Profile | 12/25/2008 12:00:00 AM
The Colombian in the Madoff scandal
Intelligent, friendly and ambitious- that’s Andrés Piedrahíta, the Colombian who together with his father-in-law managed the firm that was most damaged by the Bernard Madoff fraud scandal in the U.S.
He is a partner of Fairfield Greenwich Group, the most damaged entity in the fraud of the Madoff company in which that group had invested 7.5 billion USD. In addition he has been married for 19 years to Corina Noel, one of the daughters of Walter Noel, Fairfeld’s founder, considered to be one of the richest and most elegant men in Connecticut.
The fact that a Colombian finds himself in the list of the most affected people, and that his business group has lost a quantity similar to what SAB Miller paid for Bavaria, has caused curiosity. Who is Andrés Piedrahíta? How did this 49-year-old Colombian come to manage funds together with his father-in-law totaling 14 billion dollars? How did a guy from Bogotá who at college was known as being charming and friendly, come to rub shoulders with the elite of the aristocracy and of multimillionaires in the United States and in Europe? Those are the questions that many have as Piedrahíta’s name is mentioned day in and day out in the New York Times, Financial Times and in the Wall Street Journal that have devoted full pages to the scandal.
Andrés Piedrahíta grew up in an upper class family in Bogotá. Son of Samuel Piedrahíta and of Gladys Arocha, he is the youngest of three children. His father was a successful businessman representing cotton trading companies and his family is highly regarded socially.
Piedrahíta studied fleetingly in the Anglo Colombiano high school and graduated from the English School. Although he was the most popular in school he wasn’t a very good student. None of his classmates thought that he could become the most successful businessman of his generation. In high school, Piedrahíta began to show some of his main characteristics: audacity, a way with people and ambition. “In the yearbook in the year that we graduated, next to his photo he drew two lines, one horizontal and one vertical, and wrote that there are people who follow a staid course and there are others who soar upwards and that he was one of those, and that I would remember him,” says one of his classmates who prefers not to be named and who calls him a charming guy who was full of stories.
With his diploma, he went to Boston University to study communications and later convinced his father to give him some money because they had selected him for the Semester at Sea program, a cruise that docked in several countries and on board were young people who wanted to combine their studies with making international contacts that would serve them in their future. After that, he lived in Palm Beach, Florida and then in New York where he worked in an investment firm until the1980s. Later, in 1991, he founded the company Littlestone Associates, a play on his last name in Spanish.
But his life took a turn on May 20,1989 when he got married in Riverside, Connecticut to Corina Noel, one of the most sought-after women in Manhattan. A graduate from Yale, she is the daughter of Monica Noel, a Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro who met her husband Walter when he finished studying law at Harvard. The Noels were synonymous with elegance and sophistication. In 2002, Vanity Fair published an article that included a two-page photo of their five daughters titled “The Fabulous Noel Sisters.” Three years later the magazine Town & Country dedicated a special to the home that they have on the exclusive Mustique Island in the Caribbean, famous for being a summer retreat for Princess Margaret, the sister of the Queen of England.
The Noels own several mansions, among which are a luxurious apartment in New York and a house in Southampton. In Connecticut they live in Greenwich, a town known as the “richest per capita town in the world,” according to a 1920 quote from Zalmon Gilbert Simmons, creator of a huge mattress factory that bears his name. Heirs of J.P. Morgan and John Rockefeller live there and property there costs between 15 and 30 million dollars. A good part of American hedge funds are headquartered in Greenwich, whose commuter train bound for New York is filled daily by multimillionaires who get off in the heart of Manhattan and arrive at their offices in chauffer-driven and bulletproof Volvos and Audis. Walter Noel stood out in that world, not only because of his business success but also because he was the father of five spectacularly beautiful women who had graduated from the finest universities in the United States. Also, everyone recognized Corina’s intelligence and sense of humor.
Walter Noel, now 78, grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. With another economics degree from Harvard, he got his feet wet in the world of investment and in 1980 developed a close friendship with Bernard Madoff. “Since then, the businesses of both have grown side by side,” says the New York Times. How did he earn his money? Very simple. According to the newspaper, Fairfield Greenwich charged its clients annually 1 % of what they had invested in the high yielding fund like that of Madoff’s and 20% additionally on the earnings. That, according to the Times, means that the more than 7 billion USD that Noel had deposited in Investment Securities, Bernard Madoff’s firm, would produce 230 million each year. That refers only to that fund. The Fairfield Group came to manage up to 18 billion dollars which at the end of this year had diminished to 14 billion. If the average return from the last few years were around 10%, the total commissions could reach 500 million dollars.
From that total, the majority partner was Noel and a good part was distributed among the four sons-in-law who worked in the business. Although the husbands of the other daughters have contributed to the growth of Fairfield Group, Piedrahíta, who became a partner of his father-in-law in 1997, is the one who has most expanded the area of influence of the business. That is why he moved to England, where he began to move about with ease in the world of aristocracy and of great economic power. He had a mansion on Chester Square, the most exclusive street in London, where he hosted the jet set of the city, including royalty like Prince Paul of Greece, the nephew of Queen Sophia of Spain, according to one of his friends.
After consolidating his position as a prestigious financier in England, he moved to Madrid. He bought an elegant home in the Puerta de Hierro neighborhood from the banking family Juan Herrera and Martínez Campos and later a farm on the island of Mallorca. He had great success in that world. His business prestige was accompanied by a reputation as one of the best hosts in Madrid, where among other luxuries he owned a private jet and a yacht. Emilio Botín, president and largest stockholder of Banco Santander, was one of his friends. Botín, like Piedrahíta, was a major victim of the Madoff swindle.
Piedrahíta was not only a victim of that great swindle in the name of his clients but also in his own right. According to his sister in law, all of the Noel family members had a good part of their personal investments in the same funds in which they placed their clients’ money. In addition to this financial reversal of fortune, Noel and his brothers in law have some difficult days ahead of them. Although they have no such responsibility in the criminal acts, the losses by their investors was of such a magnitude, that quite probably there will be lawsuits for non-criminal aspects of the business like the lack of due diligence and lack of diversification.
Piedrahíta and his family are also thinking of suing U.S. authorities for negligence in the oversight that they were required to exercise over Madoff’s activities. Madoff, in addition to managing funds, was one of the most important stockbrokers in New York.
The Bernard Madoff scandal is just in its first chapter. There are still many chapters to come and it remains to be seen just how the story will end.