Wild Geese: On the crest of a wave in Portugal
Within a year of skippering a boat for the summer Robert Harris had set up Algarve Yacht
Robert Harris (centre) with clients David Furness and Chris Clowes in the Algarve
Swapping a business suit for a more relaxed dress code of shorts and T-shirt is a move many workers would like to make but it’s proved a permanent one for Dubliner Robert Harris. With two businesses in Portugal’s Algarve, it may be some time before we see him in a suit again.
“I can’t tie a tie any more. A few years ago, I was back home for a wedding and it took me, I’d say, about 10 minutes to get a tie on,” says Harris.
Having studied business, economics and social studies in Trinity College, Harris began his working life as a fund account manager for Chase Manhattan Bank in Dublin’s IFSC before moving on to manage an office for Swiss Life Investment Management.
A few years later, the firm decided to close its Dublin office, leaving him with a nice redundancy package and allowing him to consider his options in life. After a year travelling, he opted to become a day trader trading his own money, but he soon found out it was not for him.
“You are sort of pitting yourself against big banks with big computers and vast systems with better access to the markets. I stuck at it for a couple of years but it was never going to be something for the long term. It was exciting but it wasn’t for me.”
A chance offer in 2005 to skipper a boat in Portugal for the summer came his way and, without knowing it, that became the start of his new career. Having enjoyed the experience for the few months, he jumped at the chance when a job was offered to him the following year.
Within a year, Harris had set up his first company as a broker chartering yachts in the Algarve.
“I got a website built and got to know all the charter boats down here, so I started to act as a broker for them and that sort of business model of knowing all the boats and being able to try and find customers the best boat for their needs.”
Alongside growing his business, Algarve Yacht, Harris set about training as an instructor of sailing, power boats and jet skiing, working with sailing schools until he got recognition by Royal Yacht Association to set up his own school in 2010.
With peak yachting season between July and September, the addition of the school allows for business in the off-season, Harris says.
“The school offers an opportunity to extend the season, more so for the sailing but people do travel down in the off-season to do courses because, unlike Ireland or England, you actually need to have a certificate of some sort if you rent or you charter a boat in most countries in the world.”
Although owning the business comes with its own pressures, Harris can appreciate his surroundings, offering the food, the weather and lifestyle as reasons to jump ship to Portugal. But he still has things he misses from home.
“You miss your family and your friends. I missed Guinness a lot for the first two or three years but that’s waned. Also I miss the countryside a little bit. I used to love hiking back home and I miss places like Wexford, Connemara, Cork and Kerry.
“You sometimes would miss the weather and the seasons but back home after a day or two of low-level dark cloud you don’t miss it anymore.”
Sun, sea and more sun – what’s not to like? But before packing your bags and setting sail for the Algarve in a hazy dream of entrepreneurship, Harris advises that you do your homework. Many have walked the same path in Portugal and got tripped up by a missing document.
“They have a common saying down here that the best way to make a million in the Algarve is to bring 10 million with you, so if you do decide to go ahead and set something up here, you need to just explore all the bureaucracy, the paperwork and the set-up.
“I suggest finding either a good accountant or a good solicitor who’s going to be able to guide you through the system so that, down the track, you don’t have a rather nasty surprise when you don’t have a licence or piece of paper in your possession.”
Harris has a good grasp of the local language after 10 years in the country although he says his verbs need improvement. Learning the language can be difficult when the locals are happy to speak English with you and the television is subtitled not dubbed. But, as Harris points out, it’s always worth the effort.
“In general in the Algarve you’ll survive in English, but most people appreciate that if you are living somewhere foreign that you should be learning the language, at least have the basics to be polite.”