During these past couple of months, we have been presenting you with our top management – the different people and personalities that make up our IBB Hotel Collection family. And to close this series off, we will be finishing with the top man himself – Sven von der Heyden, Founder and Chairman of Von der Heyden Group.
At a very young age, Sven von der Heyden was already very ambitious and achieved whatever he put his mind to. During this interview, Sven looks back at his past like it was yesterday and explains how it made him who he is today and how such experience has defined the values of the company, which he holds very close to his heart.
Give before you take
One of the top mantras which Sven lives by is to give before taking. He remembers the days when he was still a young boy, how the financial markets were always very close to him and how his interest paved the way to fulfilling dreams of his own, and in turn, of others through their dream careers.
Sven went on to explain how he first entered the financial markets, namely through a gentleman who his dad played golf with in Menorca. How a simple act of kindness of returning the gentleman’s shoes, after he had left them back at the golf course’s car park, landed him his first internship in the financial sector in London a coincidental meeting can indeed change everything and get you on the desired path. Back in a time with no internet, where a good old fax machine was the only way his father and this gentleman communicated, and after a bit of back and forth, Sven was officially offered an apprenticeship in London as an assistant in a stockbroker firm.
Sven was of course delighted, flew off to London in a matter of days. The little stint, which was supposed to be two to three months, turned into a total of eight months. At 19 years old, Sven had managed to learn a lot, but also by committing a lot of mistakes – “all the mistakes that you can commit,” in his own words. But he considered himself lucky and went on to get his broker certification, moving on to the floor and trading in the stock exchange.
“As a young fellow I felt like I was at the centre of the world, even though my job was of so little importance on the trading floor,” he explained.
Only in the fourth month he got to know who the gentleman that they played golf with in Menorca actually was. His uncle had asked about him, but Sven did not know who he really was, and in 1986 there was no internet to look someone up. The irony was that after asking around at the brokerage firm he worked at, he was handed a book which included a list of the Members of the Stock Exchange and found out that the gentleman was, in fact, the Chairman of the London Stock Exchange and major shareholder of Barclays de Zoete Wedd, the largest UK Guilt edge broker in the world at the time. He remembered how he went on to call him and finally, to meet this most humble man in person in his London tower. This remarkable anecdote has remained with him over the years and is one of his favourites to tell in his personal and professional life.
I realised that you always have to go an extra step yourself before you can ask favours from anybody. I brought the shoes back to the Scotsman and he offered me an internship in London without me expecting anything in return at the time.
The guiding principle of giving before taking has influenced the vision for the company; where the act of truly anticipating needs when ‘giving’ is something rare in the hospitality industry. To get rewarded – and not just by settling a bill or being tipped, a genuine smile or thank-you to an employee, is the true testament to a successful stay.
Guests only do this if in return we have first taken that extra step for them.
Your word has to be your bond
Following his internship, Sven returned to Munich and started a job at a bank. He was always looking for more experience and to advance his career. “I told the bank that I worked for that I wanted to work directly at the stock exchange rather than being grilled in the ledgers department for 4-5 years,” he remembers.
And so, his boss took him under his wing and gave him a chance with two live Reuters screens which had cost a fortune every month; Sven was never scared to ask for what he wanted and to simply go for it, and that attitude really shines through in where he is today and what he has managed to achieve. He remembered the days where he used to go to the stock exchange even when training in rather boring departments such as the domestic payment section of the bank; every single day, he showed his perseverance. “None of my fellow young colleagues did that!”, he recounted.
He also explained that at the stock exchange your word is everything, and this is, together with the lessons passed on from his father, how he learned this very important value. “In real life you can promise things which you can’t deliver and talk your way out of them, but in the stock exchange, there is no excuse whatsoever,” he explained. “Yours – mine – yours – mine. Full stop. You can ruin a bank with a phone call as a dealer. A dealer has a lot of responsibility. What I also learned in an even harder way from my father was that your word has to be your bond.” Apart from that, dealing with big numbers at a young age makes you very unemotional about money, a trade, he feels is helping a lot to distinguish between good and bad deals.
“Your word is your bond”, this is one of the missions of the IBB Hotel Collection and Cugó Gran: we comply with what we promise. Whilst there is always room for improvement he goes on, “we give the guest what we promise, and this goes on to build the trust in the brand, because trust is truly everything…”
He went on to explain how these were only the early days before he chose self-employment. When he realised that some colleagues were stalling him at the bank, partly because of his ambition but foremost because of his young age, he reached out to the head of the capital markets team and as a result, he found a niche in which the bank was not present yet. His boss first laughed because of his age and lack of experience, but when he proved he could do it, he was amazed.
Sven remembered the time when he asked his boss to establish relationships with smaller banks and to meet them personally – he was refused this request and when he did it just the same, on his own will, with his own car, and ended up not actually going through with it because of a heavy car accident due to heavy snow on the motorways to Austria, his clients respected him greatly as he even had to take personal holidays to go on this trip. Very quickly he became very successful as a dealer and made the bank a lot of money because he invested a lot of his personal time.
