Chinese owners of Wentworth Golf Club say members threaten UK’s investment reputation
Ni Songhua says they are ‘stuck in the past’ as they try to prevent the group from implementing an exclusive membership plan
The Chinese owners of one of Britain’s elite golf clubs have warned a campaign by members to block a membership shake-up will end in failure.
Ni Songhua, the UK head of Beijing-based Reignwood Investments which owns the Wentworth Club, also claimed hostile members were “stuck in the past” and damaging the UK’s reputation among international investors.
“The risk is their aggressive, completely unwarranted and baseless campaign sends the wrong message to other businesses from abroad about the climate for investment in the UK, and puts them off growing those business links with the country,” Ni warned.
Under plans announced by Reignwood last October, membership would be cut from 4,000 to the Chinese auspicious number of 888 invitation-only places.
Current members invited to remain would be a charged a £100,000 re-joining fee next year.
New members would have to pay £125,000 – an 800 per cent increase in the current joining fee of £15,000. The annual subscription would also double to £16,000.
Reignwood, owned by Chinese-Thai billionaire Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang, said the membership restructuring would help pay for a multimillion pound upgrade and return Wentworth – the birthplace of the Ryder Cup – to its former glory, and complete “our vision of making it the world’s premier private golf and country club”, said Ni.
But current members and residents living on the exclusive leafy estate located in London’s stockbroker belt, claim the plans would destroy the club’s heritage and their local community – fears which are unfounded, according to Ni.
“The members’ objections are based on a misunderstanding of what we are trying to achieve. But more worryingly they miss the wider point about the need for China and the UK to work closer together to bring more investment here, to help the country flourish,” he added.
Veteran member and local resident Nigel Moss, who is helping to spearhead the protest, dismissed Ni’s claims of members deterring foreign investment as “frankly absurd”, and accused Reignwood of “riding roughshod” over residents’ concerns.
Existing members agree Wentworth needs renovation but fear they are being kicked out of the club to make way for ultra-wealthy foreigners, including Chinese and Russian billionaires.
The “Save Wentworth for the Nation” campaign includes a legal battle, a petition handed to the China’s ambassador to the UK and a threat to disrupt the club’s showcase BMW PGA Championship in May by blocking the roads that crisscross the course.
“Any disruption to the tournament would be damaging for the club, the community and the UK. But our plans are in the best interests of all members and residents, and we will now be pushing ahead with them,” Ni affirmed.
Until now Reignwood had maintained a media blackout, preferring to discuss the dispute behind closed doors, as is the custom in China.
But the stand-off has made headlines and seen the involvement of the UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond, who is also the local MP.
It is understood Reignwood has been urged to go public by Chinese embassy officials, who fear the negativity might harm Beijing’s larger, flagship investments in the UK’s nuclear energy and transport sectors.
In the latest twist, the protesters have seized on a “crippling” US$155m loan they claim Reignwood took out from the Hong Kong branch of Thailand’s Siam Commercial bank to buy Wentworth for £135m in 2014.
“It is extraordinary for Reignwood to talk up its credentials as a responsible investor when it is sitting on a US$155m debt pile against an asset they acquired for £135m,” said resident member and financial expert, Andrea Tenconi.
The interest alone on the debt could be between £3.5 million and £5 million a year. The club made a profit of about £3.5 million for the year to March 2015, members claim, citing latest accounts.
“At that level of debt, it is somewhat tenuous to even call them an investor when they have injected so little equity. To then oblige members to be the ones to undertake effectively all of the investment into the club makes a mockery of us,” added Tenconi.
Ni said like any successful business “Reignwood puts financing in place to fund its acquisitions, alongside large amounts of its own equity”.
A Reignwood spokesman denied that “any monies from Wentworth Club members will be used to pay existing debts”.