jus d’orange pressé at the Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo.

The Swedish-born Norwegian’s passion for property was sparked while still at school in Djursholn during the required 7th grade work experience when he spent three weeks at Urban Linde, a local real estate agency.

“These were the days before data entry,” describes the 65-year-old, “so there was not a lot to do other than answering the phone and running errands. With time on my hands, I’d read all about properties for sale and what had been sold and became knowledgeable about the local real estate market.”

The teen became a valuation resource for his realestate-investing dad. “On Sundays, we would pick up a newspaper to visit houses that were for sale. For example, I’d point out that 340-square-meter house down the street sold for 250,000 kroner giving my father detailed information about the market.”

A cross between Robert Palmer and Bill Clinton, Vik admits, “I’ve always loved to work and was always going to be a business entrepreneur.”

His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Uruguayan posted as Ambassador in Oslo, which is where his parents met. His mother, Susana Oneto, 21, married Erik Martin Vik, age 26.

“My paternal grandfather, Anders M. Vik, founded and owned auction houses which sold furs to worldwide clients who would come to Scandinavia for the auctions,” Vik says, adding his father moved from Norway to work for the Swedish auction house once he was married, which is where Vik was born and raised until he moved to the Canary Islands.

His father, now a Monaco resident (his mother died in 1998), expanded his real estate business to the Spanish archipelago off the coast of Morocco, and moved 14-yearold Vik and his two younger brothers, Erik and Gustav, to Gran Canaria, the second most populous of the Canary Islands. The family lived on a relatively isolated farm on the island’s hills.

Vik went to high school at the small and informal American School of Las Palmas and was exposed to U.S. education (history was his subject of preference). In addition to speaking Norwegian, Swedish, English and French, he mastered Spanish, as well as managing in other languages.

It was “a big change” for the active Vik. “In Sweden, I was working in a supermarket and picking up golf balls by hand at my local driving range from the age of twelve. In Gran Canaria, you couldn’t get a job at the local supermarket, much less at the golf course.”

For an athletic teen who had competed in ice hockey, football, table tennis, skiing, track and field and golf, there was little organized sport in Gran Canaria. “There was a golf course a few kilometers away so golf became my main sport.”

Within a year and half, the 16-year-old was traveling around Spain and Europe on his own to play golf in tournaments and by 18 had become the Norwegian champion, which he went on to repeat three more times, as well as winning the Nordic Championship.

There was no college golf in Europe, and even though Vik had never been to the U.S., having seen the movie Love Story made Harvard even more appealing than simply its exceptional reputation.

When he was accepted to Harvard, the young man used to “taking care of myself” was undaunted by the prospect of getting himself to Cambridge, Massachusetts. “These days, parents take kids to university with all their stuff. I took a plane with a suitcase and golf clubs from Las Palmas to JFK via Madrid, then to Boston, and then went by taxi to Cambridge.”

Vik enjoyed Harvard’s student scene—sharing accommodation (he and 20 or so were chosen by the assistant dean of Freshman to live in Massachusetts Hall), socializing, playing sports, studying and partying. With no business courses available at that time, he became involved in extra-curricular organizations, such as becoming general manager of the Harvard Political Review, and organizing fundraising mixers (parties) and other activities for the Economics Association and Golf Team.

Not only was he the individual Ivy League Golf Champion in his Freshman and Sophomore years (2nd his Junior year), Vik was also captain of the golf team for two years, All American for two years, All Ivy for four years and was inducted into the Harvard Hall of Fame. (His youngest daughter, Susana, is the third Vik to play golf at Harvard following sister Caroline, Class of 2010.)

The athletic star also played soccer for Harvard and was very active in several intramural sports representing Winthrop House, which in those years often won the Strauss Cup, Harvard’s intramural championship.

By Senior year, teeing off was less of a priority. That summer he was working two internships, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at a Zurich bank and then from to 4 to 10 p.m. at a U.S brokerage firm. “By this time, I was really interested in investing so when I went back to school in the fall I found a job at a brokerage firm in Boston.”

It was at a dorm room party Sophomore year in Winthrop House in 1976 when Vik met his future wife, Carrie, a sociology major at Tufts University, an Ali McGraw-like beauty.

Vik jokes that he went to Harvard “looking for Love Story’s Ali MacGraw and I found her.” The couple married six years later in New York, and partly raised their four kids in a comfortable home in Greenwich, Connecticut, built by a Rockefeller and owned by Carrie. (They moved to Monaco in 2001.)

After graduating from Harvard in 1978 with a degree in economics, Alexander Vik joined Lehman Brothers in New York.

“An analyst was the lowest position in the investment bank for those who have client engagement. I soon realized I wanted to be the client. So in 1980 I decided to become a stockbroker to start the journey to becoming an entrepreneur.”