Again, this shows a relentless give and take attitude, something practised across all the IBB and Cugó Gran Hotel Collections and all the other Group´s endeavours.
Starting off entrepreneurial life
The final straw, and what led him to really pursue the self-employment path, was when he asked his boss for a bonus given his results for the bank and he was not satisfied with what was proposed.
This motivated him to start his own business. He went on to explain how things always happen for a reason. Due to a car accident he had, he ended up with a doctor who looked after the Bayern Munich football players. Sven is a Bayern Munich fan since he is 5 years old and never missed a home-game during his childhood when he was living in Munich. He also saw this as an opportunity to meet this famous doctor and even though the waiting time to see him was one year and a half, he managed to charm one of the receptionists and got in the next day out of pure determination. The doctor sent him to a German-American chiropractor, who, after seeing him, asked Sven to help him find a single family home with an elevator, something close to impossible to find at the time.
Being the ambitious man that he is, Sven, after his full-time job, would call every estate agent in Munich he could find in the yellow books (again, no internet at the time) looking for this impossible home, which he finally found through his persistence. He ended up getting 1/3 of the commission cut. He was also asked by the same doctor for a life insurance policy, something which was new to him, but which he also got him in combination with the financing for the house. He finally realised that this is what he wanted to do – help people but make money at the same time! So, what did he do? He started in private wealth management, and within a year, he managed to amass a total of 14 clients.
His clients loved him; he made good money, and he was finally doing what he loved to do. He bantered that with the money he made from his very first client he bought a laptop with a 286 processor and a first grey screen for 5,000 euros, a second-hand Audi A4 Quattro for the same amount and kept the rest at the bank as cash reserve, as he didn’t know how he would do as an asset manager with little experience but with vision and values.
In a few months the business grew like there was no tomorrow and in November 1989, the famous wall came down in Germany.
He went on to explain his love for history and remembered his school years, when German school kids in the West were allowed to visit Berlin at least once during their time at school.
“I loved Berlin so much that I voluntarily went on nearly every school trip every year. I always went up on the wooden platform located at the wall near the Brandenburg Gate and shouted, ‘Let the people out’.” Sven, being a people person, was and is strongly opinionated on the communist system and on the concept of closing people off. In fact, he mentioned that he loves to be amongst people, that he can’t take negativity and really loves positivity and being around individuals with a good energy, passion, and drive.
This is also an aspect that the IBB Hotel Collection is built upon as the company truly values its employees and they are always at the top of the list.
When the news came out that the frontier will open – a misinterpretation of the East German Government at the time – he reminisced pictures of people hugging each other, something that to the day he remembers as truly heart-warming and life-changing.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on TV at 8 pm – so, together with a friend we drove 680 km to Berlin through the night and at 4 am, I was dancing on the wall in Berlin with hundreds of others.”
His adventures to East Germany were what brought Sven to real estate. At the time, his West German clients paid very high taxes and they were constantly asking him for legal ways how to save on taxes. The solution came in the form of buying property in East Germany and getting the tax bonus scheme that existed during that time, introduced by the Government of the unified Germany.
After the fall of the wall, between 1990 and 1993, there was a boom in real estate and the market flourished and exploded. He used to frequently visit East Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig to check out the market and teamed up with a builder to buy properties for his clients. His clients saw his potential and pushed him to do it himself and renovate for them, and after taking the ultimate leap of faith at just 26 years old, he set up his first company and started buying properties himself and renovating 19th century buildings, normally consisting of 8 to 15 apartments.
“I did not really know what I was doing – not like what I know about real estate today. But everything went well, and we built properties and clients bought them and saved some 10-15 % per sqm compared to buying from a contractor.”
How was IBB Hotel Collection created?
In 1990, a friend introduced Sven to someone in Poland as there was the possibility of acquiring a construction crane company that was going through difficulty. And after the beautiful hospitality he had received by the Managing Director, and even though he did not go on to pursue the company in question, he started taking an active interest to the country.
This was when a friend came up with the idea for Sven to sell oranges after he heard that he was going back to find business opportunities. Sven was weary at first, having no idea what to do with fresh produce, but being the entrepreneur that he is, he decided to give it a go. And what happened? They ended up selling all the 22 tonnes of oranges off the back of the truck within a day. He remembers how this leap of faith launched him into his next endeavour and within 6 months, the company was the biggest fruit importer in Eastern Poland, with a total of 100 tonnes of fruit coming daily in 1991. This just shows another part of Sven’s life which spotlights his ambition and how taking a chance might prove successful most of the times. Sven and his partner went on to build a team and chose an employee with an orchard in Lublin as their managing director, feeling that he would “naturally know the most about fruit”.
The company was created in Lublin, with an office set up in the same city, and by coincidence, while driving from the train station when arriving from Warsaw to the office, they frequently drove by an old, beautiful 1900 building and Sven always remarked to his partner: “when I am able, I will buy that building.” His partner would only ever smile, probably thinking he is a bit nuts.
