Interviews  >  Zef Eisenberg: The man with a plan

Written by: Nick Kirby Posted: 18/10/2011

Zef EisenbergZef Eisenberg is not yet 40 but he's enjoyed 20 successful years in business, and is now looking for new challenges. He tells Nick Kirby where he goes from here.

It's very difficult indeed not to be seriously impressed by Zef Eisenberg. In 1991, aged just 18, he started writing books and newsletters on the subjects of physical training and sports nutrition. A mere four years later he founded Maximuscle, which subsequently went on to become the largest sports nutrition brand in Europe.

Having sold an initial stake in the company in 2004, and a further stake in 2007, he sold his remaining stake when GlaxoSmithKline bought the entire shareholding in March 2011. Upon the sale, Zef stepped down from the business to explore new opportunities.

There is no doubt that Zef is probably best known for Maximuscle and his involvement in the sports and leisure industry. What is perhaps less well known is his active private equity investing and the substantial property portfolio he has accrued with his property management, development and investment company Maxicorp, which is one of the largest commercial and residential property holders in Jersey and Guernsey.

So is that where he is going to focus his energies now that he is no longer involved with Maximuscle? Zef spoke to about exactly how he got to where he is now and where he intends to go next.

Earlier this year you stepped down from the board of Maxinutrition – how difficult was it letting ‘your baby' go after two decades?

It may sound odd, but if I'm totally honest I wasn't bothered stepping down from the board. In fact, I was fairly keen to move onto fresh challenges, new ideas and let the new owners enjoy their purchase. I'd been gradually letting go of it piece by piece anyway – so by 2011, I had moved to a consultant role, allowing my exit to be swift and smooth.

So what are the fresh challenges and new ideas you are exploring?

Obviously I have quite a lot of expertise in the sports, leisure and wellness field. Having spent 20 years in that industry, we (me and my investment team) are looking at various opportunities at the moment. We have two deals we're close to doing something with, and we've also got some opportunities in the UK on the gym side. Whether we complete them or not is a matter of due diligence, but it would be nice to have one of them in the bag by the end of the year.

Do you have strict criteria about what you invest in?

I'm reluctant to get involved with startups. While they can be fun, and it's great to help people grow their business, they're a very high-risk investment as so many fail. One can put the same amount of energy into more mature businesses. Those I like most have three years of trading, audited accounts and a management team that can run the business and do the job.

Are you open to opportunities outside the leisure industry?

I'm very much open to what comes along. Sometimes you come across a business which has been going for six or seven years, has always been profitable, has a track record of growth and a great management team, but the owner wants an exit – be it for personal or health reasons. That's the ideal business because you have a motivated seller, a business that runs itself, a great team that is happy to be there and effectively it's just an exchange of share ownership.

We have looked at many businesses, and I know the sports and leisure industry inside out. But if we get offered businesses that are well run and have the team and expertise there, we'll look at it.

Have you had highs and lows, or have you generally been successful?

I've always been successful in any endeavours I've done myself. The areas I've always had disappointment is in when I've trusted private equity to look after my money for me. I'm used to being hands-on, being on the board, at least having a voice that people listen to. When you do private equity you're handing all that over to outsiders, who often don't share your passion, and the only communication you get is a letter saying: ‘Sorry, you've lost your money'. As a result, I'm very cautious and cynical of the private equity world.

Do you think it's harder to start a company from scratch now than it was in 1991 when you started?

Absolutely not! It's easier to start a business now than it has ever been. You can create a company, a website, order stationary and be trading using Amazon and eBay in a day. To start a business and focus on a niche area and provide a great service to a particular consumer is quite easy to do. This is probably the most exciting time to start a business.

However, setting up a sustainable and successful business is a totally different kettle of fish. With this, you are going into the fundamentals of business, which are obviously cashflow, credit terms and all the other stuff involved in that process. Either you know or learn how to run a successful business, or you don't – it's as simple as that.

You have a substantial property portfolio with your company Maxicorp, which you founded in 1996. Tell us about that.

