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Luckiest man in world has exciting plans for our capital

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

British entrepreneur Mark Weingard had three near-misses – in New York’s 9/11, the Bali bombing and Thailand’s 2004 tsunami – but fate had other plans. He speaks to Ariadne Massa about how he went from being a lousy waiter to a successful trader who lost everything, to a millionaire philanthropist with big plans to invest in Valletta.

A guttural laugh rips through Mark Weingard as he reflects on people’s scepticism when he recounts how close he came to being a victim in three global tragedies.

“For several years it felt like I was popping up in every tragedy that could come along,” he says of his turbulent three years between 2001 and 2004.

“Being in New York in 9/11, having lost my fiancée in a terrible terrorist attack, and then getting caught in the tsunami felt very Zelig-like,” he adds, referring to Woody Allen’s 1983 American mockumentary film Zelig.

The film depicts a typically ordinary person who seems to turn up with surprising or unaccountable frequency in a variety of settings. Meet Mr Weingard.

One thing I’ve learnt in life is that mistakes don’t matter as long as you don’t make them twice

“I have to say the Maltese can feel very safe because it’s been 10 years now since there’s been a disaster so I doubt there’s going to be a cyclone hitting the island soon,” he adds, his infectious laugh echoing through the room.

After years travelling the world, the millionaire philanthropist adopted Malta as his home 18 months ago and is looking to invest heavily in Valletta – a three-Michelin-star chef brought over for a 100-day gastronomic experience that will ‘open’ at the Civil Service Sports Club on Thursday; a high-end luxury hotel on Barbara Bastions; and the world’s first gastro hotel in St Paul Street planned for 2018.

He already feels at home on the island, shedding the trappings of the rich and using a bicycle to reach the newspaper’s office in Valletta from his temporary home at Tigné Point. “I never expected to walk around the city of Valletta and fall in love,” he says, smoothing down his hair that had taken the helmet’s shape.

Born in Manchester in 1966, Mr Weinberg was 10 when his father, a taxi driver, died in a car crash nine days short of his 36th birthday – it was a defining moment for the only child.

“It hung over me as I grew up and I always felt like I was going to die before I got to the age of 36, which is the age my father didn’t quite reach,” the 47-year-old recalls.

This tragedy also made him extremely ambitious, as he sought to make it big before death came to take his soul.

Struggling at school and unmotivated, it was a youth organisation that sharpened the young man’s leadership skills, injecting him with a passion for the hospitality industry.

The first job he landed was as a waiter in a top hotel in London, but he was so bad – “I was the world’s worst waiter” – they moved him to room service.

So he returned to Manchester to start university, but dropped out after six months. Fed up with doing nothing, he landed a job in the back office of a bank.

He initially got a job doing administration but “I was pretty awful” so he moved to Drexel Burnham Lambert – a major Wall Street investment banking firm that was forced into bankruptcy in 1990 for the biggest insider trading scandal at the time. It went down when he was working there.

Without a university degree, his resilience and enthusiasm saw him sweat it out in seven tough interviews to land a job with Chemical Bank – now JPMorgan Chase. He became extremely successful – “it wasn’t quite like the Wolf of Wall Street but it was a lot of fun” – and at 24 he was raking in big bucks.

He traded from midnight through to 10am, but after a few good years he found himself burnt out and single.

That was when he decided to take out an advert in The Sunday Times of London. It was still pre-internet days, when romanticism was still pulsating.

He smiles as he reels off the amorous words he penned in the advert: “His armour pierced, his wounds now healed, this soldier of love searches the barren wastelands for the one maiden who’s destined to share nighttimes of passion and a lifetime of love in faraway places where dreams come true.”

A young woman called Annika Linden spotted this advert and was inspired to write a poem about the Knight of Passion, but then got second thoughts and threw it away.

Fate seems to dog Mr Weingard in everything he does. The woman’s mother found the poem and sent the crumpled letter to him with a photo – the magic between the rich trader and the travel agent was sealed.

They had plenty of adventures travelling the world and planning business ventures that tapped into their passion for hotels and hospitality.