Fast forward 5 years later, a Warsaw based real estate agent approached Sven about an interesting property and to Sven’s surprise, it was that exact property in Lublin, whilst the agent was in disbelief that Sven knew about the property. And what did Sven do? He went to see it, he loved it at first sight, bought it and finally fulfilled his dream. He needed a hotel operator as the former owners planned it to be a hotel. So, he ended up pulling all the stops, renovating this old lady Lublinianka in a beautiful way and spending much more then he had envisioned; apart from signing a hefty ten-year lease, he wanted the German hotel operator that he had found to have the best hotel in town. Unfortunately things didn’t work out for the operator, so Sven asked an employee he had literally hired on a flight between Poland and Spain because he found him “interesting” to go stay at the hotel and study every single detail and employee. For him, that would mean that he could terminate the lease in one evening and take on the hotel and staff the next. He never looked back since and the IBB Grand Hotel Lublin is part of the Group portfolio to this day.
Delving further into the history of IBB Hotel Collection, he explained that the company was founded by 3 other partners back in 1990. IBB Hotels, formerly Asturme, was already active in Menorca, mostly through seasonal hotels on the island, being at the time one of the largest Hotel Operators on this beautiful Balearic Island. Sven had initially bought a 25.5% of the company back in 1999, seeing it as a passive investment and diversifying his risk and exposure to real estate. The shares were bought at the same time that the Lublin hotel was taken over by himself and therefore he suggested that IBB Hotels became its operator. Finally, this was the move which granted IBB Hotels the first hotel operational contract outside of Spain and it is how IBB as a Group officially started its international expansion. And after that, it just grew – another hotel was built in Poznań, hotels were added in Germany, specifically in Erfurt, whereby the hotel was bought, restructured, made successful and resold, along with locations in Spain, namely Palma de Mallorca, Valencia and the Pyrenees. Sven then pitched in to buy more shares due to the capital needs of the company – from 25.5% to 40%, 50%, 66% and finally, he bought the remaining shareholders out to reach 98% for his family Holding company.
Whatever he puts his mind to he achieves
Sven concluded that from his 24 years of experience in hospitality the company does best when the property is actually owned. He explains that renting a property comes with all the risks, especially in a bad climate like Covid-19. Even when business goes well and a profit is made, the money lost before would need to be earned back first whilst the owner enjoys a steady increase of the property value also based on the rent paid by the operator. He therefore sees a future for IBB Hotel and Cugó Gran Collection with property ownership rather than rental, unless a fair balance between risks and opportunities is found with a landlord. This would mean accepting a fair base rent, which still represents a big risk for IBB Hotels but is a fair compromise for an owner risking as well. In the end, if the hotel does well, the majority of the upside always goes to the landlord.
“This is the future of IBB Hotels and Cugó Gran – we eventually want to own most of our hotels.”
He touches on his vision again and says that it is as clear as water. “We now have 9 hotels. We want to grow, but foremost we want to deliver experiences to our guests, and not just give a bed and a decent but simple breakfast. We want to create something special, both in terms of the location where the hotel is, but also in terms of service – a special experience for each and every single guest.” Sven wishes that this special experience is created across the board. Some properties might struggle due to their location, but the idea is to make a guest of IBB Hotels find something unique in every establishment.
“My dream is that in the future guests can say that whenever they stay at a Cugó Gran, whether it is a fortress in Malta or a villa in Italy, it has the same soul. Everything looks different but there is the same soul and quality and sense for detail.”
Asked about his plans to achieve this and the timeframe, he said that this vision is for the next 5 to 10 years and mentioned how our incredible team with its special skillset is there day and night to help him achieve it. He mentioned that he sees a chance for his dream to become a reality because over the last 35 years he travelled widely and has gained the knowledge to distinguish between luxury and mediocrity. For him the definition of luxury is something that cannot be bought with just money, but it is rather a feeling of serenity and calmness.
“Whilst our employees would need to love their job and have a passion for what they do, and the breakfast for example needs to be tasty, but foremost each and every guest needs to feel appreciated, with the team being subtly attentive to their every need.”
What are Sven’s passions?
Apart from his love of positivity and outspoken disrespect for dishonesty and negative energy, which was already touched upon previously, Sven is a man of contrasts. He loves the mountains and to ski, whilst also loving the sea, scuba-diving and boating. Being the well-rounded man that he is, he also loves to play golf. He mentioned how he had to stop playing the sport during the 2008/2009 financial crisis, because he could not concentrate on the game anymore having his business and problems to solve at each shot, but he wishes to start again, showing how Sven really does things with love and passion not only in his professional life, but also in his personal life.
Having recently become a father again, he said that it is such a blessing to have a child and enjoys his rare free time with his wife and three kids. He loves to be amongst people, friends and enjoys quality time with them.
Food is at the top of his passions too and considers himself a foodie, albeit now on a strict intermittent fasting diet, which is also why he ventured into a joint venture with multi-award winning Chef Chris Hammett. The pair have successfully created Hammett´s Collection, which today has 4 restaurants in Malta and a fifth opening overseas in Menorca on the basis of a franchise concept.
This feature closes off the management team at IBB Hotel Collection, but we will also be continuing the series with other team members.
We are looking forward to showcase and highlight more of our employees in the coming months and hope that you will continue to follow us on this journey. Stay tuned!