Vilamoura World CEO João Brion Sanches spoke with Essential about his career, the brand’s future and plans for the Equestrian Centre and the Environmental Park
It’s a unique mission: “To make Vilamoura the best place in the Algarve to live, visit and invest.” And it has been in João Brion Sanches’ hands since July 2021, when he began his duties as CEO of Vilamoura World, the entity managing various assets such as the marina and residential and tourist units.
He already describes himself as the “guardian of Vilamoura”, but his path had never crossed the Algarve before. He graduated in Business Management from Lisbon’s Catholic University and, in 1979, he was already in Miami working for the sixth largest American bank. He later spent some time in New York, where he finished his master’s degree; in Switzerland, at which point he began a career managing private investments; and, in 1985, he returned to Portugal. From a small investment company, João Brion Sanches joined Deutsche Bank, where he was Vice-Chairman for 10 years, at a time when the market evolved exponentially. He moved to Millennium bcp in 2007, where he was general manager responsible for the implementation of Private Banking.
However, two years later, he felt “it was time to do something different”. He set up Norfin, a private company specialising in asset management and real estate funds, which in 20 years had already managed €1.3 billion worth of assets. In 2018, Arrow Global acquired Norfin and, in 2020, João Brion Sanches headed a group of Portuguese investors, backed by Arrow’s investment fund, to make a proposal to US equity firm Lone Star for the purchase of Vilamoura World. The contract was finalised last year, and a new chapter began for both the seaside resort and the new owners.
In his own words, Vilamoura has been a long-standing goal. “When I thought about the next sector to invest in, I knew it had to be tourism, and that it had to be something big and great. It could only be Vilamoura, a holiday destination of excellence in the Algarve. Also, 50% of property buyers in Vilamoura are foreigners of all nationalities. This is a very Portuguese destination, but also very international, which in terms of development potential is fantastic,” he says.
The Vilamoura World
Vilamoura World manages the marina and surrounding beaches, the Equestrian Centre, the Cerro da Vila Museum, a 200-hectare Environmental Park and various real estate developments. And the team already has plans for all of them. For Vilamoura Marina, which has been recognised several times as the best in the world, they have “the ambition of expanding it by an extra 68 berths for boats measuring 20 to 40 metres, in four- or five-years’ time, because there is no such thing in Portugal”, revealed the CEO. As for the beaches, visitors can already see changes with the renewal of all facilities, and next year will see an investment of €700,000 by the new restaurant operator at Praia da Falésia.
The Vilamoura Equestrian Centre already hosts international competitions, with capacity for 800 horses, but João Brion Sanches assures that he wants to go further: “The level we are at is admittedly good, but we still want to raise the bar. We are working with an international operator who is among the three best in Europe to replace the current one. If that happens, we will have one of the best equestrian centres in Portugal, representing an investment of around €5 million,” he reveals.
Right in the heart of Vilamoura, the Environmental Park could soon be the subject of a study by the University of the Algarve, “to understand the aptitude of the soil”, he says. The idea is to create an agricultural area, with indigenous fruit trees and a vegetable garden, for residents and students to enjoy. But there is more: “We also want to have a natural area, where we will create footpaths, equestrian trails and cycling lanes. The idea is to transform the Environmental Park into a living area,” according to João Brion Sanches. As for the Cerro da Vila Museum – an asset the CEO considers “very important and relevant” – the plan is for Loulé Council to take over the management.
Finally, in the real estate sector, his area of expertise, there are several projects in the pipeline: senior residences, apartment complexes, a Vilamoura World hotel, single-family houses and the Vilamoura Parque. “This is our latest project catering to high-end customers, and we have already sold 33% of the houses, which feature gardens, swimming pools and underground parking. It is a product that meets today’s needs,” he explains.
In truth, the new Vilamoura World team, which has been in place for a little over a year, has well-established goals and long-term perspectives, which also involves inspiring other agents in the area. “We want to positively contribute to the golf courses, hotels and sports clubs to raise their standards. That is our expectation because Vilamoura is much more than a destination, it is an experience that transcends personal desires. We are here to manage, improve, inspire and pass on the legacy to the next generation. That is what I intend to do in Vilamoura, to be the guardian of this temple,” João Brion Sanches assures.