George Hemingway is a self confessed opportunist, an autocrat – “a benign one” he quickly qualifies – but above all, a builder, not so much of buildings, though that, too with a new Bozsik stadium on the way, but of “organizations, businesses".
He is the President of Honvéd, chairman of the diversified investment company The Hemingway Group, is an American first, a Hungarian second … and a fervent football follower. He started refereeing at age 15, well before he got his doctorate in law from New York University, bought a suit and became a trial lawyer in Los Angeles. And soon after that, he became a businessman with a chain of pizza & pasta outlets, then a real estate wheeler dealer in the 80s, when he made real money for the first time. Now he says he was never interested in making money, but that is relative and what a lot of successful entrepreneurs say. They are all ‘builders’ driven first by a passion to see their plans develop and grow …. Whatever those plans are.
It was an excess of money, in fact, that led Hemingway to acquire Honvéd. “In 2006 I made a lot of money selling off assets in California… It was so much I was uncomfortable with it,” he says with such sincerity it ‘s hard not to believe him.
“That was when Mr Nemes came to me and said his club was in deep trouble; the legend of Puskas and the others of that golden era was going to die. I thought it would be an easy thing … I jumped into it with much less analysis than I should have. I didn’t realise I was stepping into a black hole … that’s what it is, you know, a black hole.”
But then in the next breath, Hemingway enthusiastically explains how a year later in 2007, he set up the Hungarian Football Academy, which trains, educates and nurtures young Hungarian football hopefuls, “to build up the club”. He is clearly devoted to and proud of this world class Academy, perhaps almost enough to compensate for the black hole the club is gouging out of his personal wealth. And perhaps it explains why a successful American businessman commutes between Budapest and his Los Angeles HQ many times a year, even though, he says “every morning that I wake up away from Los Angeles, I cry”. But he loves Budapest, too: “It’s a beautiful, peaceful city, lots of quiet places and the home of many beautiful women. It also has langos, which I love. Not with all that other stuff on it, just the plain old simple one, with garlic…”
It was on a European holiday with the family in the late 80s, which included Hungary (his mother was Hungarian) that Hemingway saw an opportunity to build something new in Hungary: a chocolate business (the famous Bonbon Hemingway brand) which eventually grew into a bigger retail and restaurant business with the Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts and KFC franchise operations.
The football club takes up around 25 – 30% of his energies, the rest devoted to The Hemingway Group, with its diversified investment portfolio across
• Real estate, both commercial and residential
• Hospitality, both fast casual and traditional service restaurants
• Sports Management
• Financial services
“I look for opportunities with something I like, in a field where I can see the future more accurately than others. Of course, sometimes you get it wrong and you fail …you do something stupid and try to explain it intelligently!” He adds wryly.
And unlike his venture into football clubs, the Group’s website proclaims “The Hemingway Group is an entrepreneurial company that operates as an investment and management firm. We do not undertake investments lightly but review the individual market and industry situations in great detail before embarking upon any venture.”
It goes on to say: “We are patient entrepreneurs, with a history of building successful concepts from the ground-up in risky emerging markets.”
Known for speaking frankly in public, sometimes controversially, Hemingway has spoken his mind in just about every major newspaper and tv program in the country. He explains his forthright approach this way: “I don’t lie, not from a moral perspective but I think it is just so inefficient, having to try and cover it up. So if I am asked about a subject, I express my opinion; I don’t make announcements, I simply answer questions … Even if the answers aren’t popular.”
He insists he has no political agenda and no interest in entering politics, “but I recognize problems we face.” He pauses for an instant, then continues. “I don’t like Nazis,” he says matter of factly, “they’ve had their time, and it didn’t work. Just as the Communists did … Otherwise I listen to all political ideas.”
Speaking of the recent public debates about anti-Semitism in Hungary, Hemingway says “a bigger problem than anti-Semitism here is the strong anti-Roma sentiment; and there are between 600,000 and 800,000 Roma in Hungary, compared to about 80,000 Jews.”
He is also concerned “ about the direction my country (US) is going. Will we retain world leadership … probably not, judging by our own leadership over the past 20 years. Will we handle the challenges of the 21st century? So far we’ve missed them.” When asked about the Presidential race now underway in the US, with Hillary Clinton running hot, he says quietly, “I hope it’s not Hillary …”
While Hemingway loves Budapest to visit and Los Angeles to work, his haven is a beachside estate he built (there it is again… he ‘built’) at Mahahual, three and half hours drive south of Cancun, across the Caribbean Sea from Cuba in Mexico, where he is heading with his two sons Alex and George (and their families) for the 2015 summer break. Equipped with internet and phones, he can stay connected to his business empire … or just relax and watch American football soccer as well as Hungarian football while the sun beams down on a beach untroubled by ocean waves, which never reach closer than 500 yards.
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