'Abercrombie & Kent is the finest luxury travel company in the world, and I am honored to be able to partner with Geoffrey Kent to help this remarkable company continue its record growth,' Lefebvre said. He called Kent a legend and a visionary in experiential travel.
For Kent's part, 'I am very excited to be working with Manfredi. I cannot think of a better or more experienced partner for the next phase of A&K’s growth.'
Buying out Zhonghong Holding
Lefebvre and Kent are buying out Zhonghong Holding, a real estate and tourism developer that in late 2018 became the first company delisted from China's Shenzhen Stock Exchange because of poor share price performance amid a company debt crisis.
The new partners declined to disclose the value of the deal.
Zhonghong had taken a 90.5% stake in A&K for $412.5m in 2017, according to Reuters.
Cruise ship newbuilds?
Lefebvre seeks to further develop A&K as 'the premier brand in luxury and experiential travel,' to cultivate more destination management companies, expand destinations and foster existing products like safari camps and riverboats. After a first stage of organic growth, a second stage would look to external growth.
Could cruise ship newbuilds be in the future?
Lefebvre deflected that topic. He noted A&K has a strong relationship with Ponant, and said that will continue, while they'll also explore growing the Silversea-A&K business. 'There is so much to be done where A&K is already operating,' he said.
A&K is a seasoned seller of expedition cruises to the Arctic, Antarctica, the Kimberley and beyond, curates programs on the waterways of Europe and owns a fleet of riverboats in China, Egypt and Myanmar.
Kent said A&K will grow just as it always has—by exploring new frontiers. The company, he added, has experienced 'explosive' growth over the last six years.
In 1962, Kent created the first luxury tented photographic safaris in Kenya, and he's continually expanded into new areas like world tours by private jet. These carry just 48 people per trip, are priced starting at $155,000 and always sell out, he said.
'Why copy everyone else?' Kent posed. He wants to go to 'all the places I've never been,' which has led to the development of pioneering programs. Service and insider access are other hallmarks. 'The only thing that matters to us is that our clients come back happy,' he said.
'Geoffrey and I share the same philosophy,' Lefebvre chimed in.
Courtship in Monaco
Kent had been seeking an equity partner since Zhonghong ran into difficulties unrelated to the A&K business. As Lefebvre tells it, he courted Kent by inviting him to Monaco where he put everything at his disposal—and even serenaded him, he quipped. He'd stressed their kindred spirits as entrepreneurs and travel connoisseurs and finally convinced Kent, in August, to do the deal. It hasn't been easy to acquire the Chinese shares, Lefebvre said.
The two men have known each other for more than 20 years and have been business partners, starting when A&K acquired the Explorer expedition cruise ship with Lefebvre as an investor in 1992. Silversea and A&K have done a lot of business together, and Kent and Lefebvre have traveled together in their work for the World Travel & Tourism Council. As well, Lefebvre has vacationed on A&K safaris and tours in Mexico and Morocco.
Lefebvre's investment company, Heritage, will own 85% of A&K and Kent will own 15%. Kent continues as founder and chairman of the A&K operating company, while Lefebvre becomes chairman of Abercrombie & Kent Holding.
The deal is expected to close later this year. Barclays Bank Plc served as financial adviser to Heritage.
More investments to come
Lefebvre stressed this investment is unrelated to Silversea, where he's executive chairman. He plans to make other investments through Heritage, 'probably in the travel sector,' he told Seatrade Cruise News.