A controversial Swiss property developer is one of the newest members of US President Donald Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago club.
Urs Ledermann is a self-made entrepreneur from a Zurich suburb known for helping a city neighbourhood go upscale. Homeowners have criticised his business tactics, saying they were pressured to sell their properties to his growing firm, while the press has closely followed his rise in the business world. Now, Ledermann and his wife have gained access to Donald Trump’s Florida compoundexternal link also known as the “Winter White House”.
Ledermann told swissinfo.ch that he joined the club after several years of visiting it with friends. Last year, he and his wife decided to become members since they were spending more time in the United States.
“It has beach access, which was one of the big draws for us,” he said, adding that other clubs in the area were difficult to join and more family oriented.
Trump has visited the resort on most weekends since his inauguration, meaning Mar-a-Lago members could gain privileged access to the new American head of state.
But Ledermann says Trump’s presence did not factor in to his decision to join.
“That is not our interest. We are Swiss and not American,” he said.
The Palm Beach, Florida club has nearly 500 paying members, according to a recent report in the New York Times, and added 92 new associates since last year. Entry fees doubled to $200,000 (CHF202,495) after Trump’s inauguration.
Laetitia Rittmeister, another Swiss resident, also recently joined the club. She is an author and a liquidator at the firm Temenos AG in Unterägeri, not to be confused with the Geneva-based financial software company Temenos.
“Mar-a-Lago is a very international club,” said Bernd Lembke, the resort’s managing director. “We have many members from many countries who own a home in Palm Beach.”
Lembke added that all potential club members are vetted before being allowed to join and that many other members are also in the construction and real estate businesses, owning multiple properties or hotels.
According to public records, Ledermann and his wife maintain a property in Lantana, a town in Palm Beach County near Mar-a-Lago.
“It doesn’t surprise me that [Ledermann] would want to socialize there,” said a longtime resident of Ledermann’s hometown of Zollikon.
Ledermann, the son of the village butcher, is a self-made real estate entrepreneur. A few years ago, he tried entering politics, expressing an interest in joining Zollikon’s local government. For the longtime resident, who did not wish to be named, the reason was obvious.
“He wanted to promote his personal business.”
But Ledermann never took office.
“I am too direct. I am an entrepreneur,” he said. “As a politician one has to be too diplomatic.”
The King of Seefeld
In 1979, Ledermann founded a consulting business. The firm expanded in the following years as it developed real estate in Zurich’s Seefeld neighborhood, leading the entrepreneur to be nicknamed the “King of Seefeld”.
“His firm was a symbol and a motor in the gentrification process here,” said Urs Frey, a community leader in Seefeld.
Frey’s community organisation was always critical of Ledermann’s firm. Frey said that some residents found the real estate developer acting as a sort of “property collector” who “made it difficult for residents with smaller wallets to remain in the neighborhood”.
But in local business circles, Ledermann is recognised as an astute property entrepreneur who bought into real estate at the right time and transformed an area that now houses some of Zurich’s trendiest bars and restaurants.
Until recently, Ledermann’s wife Anna Maria owned a vintage shop on the neighbourhood’s main street.
A year after Ledermann’s real estate company held an unsuccessful IPO, Swiss Life acquired 28 of the 60 buildings he owned at an estimated purchase price of CHF150 million.
Real estate expansion
Mar-a-Lago owner Donald Trump has an international real estate portfolio – and surrounding controversies – of his own. Media reports published during last year’s US presidential campaign described how he exerted pressure on residents of rent-controlled buildings he purchased to force them out, including cutting heat and water services.
Ledermann was quick to point out that his business is very different to that of the US president.
His firm has begun expanding overseas with what he describes as a small rental portfolio focused on condominiums.
The company – Ledermann US Real Estate Corporation – has an office in Boston that retrofits old houses to luxury standards.
Ledermann has children living in the US and in Britain, and he said he wants to “build” something in both countries.
What does Ledermann think of Trump’s approach to running the US government, sometimes from the Winter White House?
“These are special times. I’m not a politician, so it’s difficult to say, but perhaps he is precisely a different politician.”