For the next few years, Vik worked as a stockbroker and investor by day and, at night, he was investing in and developing New York City real estate initially with his father. By the mid-80s, he also headed insurance companies; after eight years he became a full-time entrepreneur.

“Had I wanted to do the same thing in Europe at the time it would have been harder. Capitalism and opportunity are alive and well in the U.S. and the American business culture and entrepreneurship are well organized with an ecosystem for financing, funding, going to market—many of the things you need to succeed.

“With our New York property projects we had been on the customer side of buying expensive asbestos abatement insurance—in the mid-Eighties those doing larger real estate renovations were mostly required to have such insurance although the risk of loss was very small. We thought that instead of buying asbestos insurance, we should be selling it to contractors, architects, principals and all others who were mandated to have it.”

Enter Vik Brothers Insurance in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1986. Vik was running the strategic side while his brother, Gustav, was in charge of operations and day-today business. The siblings “kept trying, buying up more property and casualty companies. We built it up to half a billion in revenues. Buying, merging, building and improving small insurance companies is very challenging so we were always looking for how to make the companies more efficient.”

When the internet came along, Vik understood his company’s insurance activities should be automated and linked using the internet as a platform. “We set out to build an internet-based insurance company but it was early days, 1996, and it was very difficult to convince even our own people since they were busy with their day-today work and the technology was still in its infancy.”

They sold Vik Brothers Insurance in 1997 and began founding internet businesses, including an internet insurance exchange which proved ahead of its time. Vik was still an active investor in capital markets and real estate, including investing in software companies, since 1980. In 1998 he continued to invest in more internet and software businesses through the internet holding company, Scandinavia Co., which later became Xcelera. “It was the boom, everything was possible.”

Xcelera was referred to as the “biggest dot-com bubble stock of the era” with a one-year 54,000% rise, trading at 21 cents a share in April 1999 to $112.50 in March 2000, which lead to a valuation of $11.7 billion.

“It definitely went up a lot but there were many internet companies at that time that went up a tremendous amount. We started with a small company already in the public market so bypassed the venture capital process, and the appreciation was very high but actually comparable to others.” 

"People would describe me as, patient and persistent, decisive and loyal, and highly energetic. 

Their investments included Mirror Image Internet, a content distribution and edge computing (CDN) company in Woburn, Massachusetts; Inktomi, a pre-Google search engine company; Exodus, an internet data center hosting company; a Swedish company for downloading music; and Confirmit, a Norwegian VOC and market research software company.

The business mogul founded Eluma, a digital assistant app that “could predictably download content, including advertising useful to you, before you clicked on it, in order to speed up your internet experience and make it more relevant.”

In 2003, he also co-founded Protegrity Corporation, a data protection and privacy company, which he is optimistic about. “I am very positive about what data, AI and machine learning can do for society when handled well. The right to privacy for all individuals is enshrined by United Nations as a fundamental human right. Data protection, the security of the data, is critical to maximize the capability and growth of AI/ML. Protegrity excels in making the data completely secure, exchangeable and usable by partners and customers alike.”

Vik balances work with play. If he’s not on the green—he was captain for Team Europe at the first St. Moritz U.S. Celebrity Golf Cup for the Ryder Cup Trust last year (see p. 9)—or playing other sports, he hits the gym and takes classes with energy and music; he is known for dancing the night away with his friends and family. “Throughout my entire life, these have been great ways for me to decompress and manage pressure and stress.” Usually it is “super fun” but in 1997 his joie de vivre and love for all things outdoors did get him in trouble.

During a heli-skiing trip in Blue River, British Columbia, with a group that included Gustav and Glen Plake, a pioneer of extreme skiing with his signature dyed Mohawk, Vik got caught in a big avalanche. “It was the last run of the day and I was in front of the group when the pilot told me there was an urgent call from the office. I went to the front seat of the helicopter while it was sitting on the mountain top and put on the headphones but there was no connection. I hung up and jumped out of the helicopter to ski but I was now last in the group on a south-facing very steep slope with cliffs 700 yards below us. And I heard a boom.”

The entire mountain fractured and Vik and two other skiers were swept at 100 kph down the mountain over cliffs. “It was like standing on a big staircase and the staircase disappears. The rest is the story that has been pieced together from what people told me since I do not remember anything more.”

His brother saw a giant cloud of snow roaring down the mountain and then Vik—who was carrying one of the emergency backpacks—disappeared with the other two skiers, eventually being thrown over 100-foot cliffs. Plake located the first beeping signal, which happened to be Vik. They had to dig with skis and poles to reach him buried five feet under hard avalanche snow. When they found him, more than ten minutes later, his heart had stopped and he wasn’t breathing.

