Billionaire CEO buys multiple Riviera villas for more than 130m euros after Covid gains

GILLES Martin, founder and chief executive officer of a laboratory-tests company, and his brother have bought four Riviera villas on France’s “billionaire peninsula” for a total exceeding 130 million euros (S$183 million), according to people familiar with the matter and filings seen by Bloomberg.

The billionaire CEO of Eurofins Scientific and his brother Yves-Loic acquired the properties on the exclusive peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, on the southeastern coast of France. Tucked between Monaco and Nice and jutting into the Mediterranean Sea, Cap-Ferrat — as the locals call it — is reputed for being France’s most expensive zip code, and has attracted royals, Hollywood icons, technology billionaires and Russian oligarchs.

The four villas — Cuccia Noya, Bella Luna, Mas Fleuri and Alba — were all bought between 2021 and this year via a series of companies ultimately controlled by the Martins. The brothers own about 33 per cent of Eurofins’s shares and nearly two-thirds of its voting rights through their Analytical Bioventures SCA holding, which is controlled by Gilles Martin, 59. They share a fortune valued at 5.4 billion euros by Challenges magazine.

The property purchases have come as Cap-Ferrat and the Riviera’s other prestigious corners — Cap d’Antibes and Cap Martin — are seeing a post-pandemic revival with new clients flocking to the pristine Mediterranean coastline. The market, which saw prices skyrocket over the last two decades as Russian and eastern European buyers flooded in, had cooled after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

According to the Martins’ holding company Analytical Bioventures, its subsidiaries have been investing in real estate projects since before the start of the pandemic and, in the first half of 2020, some started work on a hotel project in the south of France to offer “the service of five-star luxury hotels in the privacy of specially curated villas”. The offers to purchase various properties, including Cuccia Noya, were made in summer 2020 based on plans “made prior to the pandemic”, the company said.

The Martins bought Cuccia Noya from Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Basil Sellers in February, according to people familiar with the deal. The six-bedroom property, with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea and access to the prized Paloma Beach, was acquired for 59 million euros, filings show. Its previous owner had filled it with modern artwork, including an outdoor sculpture by Fernand Leger.

They bought Bella Luna for 51.8 million euros in late 2021, the people said. The villa belonged to Kazakh businessman Serzhan Zhumashov and his family, filings seen by Bloomberg show. Designed by New York architect Robert AM Stern, it’s split over three floors and has a 24-metre heated swimming pool.

Right alongside Bella Luna, the brothers purchased the smaller Mas Fleuri for 9.8 million euros also in late 2021 to create a larger property with direct access to the sea, the people said. Filings show that they also acquired Alba in January 2021 for 10.5 million euros. In May this year, they purchased an apartment nearby for 13 million euros, according to filings. Cuccia Noya, Bella Luna and Mas Fleuri are available for rent on a website created this year.

The properties were bought through local entities controlled by a Martins family holding in Luxembourg, Diversified Assets Finance SARL, the filings show. That entity is in turn controlled by Analytical Bioventures — which is 64.72 per cent owned by Martin and 33.33 per cent by his brother.

The acquisitions are in the same area where the Engelhorns, the family of the founder of German chemicals company BASF, own Villa Fiorentina, one of the most iconic properties on Cap-Ferrat. Or the family of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which owns Villa Maryland. Sanctioned billionaire Alexander Ponomarenko’sVilla La Chabanne is also in the neighbourhood.

Real estate industry observers say the brothers have become active seekers on Cap-Ferrat, regularly visiting luxury homes put up for sale. In a statement responding to Bloomberg queries, Eurofins said, “Companies in which Mr Martin is one of the shareholders have invested in a range of businesses and projects around the world, including in commercial/hospitality businesses in France, some of which have activities in Cap Ferrat.”

Much of Martin’s wealth comes from the company he founded in the western French city of Nantes 35 years ago. The son of two university chemistry professors, Martin graduated from the prestigious Centrale Paris engineering school. His parents put him in charge of commercialising a patent they had developed that helped analyse the authenticity of wine.

Before long, the group diversified and grew through acquisitions and now has a network of 940 laboratories in Europe, the US, Asia, South America and Africa, with 61,000 employees. With its rise during the pandemic, Eurofins elbowed its way into France’s benchmark CAC 40 index last year.

After it developed rapid-response Covid tests, Eurofins saw a jump of 24 per cent in its revenue in 2021 to 6.72 billion euros. About 1.46 billion euros of that came from Covid-19 testing that year, up from 800 million euros in 2020.

From its March 2020 low, Eurofins’s stock more than tripled when it reached its September 2021 highs. The Martin brothers’ holding company Analytical Bioventures sold 550,000 shares for a total of 53 million euros between Jun 29 and Jul 5, 2021, according to shareholding disclosures by the company. The average price of the transactions ranged between 95.59 euros and 97.68 euros a share, which was near the record high at the time.

The company has had some bumps. It was in the spotlight in 2019, when it came under attack from short sellers over its governance as well as for rent payments Eurofins made to an investment company owned by Martin, his former wife and his brother of 141 million euros between 2009 and 2018. The company took steps to show it was trying to address issues raised by the short sellers, and the rent payment fell to zero last year.

Various laboratories in France, including many controlled by Eurofins, have also gone on strike over the past two years, asking for pay raises as business soared and lab technicians worked longer hours during the pandemic.

Martin relocated Eurofins from France to Luxembourg in 2012 to expand the company internationally. In a Le Monde interview last year, he complained about what he saw as business-unfriendly measures in France like its “exit tax”, saying that it was “supposed to be an incentive to stay, but it actually made you want to leave”. BLOOMBERG

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