Buyer interest in the condominiums soared. More than 1700 parties were prepared to hand over a $US20,000 (refundable) deposit just to have the opportunity to bid on the 465 units.
Keen to capitalise on exclusivity and demand, Lew’s team organised for Japanese and American bidders to be herded into two ballrooms – one in Tokyo with Trump and the another at the Hilton in Honolulu. They had one day to bid.
It took eight hours to sell the lot. Under the terms negotiated with Trump, he got a cut of every dollar over the reserve price but did not invest a cent.
It was a lucrative deal for both parties and one that so endeared Lew to Trump that he scored an invitation to the 2016 presidential inauguration, although he did not attend.
Despite the success of the Hawaiian property deal, Lew didn’t have the inclination to invest further in hotel-based developments and had no further business dealings with Trump.
But Lew does retain numerous US business investments. He owns a residence and maintains a network of personal and commercial relationships in the country. As such he has skin in the game on how the US is faring politically, socially and economically.
Many in the business community – both in Australia and the US – were horrified by Trump’s actions following the November general election, which culminated in an attempted insurrection in the Capitol this month.
Following that incident, prominent members of (the staunchly pro-Republican) corporate world have moved to condemn Trump and withhold donations from his supporters in Congress.
Lew is also critical of the disharmony Trump oversaw in US society and his refusal to accept the election result that led to the Capitol attacks.
But the billionaire rag trader still views the former president through a different prism. “He has done nothing wrong to me. If he has made mistakes in his presidency that’s one issue but in terms of our relationship I see him in a light that maybe other people can never understand,” Lew explains.
Lew could best be described as a disappointed fan.
“It’s a sad situation for a person who is a business person who led the Western world and made a lot of changes and delivered on a lot of his promises that he fell apart in the last period of time,” Lew says.
I am angry that he has hurt himself, his family, his legacy, the Republican party and the United States.
Solomon Lew on Donald Trump
Unlike Trump, Lew’s private and publicly listed empire has grown exponentially over the past 40 years.
Premier Investments, the $50 million cashbox Lew created in 1987 and in which he is the major shareholder is now capitalised at more than $3 billion.
The firm’s stunning success has been derived from a sharp digital focus and the nurturing of brands including Smiggle, Peter Alexander and Jay Jays.
It was the successful management of these brands and team Lew’s decision to capitalise aggressively on the pandemic that supercharged the company’s profit over the past year.
Ironically it was Trump’s failure to respond to the pandemic that secured his election loss in November, Lew says.
He believes that, after Trump contracted COVID, he missed an opportunity to apologise to the American people for minimising its impact and to appeal to them to wear masks.
Instead he didn’t listen to the medical advisers, which, in Lew’s view, was Trump’s biggest mistake.
But on most issues of Trump’s foreign and domestic policy – from US tax breaks to China’s trade deal – Lew is a strong supporter.
I told people he is like a bulldozer. He bulldozes his way through and he gets what he wants.
Solomon Lew on Donald Trump
“I am angry that he has hurt himself, his family, his legacy, the Republican party and the United States. A strong US is very important for Australia and the relationship between us is paramount.”
(Lew has had personal relationships with two former Democratic presidents – having hosted both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at his home for dinner.)
“I don’t like some of the things he [Trump] says, but his actions in his first three years made the US and the West stronger than the previous US administration.”
Lew’s personal experience of Trump has given him first-hand insight into the character faults that have been so well documented during Trump’s years in the Oval Office.
“When you go into his office … It’s all about him and his golf etc, looking in the mirror brushing his hair and that type of thing.”
Many would disagree, but Lew takes the view Trump can resurrect his financial fortunes.
“When it comes to business he is a survivor … he has been close to the wall many times over the decades but he has survived every time so I expect that he will survive again. But he is in for a tough ride.
“Did it surprise me in 2015/2016 that he would become president? Where many people thought he had no chance, anyone that knew me knew that my money was on him becoming president.
“I told people he is like a bulldozer. He bulldozes his way through and he gets what he wants.”
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Elizabeth Knight comments on companies, markets and the economy.