Stefan Nolte’s self-belief, his attention to detail and the reasoning behind his burning dislike of logarithms go a long way to explaining his success, says THEO PANAYIDES
Do you know about Spacs? “Special Purpose Acquisition Companies,” explains Stefan Nolte, sitting in the offices of Shanda Consult in Nicosia. “Let’s say you have a very cool business idea that you really believe in – in the larger range, not a small start-up… So you come to us, for example, and, if we think it’s workable, then we will set up a Spac, list it on Nasdaq, collect minimum $100 million – because this is where they start to have interest, the institutional investors – from the market, and with this we acquire a company that will be needed to realise your business idea.”
When he speaks of ‘institutional investors’ he means mostly hedge funds and pension funds, many of them managing multi-billion-dollar portfolios. Still, I assume that winkling $100 million out of such people (or even $30-40 million, since each Spac typically draws a number of investors) must be extraordinarily difficult.
“No,” replies Stefan with his customary bluntness – then pauses, as if realising how it must appear from the outside. “Yes. If you’re not part of these networks, it’s almost impossible,”
And when did he find himself in that charmed inner circle, among the privileged few who can rustle up $100 million for a client’s business idea?
“I am 58 years old,” he shrugs, puffing on a cigarette as if to confirm his membership of an older generation. “All your life, you continue building the network – and the older you grow, the more people you have in positions which open new doors for you.”
Image matters too, I suppose. If you look like a man who can make a case to big investors and have them nodding in agreement, then it’s probably easier to do so – and Stefan, in a word, is imposing, very tall (well over six feet, I’d say) and bulky in general, looking very corporate in his heavy-rimmed glasses, white shirt and striped brown suit. But it’s not just appearance that makes him authoritative, it’s also his manner. He makes suggestions on where he should stand for our photo (photography is one of his hobbies) and how I should set up my tape recorder; “Germans,” he explains, “are into details”. He’s fearless – almost reckless – when it comes to expressing his opinions, and entirely free of false modesty or self-deprecation. “We brought him up very well, obviously,” he says of his son, now 26 and doing an internship in the Istanbul law office of “a very good old friend of mine”. The son is “very analytical”, like him, and has a very high IQ – also, presumably, like him, though he stops short of actually saying that.
In truth, the world of Spacs is a relatively new development. Stefan’s been in Cyprus since 1999, about half of that in the north (in Kyrenia) working for a Russian offshore bank – an unusual arrangement, though in fact the Turkish Cypriot chamber of commerce is “the only entity in the north which is internationally recognised”, so it’s quite possible for a company to be based there – then, since 2008, in Nicosia, providing corporate services with Shanda Consult. The sector has declined in the past couple of years, a result of over-regulation (don’t get him started), which is why he’s now diversifying – not just into Spacs, but also turning money into gold for prudent one-percenters. His Nicosia office is also the address of Liemeta ME Ltd, a joint venture with Liechtenstein dealing in the high-security storage of gold and silver; wealth management companies (he explains) always advise their clients to keep around five to 20 per cent of their portfolio in precious metals.
The change of business may necessitate a change in lifestyle. Living in Cyprus made sense while he was working with companies – but the super-rich looking to buy gold are unlikely to be Cypriots (the ‘ME’ in Liemeta’s name stands for ‘Middle East’), and it’s hardly the best place to find clients for Spacs, either. Stefan loves living here, in a restored stone house in the old town – the kind of place that looks small from the outside, but inside there’s a beautiful garden with a swimming pool – but he’d leave if it made sense to leave, just as he left his native Germany and never looked back.
That was very much a conscious decision. “I was born in 1961, and I left Germany for good in 1984,” he recalls. “I bought a one-way ticket to Istanbul, I had a suitcase in my hand and only 500 German Marks in my pocket.” He wasn’t unhappy, it was more a question of personal philosophy. Already, “at 17 or so”, he’d decided that living his whole life in one place would be intellectually limiting – so he simply left, in much the same way that the teenage Stefan didn’t always do well at school “because I had the principle that I did not attend lessons where I believed the current subject was of no interest for my further life. I just didn’t go”. He missed two months of maths, for instance, because they were doing logarithms. “I never wanted to be a scientist, I always had the heart of a businessman-trader. For trade, you don’t need logarithms.”
Isn’t it slightly arrogant for a teenager to make that decision, though?
“You may call it arrogant, but our brain capacity is limited. We can actively use 17 per cent of our brain – the rest is used for body functions – and I did not want to waste the 17 per cent with things that I don’t need. Why should I do so? I’d rather get a bad diploma.”
He must’ve been a handful in those years, a strapping young man – five years of rowing, five years of swimming, seven years of judo – with unshakeable self-belief in his decisions (not due to arrogance, of course; because they were rational). It’s not that he had a bad relationship with his family – he went back to visit every Christmas, until his parents passed away four years ago – but it wasn’t a rich family, his father worked as a painter in a shipyard, and Stefan (I assume) saw himself doing much bigger things. In Turkey he launched his own business, buying raw materials for German companies, organising the dispatch of “40-tonne trucks of gherkins for the pickling industry in Germany”. Wasn’t that quite demanding for a young man? “I learn very quickly. Extremely quickly. And, in all things, I learn from observation.”
