Analysis / The Big Interview / The Big Interview: Amanda Staveley

The Big Interview: Amanda Staveley

Finding Amanda Staveley’s office on Park Lane proves as elusive as discovering what the financier actually does for a living.

It turns out that the entrance is round the back. Similarly, putting your finger on how Staveley justifies her multi-million-pound fees is just as confusing. She inhabits a rarefied world where people pocket millions of pounds for apparently just making introductions.

She hit the headlines back in 2008, as the golden girl who kept Barclays out of government hands by negotiating a £3.5billion lifeline from the Middle East. For that deal she pocketed £30million.

The reality, she tells me, involves a lot of hard negotiating and, crucially, investing her own cash alongside that of her clients.

Staveley, 41, has become a tabloid newspaper favourite: a glamourous former model and girlfriend of Prince Andrew, whose mother was a champion showjumper. Her career seems to have been an effortless canter, from running a restaurant to opening a technology conference centre, before brokering the acquisition of Manchester City Football Club by Sheikh Mansour bin-Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, now deputy prime minister of the UAE. Her fee was reportedly £10million. In March, she advised Al Habtoor Group on the acquisition the Intercontinental Budapest hotel. She is currently advising Middle East investors on a £1billion bid for three top London hotels: Claridges, The Connaught and The Berkeley.

Staveley makes her entrance grandly late, having kept me waiting for 45 minutes. I should be irritated. But what nobody prepares you for is how disarmingly funny she is. At one point during our conversation I think both of us were on the verge of helpless giggles.

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Click here to read her top five tips for buying and selling

Staveley occupies a unique position as the only western woman advising Middle East governments on business. So, what has she learned sitting alongside these powerful men at the negotiating table?

“The more successful the person is, the less ego they have. I’ve found that the senior principals don’t have egos. The ego problem increases the further down the line you get – and especially with advisers such as accountants and lawyers,” she says in her warm Yorkshire accent.

The most important ability to bring to the negotiating table is the ability to listen, she says. Staveley and her company PCP Capital Partners like to do their own drafting when it comes to heads of agreement. She tries to keep the accountants and lawyers out until as late as possible. She plans the deal on paper almost like a flow chart figuring out various scenarios. “The more that you can agree up front the easier it will be before you bring in professional advisers,” she says.

What advice does she have for any businessman looking to sell their company? You need to make sure that your buyer isn’t just acquiring your company as a quick turnaround to sell on, she says. “From day one we set out a plan that everyone understands what they need from each other.” The seller should think about his exit strategy much earlier than they do. Companies often leave it too late to put themselves up for sale where all the growth has been extracted, so there’s no future left for the buyer.

And young entrepreneurs need to make sure they’re not being bought to keep their disruptive business out of the market. She has seen bigger companies buy smaller ones just to keep their disruptive technology on the shelf.

When it comes to acquiring a company, buyers need to ask if the acquisition fits with their strategic direction. A key issue is always going to be whether the company is worth what the seller wants – sellers often putting too high a value on their business. And does the company have stable revenue and stable profits?

The most important factor however is the management team. “We won’t buy a business that doesn’t have exceptional management. It’s absolutely critical that you provide incentive plans for management teams once the deal goes through.”

Staveley is feted as the woman who has the ear of vastly wealthy Gulf State investors. Three quarters of her investors are based in the Gulf. Increasingly, however, her client base include Americans and the French.

Americans, of course, have a different attitude when it comes to business. They like everythinng locked down in watertight contracts. Arabs, by contrast, still do things on what they call a “handshake habibi [friend]” basis – their word is their bond, an anathema to American corporate lawyers. But Staveley says her Arab investors are just as assiduous when it comes to due diligence as their western counterparts. “A lot of people think that Arab companies aren’t fastidious about doing due diligence, but that’s just rubbish,” she says.

Concepts of time are different though. Negotiations with Gulf States can take much longer than western businessmen are used to.

“I’ve seen chief executives of big companies kept waiting for days to meet the right person. Timelines can be slightly different… your investor may want to build a personal relationship. Plus, the Gulf States are hugely hospitable.”

She talks about how she risked offending her hosts when she nearly severed her right hand walking through a plate glass window – using your left hand to eat and drink is deeply offensive to Arabs. Staveley gamely struggled on. The biggest difference, she maintains, is that deals may have to be structured using Islamic finance – Muslim investors are forbidden to either pay or receive interest.

She looks skittish for a moment when I suggest that it’s difficult for most people to understand what anybody does to justify these multi-million pound fees. “I like building deals and building value for clients. The reason why we get paid a lot is that is that I get good results for my clients, and sometimes the deal may not come off, which means that I’ve spent all this time for nothing. I’m a good negotiator, a good strategist and a hard worker… I’m a perfectionist, you see.”

She reveals that, unlike most intermediaries, she invests her own cash alongside her investors. “You’ve got to be prepared to put skin in the game. It’s easier to persuade investors when you yourself are in the deal.”

Staveley hasn’t always been in the winner’s enclosure. She lost everything when the company she sold her tech conference centre to collapsed, and found herself sleeping rough. “That was the worst moment. I’ve faced near bankruptcy, and I’ve also seen extreme wealth,” she says, gesturing to her exquisitely tasteful apartment with its marble floors and Persian rugs. Photographs of Staveley greeting Arab potentates are everywhere.

“I don’t much like how I used to be – the younger Amanda Staveley,” she says ruefully. “These days I’m nervous about debt, which I used to litter around like confetti. Everybody has peaks and troughs. Do what you love and you will be successful. You can hit rock bottom again anytime… so what I say is, be kind to people.”