John Spence, self-confessed ‘pirate’, former music industry heavyweight and now Global Chairman and Founder of Karma Group, is a man with a lot on. This has been the case since 1993, when Spence established Karma Resorts first boutique luxury property in Goa, India. Fast forward to 2016 and he has just added Vietnam (Karma’s 26th property) to the group which now sprawls through South-East Asia, Southern Europe and Australia with the Caribbean to come.
When not darting between his properties globally or investigating potential new sites, Spence offers up his time to lecture at Yale University’s School of Architecture, having been appointed the Edward P. Bass Distinguished Visiting Architecture Fellow in 2013.
During an ever-so-brief respite in Singapore, I sat down with John and – in a warm, occasionally off-piste chat – we discussed business, life, Karma Group’s far-flung plans and how one measure of success might be the amount of Burgundian Grand Cru you can afford to consume.
Lunchmag: John, Karma Resorts has 25 properties now, with more on the way …
John Spence: 26 …
Another has opened?
We recently opened in Hoi An Vietnam. It’s our 26th… or was it 25th? I counted on the plane. I forget myself sometimes. I’m just about to open another resort, in Crete.
My family was just in Crete – in Chania.
Oh lovely, we’re about to open in Aghios Nikolaos, the northeastern side. Well … I say about to open, we’re finalising things now. Twenty-four apartments, right by the beach. Crete’s a great place – the upside is huge with the airport being modernized and airlines such as Emirates and Qatar about to go in direct. And it has a long season – there’s plenty of stuff to do.
You’re right – we never got bored.
Exactly, it’s got golf courses, walks, waterparks and entertainment – plenty of stuff is happening.
So 26 destinations and a brand new rock-superstar themed JV (joint venture) with UK-based Sanctum Hotel Group – where does it end?
I don’t know really. We’re a young company with young people who are fighting the dinosaurs [of the hotel industry]. But then you wake up one day and you realise we’re established now. I don’t think I knew that we’d ever end up with this number of resorts and opportunities. I’m deeply suspicious of these entrepreneurs who have these long-term business plans outlining exactly what they’re going to do – it’s not the way I’ve ever worked. You kind of work it out as you go along.
Working on intuition must be fun sometimes?
We (Karma Group) are going back to Europe and the reason we’re going back is the changing market. When I first started it was all about coming to Asia. One of our core target markets was selling to Europeans who wanted to come to Asia, but you know in 24 years the world has done a 180-degree flip. My newest toy is buying in Brazil, I’m also buying into a boat company based out of Saint Martin and St Barts in the Caribbean. It’ll be kind of a time-share thing.
Another one of the things I do is teach at Yale and I love it. I dropped out of University after two terms and here I am teaching at one of the (world’s) top universities. I’ve decided I’ll save golf and gardening until I’m over 80.
What do you teach the young Ivy Leaguers ? How to create the perfectly sustainable business model – retain ownership, grow when you can … ?
It’s funny you say that, that’s exactly how I see it. I sit there [at Yale] and I’ve got 90 or so 24-year old MBA students and they look at me like I’m almost evil. The way I built up Karma Group [only growing when the business has the capital to do so] is so against the American ideal of how business should be run. Risk aversion is the number one concept they’re taught and at number two it’s maximising shareholder value via scale. It’s almost anathema to them not to do that.
You have, I’d say, a personal love of Western Australia. What’s the history there?
In the early days of building my business I was totally a gypsy. I was spending time all over the world and I wanted to be somewhere in Australia. I went down to Perth for what was to be a six-month stay, it was geographically close to my business operations, even in the same time zone. The next thing I know, I woke up one day and I’d been there 14 years. What I love about Perth is it is undoubtedly the best city in the world to leave and go back to. I was on the [WA] Tourism board and we [Karma Resorts] sponsor a lot of sport down there, including the Rottnest Channel Swim.
That sounds a bit too sharky for me to contemplate.
We have fun explaining it to people, they think it’s nuts.
What about the Margaret River region – do you have a favourite Western Australian winery or wine?
Cullens, I can say without a doubt, and Moss Wood are particular favourites.
What about globally – do you have a favourite wine region?
It has to be Burgundy. When I was young(er), a friend of mine’s father gave me some very wise advice. I think I was a student at the time. He saw I was liking wine and he said: “Look, as you get older you’ll decide whether it’s white or red – you’ll drink both but you’ll choose and it will probably be red. Then, you’ll drink lots of red and eventually decide on a grape – you’ll probably go for pinot [noir]. Then you’ll decide old or new world – you’ll probably go old world. Then you’ll probably decide where, and you won’t go past Burgundy and then, if you are really successful, you’ll probably drink Grand Cru, and everything else will taste like grape juice.”