People, too, get observed by his gimlet eye. Are they easy to decipher?
“Most of them, yes.”
Really? We like to think of ourselves as being quite complicated.
Stefan chuckles so hard he almost chokes on his cigarette. “People are complicated in a way, because they make things complicated. They get lost in unnecessary or useless thoughts,” he admits. “But otherwise, people in general are not complicated. They’re very simple.”
It takes some chutzpah to say something like that – and I guess he cultivates it (it’s useful to appear super-confident when your job is advising people what to do), but I also suspect it comes naturally. Stefan Nolte seems to have an opinion on everything, and isn’t shy about sharing them. The profusion of recent regulations aimed against tax avoidance and money laundering is “a big, big lie”, a futile system riddled with hypocrisy. The EU is beset by “opportunists” and weak decision-makers. The south side of Cyprus is far more professional than the north (“You cannot even compare the two”), but the problem is “we lack excellence here”; our society is like a pyramid with the peak missing. Cypriots need to start giving back to the community more – by volunteering, for instance – instead of just being consumers. Our economy is inexpertly run, grabbing wildly at every opportunity without any overall vision. Our tourist product is overpriced and inadequate. “We are not successful in tourism in Cyprus because we are good,” he concludes scathingly. “We are successful because our neighbours have problems.”
What about all these high-end developments in Limassol, though?
“My dear friend. What kind of people will stay in Parklane Hotel, where a room costs €400-500? We have people in the world who are easily willing to pay this – but will these people like the general environment of Cyprus? Is this their level? Is this their style? It’s not.”
All those wealthy Russians seem to be enjoying it…
Stefan sighs sadly. “The wealthy Russians enjoying Limassol are – in the majority – new rich, who got their money in some ways that are not so transparent, and they are not part of the – if I may say so – distinguished class of people in Russia. Definitely not… There are distinguished Russians, very well educated. They go to Switzerland, they go to France. They don’t come to Cyprus.”
Inevitably, anyone with such firm opinions is going to be easily irritated. “Please kindly close the door smoothly and silently” reads a handwritten sign on Stefan’s office door. (How many times did the door slam, I wonder, before he decided to put it up?) As we sit down to talk, the breeze from the open blinds makes the plastic on the cord clatter lightly – and it only takes a couple of minutes before he gets up to fix it. I ask if he goes to the beach, but he’s not a beach person: “Since I was a small boy, I’ve never liked crowds, and noise… I hate these beaches, especially on the weekend, which are packed. People are shouting without any hesitation, as if they were alone in a field in the village”. Shouting, instead of talking normally, is one of his pet peeves. Poor use of language is another. It pains him that almost all the employees who’ve passed through his company “have difficulties to write a whole-page proper letter without any mistakes in a perfect style”.
This may be a good time to note that Stefan and his (Turkish) wife divorced in 1998, after 12 years of marriage – though we should also note that the divorce was quite amicable, indeed the ex-wife moved to Germany and was looked after by Stefan’s family. “I have to confess, it’s not easy with me,” he sighs. “It’s not easy for others to be with me. But what can I do? That’s what I am.”
He’s not the type to make a scene, he assures me. It’s just that “I do things as I believe they should be done”, and – assuming a subject has been discussed with his wife or partner, and it’s been established that they share the same view – he can’t understand why that wife or partner doesn’t then do what they agreed should be done. “I’m very much into details,” he explains, “my eyes are like radar. So for example, I’m working in the kitchen – one of my hobbies is cooking, I cook quite well – and I see a glass is standing there”, i.e. near the edge of the table, “so I automatically pass it over here and continue my work. Precaution”. Why can’t others be so meticulous? Why are wives or partners careless, and end up breaking glasses which should clearly have been moved at an earlier stage? Yet another question in the life of Stefan Nolte, to be filed alongside ‘Why should schoolkids have to do useless logarithms?’ and ‘Why must companies be burdened with “totally nerdy”, ineffective regulations’? Why is the world so unreasonable?
Is he also critical with himself? “A lot!” he claims. “I review everything I do.” Yet, just a few minutes later, he assures me that “I’m happy with everything I did in my life; there’s nothing substantial that I regret”. I suspect his self-belief ultimately trumps his more critical side – that sense of knowing ‘how things should be done’ which launched him on his journey out of Germany, and guides him now through the high-powered world of $100 million Spacs.
If only other people didn’t make so many mistakes! But what can you do? “The only solution would be to sit on Troodos with 60 goats,” muses Stefan, “reading and writing books, producing goat cheese and selling it to the luxury hotels in Limassol. And then I wouldn’t have to bother about anybody.” He nods, clearly pleased by this idea, then shakes his head: “Yes, but I’m too young for this yet!”. He walks me to the front door – it’s Friday; everyone’s gone home – then shuts it after me, smoothly and silently.