By the age of 33, and under the assumption that he had just three years left to live, he decided to set up the world’s first international rating system for hotels.

“But then I decided to be a little bit too ambitious and take on Lonely Planet. This was back in 1999 when the world stock markets were booming, Nasdaq was at an all-time high and then the internet bubble just popped.

“I lost what I had and I lost a lot of other people’s money, which was very painful,” he says, adding that his company went from two to 61 employees in a year, but then crashed to zero overnight.

“It was a very painful experience. It gave me a real fear of failing again. That was a hard lesson learnt – I was not golden boy. One thing I’ve learnt in life is that mistakes don’t matter as long as you don’t make them twice.”

The three tumultuous years were still ahead of him. It started on September 11, 2001, when he had a meeting scheduled at the World Trade Centre.

He had a problem with a project he was working on and was running late. When he called to inform the company they told him not to bother coming in because a plane had just hit the centre.

He turned on the television and that was when the second plane hit the other tower killing 23 employees of the company he had been scheduled to meet just minutes earlier.

“It was just surreal to be alive. It just felt like World War III was breaking out,” he says.

That was when his philanthropic aptitude came to the fore. That week he donated €100,000 from his company’s revenue, which helped him understand how important it was to give.

He was nearing his 36th birthday, but suddenly he found himself very much alive. Yet he was in no man’s land.

“I had based all my life on dying at 36. I really wondered what would happen next so I entered what you can call a mini-depression and Annika and I split up for a short while,” he says.

But the couple were still seeing each other and “everything else”, when she boarded the plane to Bali with her friends. She got caught in the 2002 terrorist bombings that claimed the life of 202 people.

“I guess the luckiest thing was that we weren’t together because I’d have gone with her... anybody who’s gone through grief knows it’s the heaviest weight in the world.

His armour pierced, his wounds now healed, this soldier of love searches the barren wastelands for the one maiden who’s destined to share nighttimes of passion and a lifetime of love in faraway places where dreams come true

“I had to find a way to deal with things; the guilt of carrying on with my life when she wasn’t,” he says, describing how he went about setting up a foundation to ensure her name and spirit lived on.

Just over two years later he found himself caught in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand.

“I was in bed and suddenly woke up and thought, ‘oh, the sea sounds incredibly close today’. I looked out of the window and just saw waves pounding my room.

“I raced to the roof... it was a scary moment of shock and disbelief.”

What had spared him and his 16 friends was a reef in front of their house that stopped the water rising to more than two metres.

“Losing Annika was the hardest moment. Having my business go down was soul destroying and the tsunami was a moment of disbelief,” he says, adding that the loss of his father had instilled in him the ability to survive and turn something positive from the negative.

He went on to set up a luxurious hotel in Thailand called Iniala, where 10 per cent of the revenue was pumped into the Bali-Based Annika Linden Foundation.

But after a while he also wanted to escape Asia, because he felt he was living with ghosts, which is how he landed in Malta – being a tax-advantageous island with warm weather lured him in.

“I wake up every day with blood pumping through my veins, especially here in Valletta, which I find to be an amazing city,” he enthuses.

The first project is a wild idea to fly in his three-Michelin-starred chef – Eneko Atxa has been voted No. 26 chef in the world – and 12 Thai staff from his Iniala hotel to provide Maltese with a top gastronomic experience.

Working hand in hand with Michael Gauci and his son, Mr Weingard’s 100-day experiment called Aziamendi will start running from the Civil Service Sports Club that overlooks St George’s Square from Thursday.

The ground floor will be converted into a tapas lounge, with dishes ranging from €2 to €10, while the “heavily reduced” €79 buys the fine dining experience.

“This is just for 100 days. It won’t be a major money earner – we’d be lucky if we break even – and we’ve made it a bit harder by adding another hurdle and contributing five per cent of our revenue directly to five charities in Malta.

“We believe in karma. If you plant the seed the tree will grow,” he says, expressing the hope that Malta will be his base for the rest of his life.

“Everyone is talking about Valletta 2018, but I’m talking about Valletta 2014.

“I want to be part of the city’s future and create something special for Valletta by creating momentum... work is my mistress.”

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