A lot of people aren't aware of my property background – it was never as ‘PR worthy' as Maximuscle. The business of Maximuscle was successful from an early stage, so every time we moved premises we never sold anything, we just rented them out, so the business became a landlord by accident. After a time we ended up having numerous properties before my move to Guernsey in August 2005. Having been in the residential and commercial market in the UK for some time, I saw that things were getting exceedingly bubbly, so I decided in 2007 to liquidate everything in the UK before the market turned.

For a few years, we had been looking to move part of the Maximuscle business to Guernsey. Unfortunately we couldn't find office or warehouse space. By the time we were able to secure the places, Maximuscle was too entrenched in the UK. I had already bought quite a lot of open-market property and investment properties in Guernsey for that move, so it ended up being a good investment as opposed to helping move the business. When I came here in 2005, I liked what I saw, the fundamentals made sense. And compared to North London the market was good value, so I invested quite a lot in the Guernsey market and invested more after 2007 when we exited the UK, and the market turned, allowing us to pick up prime assets at sensible prices.

While you have prime property in London, your main focus appears to be in offshore jurisdictions – why is that?

We focus on the key offshore jurisdictions – the Channel Islands in particular, because they are on our doorstep and we have an excellent team based in the islands that looks after those properties and manages them. We've started to venture back into prime London and prime UK again, actually because of the lack of opportunities in the Channel Islands – there's not much coming up for sale that is of sufficient quality. We are also focusing on the high-end residential development. One of the things we hear from people coming over here is that they can't find the UK-type product and quality they want. So we are investing in the top end of the residential market and taking it to the next level. So when you do get high-net-worths coming over here, they can see something that they are used to.

You moved to Guernsey in 2005. What made you choose the island?

I've been coming here since I was a young boy. We came on holiday here as a family and it was always a place I promised I'd end up living. I've always found it beautiful – stunning. I remember being seven years old and saying to my father that one day I would live here, and I was able to achieve that in 2005. There are so many things I love about being here: great boating – I'm a keen boater – a safer environment, the fact that Guernsey is fairly small, so I can do most of my business on the bike. I cycle everywhere and I can effectively meet lawyers, advocates and grab a sandwich – all on the bike. I find this massively advantageous, both for business and keeping fit!

I like the fact that from St Peter Port to the west coast you have a total contrast in scenery and I think that most people would consider St Peter Port to have a more traditional attractive fishing-village-type look, which never fails to impress guests when I bring them here. Being in an attractive environment is good for the soul.

You have contributed £20,000 towards the Guernsey skatepark – why that project in particular?

People aren't aware I used to be a serious sponsored skateboarder when I was younger, and it was actually doing this that got me into the gym – when you are doing the really extreme tricks you need to strengthen up and put a bit of muscle on. Not everyone wants to do rugby, cricket and football, there are plenty of people out there who like to do individual extreme sports, whether that's surfing or skateboarding. For that particular reason I feel a skateboard park in Guernsey is vital and we are working with a great bunch of guys to achieve that goal.

We've got all the planning permission and consent, and we've got the location – the key thing is just nailing down everything and agreeing when to put the first digger in. But it's going to be one of the largest concrete skating parks built in the UK for some time.

What does the future hold for Zef Eisenberg?

Lots of excitement and lots of challenges. I'm one of those people who doesn't like to be sitting still. So I can imagine we will have some more property investments under our belt by the end of the year, some private equity, and I'll also be focusing on my new project – land speed racing – a subject of future discussion no doubt!

Fact file

Name: Zef Eisenberg

Age: 38

Lives: St Peter Port, Guernsey

Position: CEO of Maxicorp

Hobbies: “I'm a passionate motorbiker and petrolhead, a serious watch collector, and get depressed if I don't cycle or visit the gym every day.”

Interesting facts: Zef is a fully qualified senior gym instructor, specialising in nutrition. He conducted two years of endocrinological research at the British Medical Research Centre and Pharmaceutical Association.

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