As promised, and from what I call the ‘Expats’ Hall of Fame’, is the first of my extraordinary immigrants who, I hope you will agree, is making a positive impact on Portuguese society.
This is a man who first connected with Portugal 25 years ago and has since attracted around €500 million of inward investment to the country, employing a small army of people along the way, with innumerable other positive knock-on effects for the economy.
At this time in Portugal’s history, when I feel we should be especially mindful of our collective impact as foreigners, it’s a pleasure to bring to your attention not only a Lusophile but a magnet of a man, who attracts interest and delight in Portugal from countless others the world over.
I first met Bobby O’Reilly soon after my own arrival in Portugal. A mutual contact suggested I call him as someone who might be supportive to a just-landed business creator. He was. Open, affable, honest and encouraging, I was impressed that someone so busy had time to chat over a beer and offer me, a complete stranger, some new-arrival advice.
It would take more than five years for our paths to cross again, and I was delighted to discover the same easy-going and naturally astute entrepreneur, doing amazing things with his brands UrHome, Dynasty Homes and, more recently, Herdade do Meio – a flagship sustainability-oriented development on Lisbon’s ‘South Bank’.
Turns out O’Reilly has quite the knack for conveying a passion for Portugal whether he’s in Dubai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Qatar or Abu Dhabi. Probably the first to deliver a Golden Visa presentation outside of Portugal, clients who saw Bobby’s vision came, stayed, and became friends – falling in love with the positivity and potential that he still sees in Portugal.
Keen to share the credit with his team and core group of investor-developer colleagues, who have put in around €80 million of their own money, O’Reilly is also open and frank in criticism of the government’s policies, especially around housing in recent times.
In a recent quizzing with Idealista, he told Frederico Gonçalves: “I don’t believe it benefits anyone in the long run. But it damages Portugal’s reputation with international investors.”
“Nor does it make any sense to convey the idea that the Golden Visa program is a reason for the inflation felt in property prices. In a simple mathematical exercise, of the 180,000 homes sold each year, less than 1,000 are related to the Golden Visa. At the very least, the program has brought many hundreds of millions of euros into the Portuguese economy and created thousands of jobs,” he asserts.
Portuguese businesspeople I know tend to share this same antipathy towards the political class, as well as the red tape and seemingly unsupportive enterprise culture. So what’s Bobby’s secret and what can we learn from this former baker and restaurateur in his native Ireland, who has lived the world over and chosen Portugal as home and ‘office’?
Not only has this entrepreneur faced these peculiarly Portuguese challenges with a self-assessed poor grasp of the language, like many foreigners he has had to try ‘extra hard’ in growing what he hopes will be a billion-euro business in terms of its overall contribution to the Portuguese economy.
“Where some would be put off by cultural differences and frankly what seem like anti-commercial practices, I re-group, reconnect with my vision and keep going,” says Bobby who seems to eat challenges for breakfast and has a lust for life that is palpable when you are in his company.
“For sure, I have what might be seen as controversial views, but this country has so much going for it. So, I keep going. I love life here and have had an amazing time working with both local Portuguese and foreigners, all who have played a part in our company’s success.”
This is surely a man we can learn from. Unphased by bureaucracy, bad apples and blockages, this unofficial global ambassador for Portugal will, I am sure, create a legacy useful and memorable to Portuguese people and fellow foreigners alike.
If Bobby O’Reilly can create a business here that has turned people, who didn’t know where (or even what) Portugal is, into raving fans willing to invest considerable sums of money – despite its complex culture – I imagine the rest of us can manage to bring a more modest vision into reality.
By Carl Munson