Property folk have been recalling experiences of working with the colourful property developer, Albert Gubay, who has died at his home in Wilmslow after a short illness. Gubay made his first fortune with the Kwik Save discount retail chain in the 1970s before setting up Derwent Estates.
Steve Burne, managing director of AEW Architects, worked with Gubay for nearly 20 years. Burne said: “He had his moments but I thought he was a genius. He knew what he wanted and made sure he got it. He was always very fair to us and always paid us. Going back to when we met in 1998 he said if we were loyal and stuck with him, he would stick with us, and he was true to his word.”
Adam Higgins, director of Manchester-based developer Capital & Centric, dealt with Gubay in 2000/01 whilst working at Peel. Peel was selling land to Gubay for a Total Fitness gym in Altrincham town centre. Higgins said: “My overarching memory from my dealings with Albert was of this small, humorous, gentle old man with mad professor-like bushy hair who on the face of it was quite frail even then, but then in a meeting he’d explode into this razor sharp intense property dealer who never missed a trick. Probably one of the sharpest people I’ve ever dealt with. I thought he was brilliant.”
Gubay would start telephone conversations, Higgins said, pretending to be John Whittaker, chairman of Peel, but it was such a poor impression it was obvious who it was immediately. Higgins added: “I learned a lot from sitting in negotiations with Trafford Council alongside him, especially that he was incredibly inquisitive and would stop a meeting if he didn’t understand something and ask what it meant. He was never embarrassed to do that, where some people pretend they understand the point when they don’t.”
Gubay was born in Rhyl in 1928 to an Irish Roman Catholic mother and an Iraqi Jewish father. His business life began after World War Two when he started selling sweets in North Wales during rationing. He launched Kwik Save in 1965 and would open stores without planning consent, generating badly needed jobs in deprived neighbourhoods, knowing councillors would not be minded to close down his ventures which would make voters redundant, choosing to grant him retrospective planning consent instead.
The Kwik Save business model used an American retail cashflow trick dubbed ‘baby shark’ which involved buying stock on 90-day payment terms, selling it cheaply before payment was due and funding expansion from the interest earned in the interim. He sold Kwik Save for £14m in 1973.
While recovering from back surgery he later founded the Total Fitness chain of gyms, growing it to 21 locations. He sold Total Fitness in 2007 to Legal & General for £70m.
As a property developer, Gubay’s reputation for taking on the establishment and fighting his corner went before him. He repeatedly delayed the redevelopment of Old Trafford cricket ground by Lancashire County Cricket Club. He forced public inquiries and a judicial review in an attempt to protect his own interests at nearby White City retail park. The cricket club, in partnership with Tesco and Ask Developments, eventually won in July 2011 after a seven-year legal battle.
In Liverpool, he fought the city council for many years over the fate of his Edge Lane retail park. Gubay wanted a larger scheme than the local authority was prepared to allow, fearing it could harm Grosvenor’s Liverpool One in the city centre. Gubay eventually got his way after a decade of rows and many thousands of pounds of consultancy and legal costs on both sides and work started on site in 2012.
One of the legion of stories, perhaps myths, about Gubay recounts a visit he made to one of his building sites. The foreman who showed him round had a flapping sole on his boot, which Gubay stared at quizzically until eventually asking what was up with his boot. The foreman answered that he needed a new pair. Gubay took out a wad of notes tied with an elastic band. Instead of offering his foreman one of the notes to buy himself a pair of boots, he handed him the elastic band and suggested he put it round the flapping sole to hold it in place.
His business operations stretched from the UK to Ireland, Russia and the US. In March 2010 he said he would transfer most of his £480m fortune to a charitable trust, following on from a pact he said he had made with God as a young man to give half his estate to the Roman Catholic Church. He moved to the Isle of Man in 1971 with his second wife. He amassed a property portfolio in the Isle of Man that included the Mount Murray development in the 1990s, with a golf course and hotel surrounded by housing. The hotel was badly damaged by fire in November 2013 and is due to close next month.
One of the unresolved legal battles he left behind was with one of his right-hand men for many years, lawyer Peter Willers, who claimed he was owed £5m from verbal agreements with Gubay. The pair sued each other after Willers was dismissed in 2009 after 23 years’ service.