Published: 00:02, 14 April 2017
| Updated: 10:38, 14 April 2017
Humphrey Percy pauses to sip his coffee at the Hilton Hotel overlooking the Dartford Bridge.
This is a common method used by the new man in charge of London Paramount, who has come on a day out from his offices in the West End to meet the local media in Kent.
Few answers are immediate about his new role leading plans for a £3.5bn entertainment resort on the Swanscombe Peninsula.
He is cautious and careful over his words, which is understandable given recent developments – or lack of them last year – on the game-changing project, which it is claimed will bring 27,000 jobs.
An investment banker for more than 30 years, Mr Percy replaced David Testa as chief executive of the park’s developer London Resort Company Holdings (LRCH) in January – another man with a long history in the financial services sector.
However, the announcement of the move came awkwardly just a few days after a former director of a Chinese investment company raised doubts about its ability to deliver £100m it pledged to the resort back in 2015.
The park’s opening date has been put back three times – now expected in 2022 – as developers have grappled with its complex planning process.
As it was consummed by the application, LRCH resorted to announcing a new set of consultation events last summer to remind the public the project was still in the pipeline. The consultations are yet to take place.
Mr Percy’s big announcement for his trip to the county was that the application – known as a development consent order (DCO) – will be submitted to the government by November, with a decision expected by summer 2019.
“It’s an unbelievably complicated and detailed application, which it should be for a project of this size,” he said. His answer was more awkward about the reason behind the departure of his predecessor.
“The decision was taken at group level and as a result of that we agreed with David for him to move on and it was agreed at group board level that I would take responsibility,” he said.
A Kentish man who was born at Farnborough Hospital, he has lived most of his life “on and off in Kent” and has a home in Penshurst, near Tunbridge Wells.
Mr Percy is also group chief executive of Kuwaiti European Holdings, known as KEH, the only significant financial backer of the Paramount project so far. It is owned by Ebbsfleet United chairman Dr Abdullah Al-Humaidi and his family.
“Dr Abdullah is as demanding and ambitious as he has always been for the project,” said Mr Percy. “He is entirely behind the move to submit the DCO application in November and agrees with this strategy.”
Mr Percy also remains owner and non-executive chairman of his own foreign exchange business, SGM-FX, which he founded in 2002. He insists: “I spend all my time working for KEH.”
“I’m not ruling out that there may be Chinese involvement but there will also be, no doubt, American, Singaporean or Middle Eastern specialists...” - Humphrey Percy, London Paramount
His CV includes being founder of the Bank of London and the Middle East in 2006, where he was the chief executive for nine years. It was during his time in this role, in 2012, that he met Dr Al-Humaidi.
He said: “That was an interesting project which was totally different from Paramount but had a number of things in common: complexity, dealing with regulators, attracting capital, organising many different stakeholders and being sensitive to many different interests.”
To get the DCO over the finish line in November, Mr Percy has made two boardroom appointments. Mike Morrison, who has held senior positions at investment bank Morgan Stanley and WestLB AG, has been hired as chief financial officer and Kevin Doyle, who has worked on the project from the start, has been appointed DCO coordinator.
Mr Doyle’s previous experience includes EuroDisney and the Disney Village in Paris as well as Canary Wharf and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the only man on the board with any background creating an entertainment resort.
“I don’t have a problem with taking decisions,” said Mr Percy, when asked about the proportion of tourism and hospitality experience in the LRCH top team.
“I have one proviso which is I always make the best decision I can based on the research, evidence and expert opinion. That doesn’t mean I don’t take a decision until all the stars and the moon are aligned but it means there has to be sufficient confidence and relevant first-hand information to take decisions.”
He dismissed as a “non-story” the suggestion that Chinese investment group SinoFortone could not meet its £100m pledge to the project, despite signing an agreement called a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
The revelations came about after former SinoFortone director Sir Richard Heygate said China’s state export credit agency, Sinosure, refused to provide finance on the grounds the development had not guaranteed any Chinese jobs.
Mr Percy said: “It was a story more about SinoFortone and some kind of boardroom dispute there. We were clearly, I won’t say collateral damage, but we were brought in tangentialy because the MOU had been reported when it was agreed. I don’t know, honestly, what was behind his comments. We seem to have got caught up in something wider.”
Is it the case that Chinese investors typically stipulate they want Chinese workers or firms to be involved in the investment?
"I always make the best decision I can based on the research, evidence and expert opinion..." - Humphrey Percy, London Paramount
“As I didn’t negotiate the MOU I can’t say whether that was raised or not,” he said. “Certainly I’ve not come across anything since I’ve taken this job that suggests there was a stipulation about numbers of Chinese jobs.
“I don’t want to speculate. It seems counter-intuitive to me that an investment company making an investment on the other side of the world would stipulate how many jobs are going to be exported across the world. I don’t know. As I wasn’t involved I can’t comment. It just doesn’t sound right to me.
“I’m not ruling out that there may be Chinese involvement but there will also be, no doubt, American, Singaporean or Middle Eastern specialists.”
Mr Percy said he has a “workmanlike relationship” with 140 businesses which will be forced to move by the resort if it is approved.
“I can’t say whether their demands are realistic or not at the moment because we are going to be having more detailed conversations in the next weeks and months.”
Finally, what of the relationship with Paramount Pictures, who agreed to licence LRCH the rights to use its intellectual property for its rides and attractions?
“A week before last I had a very good meeting with them and we continue to talk to them about our plans,” said Mr Percy. “We have shared with them our intention to submit that DCO application in November.”