Fate would play its part that day as 30 trauma doctors happened to be skiing at the resort. They were flown to the site and were able to revive Vik.

The other skiers were not so lucky. One broke his neck and died at the scene and the other, who was buried for 40 minutes, was revived but brain dead from the lack of oxygen.

“I had pneumonia from inhaling snow and short-term memory loss from oxygen deprivation but miraculously no other injuries. Immediately after leaving the English Hospital in Kamloops, B.C. and arriving in New York, I had to have a long and difficult business meeting. It was definitely a challenge.”

“Building billion dollar businesses from scratch and building a world-winning vineyard from scratch are similar.”

 

The man does not shy away from a challenge. For the last 12 years, Sebastian Holdings, of which Vik was sole shareholder and director, has been entangled in a legal battle with Deutsche Bank that at one point saw Sebastian Holdings counterclaim, for what might have amounted to billions.

Sebastian Holdings became active in 2002 and was very successful in the investment world. “We managed capital ourselves and allocated capital to third party managers. Sebastian Holdings had huge net worth after a few years,” explains Vik.

Sebastian Holdings bought a sizable stake in Vivendi and drew headlines in 2006 by trying to encourage the French company to sell assets. Since Vivendi was resistant, Sebastian Holdings, at Vivendi’s suggestion, made an offer to purchase the whole company and sell off many of the assets. Unfortunately, the offer was not accepted.

In 2006, a third party foreign exchange manager named Klaus Said was allocated $35 million to manage in a segregated account at Deutsche Bank, with various limits on margining. Instead of losing a maximum of $35 million, the amount he managed, they somehow managed to lose $750 million.

For Vik, “Deutsche Bank was grossly negligent and engaged in willful misconduct—it didn’t book, didn’t record, didn’t margin, didn’t report accurately—and together with Klaus Said put on a massive amount of trades that we were unaware of and which should not and could not have been entered into but for Deutsche Bank’s gross negligence.”

In 2009, Deutsche Bank sued Sebastian Holdings in England “on a claim relating to trading losses Sebastian Holdings had incurred in connection with a trading account it had opened for Klaus Said with Deutsche Bank.”

The bank’s misconduct, according to the judge, was waived by the conduct of the third-party manager of $35 million, even though, Klaus Said claimed he never waived anything nor had any such authority and, as Vik points out, “there were written agreements with Sebastian Holdings, and the agreements expressly could only be modified jointly in writing by the president of the company, myself and the officers of bank."

“The judge decided, in my opinion, erroneously, for the bank. Sebastian Holding was allowed an appeal in London but the appeal was stifl ed before it could take place.” The judge awarded Deutsche Bank $243 million.

In 2013, after the judge ruled in favor of Deutsche Bank against Sebastian Holdings, Deutsche Bank further requested that the court hold Alexander Vik personally liable for part of their legal fees. The same judge agreed and granted Deutsche Bank’s non-party cost application that Vik immediately paid.

“Being an entrepreneur is very challenging with great ups and downs. I have made many mistakes in my life and sometimes there is not enough time or resources but I always keep trying to do my best. Many of the companies we have started have been successful and many have failed. It is very diffi cult at inception to tell which will go which way. It is important to learn from one’s mistakes, which itself is a challenge. As they say ‘to err is human.’”

While some people splurge on a bottle of wine, Vik took this passion much further by investing in 11,000 acres of terroir in Chile to create an exceptional wine from scratch.

His appreciation for viticulture stems from many summers on his grandparents’ farm in Norway, where he would be planting, growing, picking and selling raspberries, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes. Then in the Nineties, when he did marathons and triathlons, he was visiting Bordeaux, his long training runs would take him through beautiful vineyards where he became fascinated with the concept of terroir and how microclimates, soil, exposure, drainage, water and the elements all come together to make a crop unique to a given place.

“It was very surprising to me that world famous vineyards would be seemingly randomly interspersed with those lesser known. In the Medoc most vineyards are ranked under the 1855 Offi cial Classifi cation and only one vineyard has been able to signifi cantly improve the quality of its wines and be reclassifi ed since 1855. In the rest of the world, the constant variable is change, so quite a contrast.”

Almost a decade after running through the vines in Bordeaux, Vik became convinced that he could fi nd in South America one of the world’s best terroir that would produce a wine on par with or better than the best wines of the world. In 2004, he put together a scientifi c team of geologists, agronomists, viticulturalists and oenologists to search the continent for the perfect terroir for red wine to enable them “to produce wines that would enter the pantheon of the best wines of the world.” After two years of analysis, they chose an 11,000 acre property in the end of Chile’s Millahue Valley, a two-hour drive south of Santiago, which included six smaller valleys which Vik describes as “each having its own micro-climate, distinct exposures”—all within a wind-tunnel from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains—cooled by Pacific coastal breezes and winds from high up in the Andes mountains generating huge consistent thermal amplitude.

