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Celebrating 50 years of business on the Costa

Alan James, president of The Experience Group.
Alan James, president of The Experience Group. / SUR
  • Alan James was among the first entrepreneurs to see the potential of the real estate market as the expat population on the Costa del Sol grew. Fifty years on, the president of The Experience Group talks to SUR in English about his life and business

It was almost half a century ago that Alan James first moved to the Costa del Sol. The year was 1969 and the 31-year-old Londoner had been lured out to sunny Spain by the real estate potential for expats - an industry that was about to boom.

Now the 81-year-old is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his successful Costa del Sol based business, The Experience Group.

But the sun-soaked beaches of southern Spain that he now calls home are a far cry from his humble beginnings in post-war Britain.

Born in 1938, Alan can vividly remember the intense bombing of London and the Isle of Dogs, where his family lived.

"They were bombing every night," recalls Alan.

"I can remember being about three or four years old and sleeping in an Anderson shelter. I heard a huge bang and when I woke up in the morning the house next to us was completely missing.

"After that we were evacuated to Oxfordshire with my mother and two sisters. My father was taken prisoner in Sahara Libya as a desert rat in 1941, and was moved to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. He was missing presumed dead and was the longest surviving prisoner of war until he was released at the end of 1945."

After growing up in London, Alan studied Management Accounting and started working in the construction industry, where he described himself as a "high flyer."

While working in the UK, Alan met someone who talked about the real estate potential of expats in Spain.

He told SUR in English: "I didn't even know expats owned properties in Spain in those days."

Armed with 15 years of experience in the UK construction and building materials industry, he flew over to Spain where he was fortunate enough to meet two people, Thomas Fisher, a Swiss builder and developer, and Paco Jiménez Torres, who worked for the ministry of Industry in the Spanish government at the time.

Alan explained: "I could see the potential straight away and got involved with both of them. In the first few years of arriving we sold 200 to 300 properties. Things just mushroomed."

Within 10 years there were 17 companies in The Experience Group, serving the coast in a multitude of services.

Among the developments built or marketed by the group were: Urb Benamara Pueblo, Benamara Gardens, Jasmin Villas, Dos Hermanas (Estepona), La Cortijera (La Cala), Urb Bena Vista, Las Palmeras de Bena Vista, Centro Comercial Bena Vista, Balcón de Bena Vista, (Estepona) and Rincón del Paraíso in El Paraíso Alto (Benahavís).

However, when Alan first arrived, the Costa del Sol was a very different place to the booming tourist hot spot it is today.

He said: "There was pretty much nothing here. The road from Malaga to Gibraltar was two lanes both ways and was like a track in some places. The road went through all the towns on the coast too, and that was the only way to travel. It was a pioneering time back then.

"There were just villages and small towns with fishing harbours, quaint in their own way.

"What happened, and there's been a lot of criticism, is the expansion of the coast, which has been for the good of the Spanish people with the amount of work it has provided."

Alan added that the bad side of the huge growth on the coast is that the white villages have emptied as there's "nothing for the young people to do".

As for Alan's business, which he describes as "a collection of companies that have evolved from the demand of clients on the coast", it's fair to say he's been quite successful over the years.

Over the past 50 years Alan claims The Experience Group (www.exgspain.com) has built, sold or marketed more than 5,000 properties between Nerja and Sotogrande.

Employing 300 people at its peak, Alan says his group now employs 20 people, many of whom are family members.

In addition, the company opened the restaurants The Amara at Benamara and The Casablanca at Benavista, as well as running a number of electronics, interior design, golf, lawn bowling and tennis businesses.

Alan, who has six children and nine grandchildren, and lives in El Paraíso Alto, Benahavís, has some advice to anyone wanting to grow their business.

"They absolutely 100 per cent need to learn Management Accountancy," he said.

"It doesn't matter whether you have an ice cream bar or 50 companies, you need to know the margins, trends, when to move out, when to expand, and all that comes from Management Accountancy. You need to know the whole inside of your company, I know it sounds boring, but that's what it's all about."

The Experience Group has also helped the handicapped children's charity Aspandem in San Pedro de Alcántara, by running numerous golf tournaments over the years to raise much needed funds.

In the early 1980s the group helped organise two large events to help to lift the profile of the charity. Alan used his own planes to fly out singer Petula Clarke and her band for a hugely successful show at the Don Carlos Hotel Marbella. The following year he brought over comedian Ronnie Corbett and a group of other entertainers to perform for the charity at the Oasis Theatre.

Alan also built the Bena Vista Lawn Bowls Club in 1984, which is due to celebrate its 35th anniversary this year.

Although Alan hasn't retired, he has taken a step back now that he has sold parts of the company.

He said: "I still play golf once a week at 81. I'm also an artist; I have been since I was about nine years of age. And I'm an avid reader, I get through about three books a week; that, as well as having a big family, keeps me off the streets."

Alan, who added he has no plans to move back to the UK, added: "It's hard to find anywhere that is better than here, and I've travelled a lot around the world; there really is no place better."

He finished off by saying: "The Experience Group offers a big thank you to our Spanish hosts for giving us the opportunity to help to pioneer so many aspects offered by the marvellous Costa del Sol. And of course to all of the group's thousands of clients on the coast who enjoy their services."