“In Millahue, the sunshine and luminosity are very abundant and constant so providing coolness and thermal amplitude is critical as it slows down the maturation process allowing all of the elements of the grape to fully ripen before harvest. In addition, the lack of rain in the fall allows the team to harvest each micro block at the optimum time. The results are great grapes and amazing wines.”

He was told within the wine industry that until the vines are 40 to 50 years old, he won’t get top quality. “I don’t have 50 years to wait.” With chief winemaker Cristian Vallejo, Vik and Carrie started planting Viña Vik in 2006 and paused in 2014. They took hundreds of decisions with the goal of producing great wines in a short period of time. To achieve the objectives, a lot of individual attention is given to help the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Syrah and Merlot vines grow and produce the perfect grapes.

“We tend to each of our 300 micro blocks individually to help them produce the perfect grapes and then let the grapes express themselves in an exceptionally pure natural and delicious wine with as little intervention as possible from us. The wines produced are already of outstanding quality, receiving accolades around the world. I like to call them baby Mozarts, already at a young age they are producing masterpieces.”

They must be doing something right. Last year Viña Vik was voted the world’s “Best Vineyard Experience” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and earned the No. 10 spot on the 2020 “World’s Best Vineyard” list.

“The wine world in general went towards riper, concentrated extracted wines, especially in the New World and is now trending back towards more elegance. We are taking the best elements of the New World—color, body, fruit, density—and marrying it with the finesse, elegance and balance of the Old World. It’s the hardest thing to do but we are making very good progress and becoming more confident.”

The quality of the wines is on a clear upward trend as the vines get more established they learn more. Each vintage is generally better than the last one with the 2018 being a truly exceptional one. There are four wines produced at Viña Vik. The flagship VIK ($140), Milla Cala ($39), is the introduction to VIK and La Piu Belle ($79), “a more New World expression; voluptuous, very round in the mouth, a delicious wine” with a uniquely designed bottle of the goddess of VIK, and the Piu Belle Rosé ($25).

When asked why he didn’t just buy an existing reputable vineyard, Vik’s answer is “five-fold.” First, buying an existing vineyard “limits you in quality and quantity” and second, Vik likes building companies, although had he fully understood the challenges he would face with the winery, “I may not have done anything at all.”

His third reason comes down to the “engaging and motivating” aspects of starting from scratch— acquiring a large property, clearing the land, the detailed mapping, clonal selection, optimizing rootstock and planting. “Carrie and I established an architectural competition where we selected Smiljan Radic and Loreto Lyon to design the winery. We worked for six years with them on the design and the building of the winery, which both beautiful and innovative, became a work of art in and of itself.”

He says the fourth reason is that “viticulture is farming” but, in addition, there is a rich history and culture of wine: it is ancient, noble and rich. I have enjoyed things I hadn’t even imagined at the start of this venture, such as producing a song about La Piu Belle, the Goddess of VIK.”

His fifth reason is that the richness and depth of the wine culture was further expanded “when Carrie and I designed and built a 22-suite glass living art retreat featuring a sculpted bronzed titanium roof on top of hill in the middle of the vineyard.” This proved to be so successful that they unveiled Puro Vik in 2019, an additional seven glass bungalows cantilevered into space among the trees on the steep hillside below that work in tandem with the original hotel.

In all of their properties, every individual and common room features singular and unique installations with collaborating artists. Vik himself has sometimes offered his own artistic skills— painting, creating artworks and designing furniture.

At the same time that he was creating the vineyard in Chile, Vik was simultaneously introducing José Ignacio in Uruguay, to the world through three exceptional retreat hotels—Estancia Vik, Playa Vik and Bahia Vik. Since the 2009 debut of their first property, Estancia Vik, all three have been recognized among not just the best in South America but also around the world. As at Vik Chile, they offer uniquely rich, singular experiences.

Vik and Carrie also designed an aesthetic gem of a hotel, Galleria Vik Milano, which contains nearly one hundred art installations and opened in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan in November 2019. This is the first time the power couple have created a property in a city and inside a national monument often referred to as the living room of Milan. Is there anything the world’s most interesting man can’t do?

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

Nancy Heslin is an established journalist and lifestyle writer. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Monaco magazine (bimonthly in English) , since the magazine's 2nd issue . Launched in November 2018, Forbes Monaco is part of the Forbes family, with its 7 million readers and 71 million monthly website visitors worldwide.