It’s easy to compare 48-year-old Mark Weingard, a former derivatives trader to a cat with many lives because so far, Weingard has narrowly escaped death three times. Weingard grew up in Manchester, moved to London when he was 19, and went to University of London.
He soon dropped out to pursue his passion of hotel management, starting as a waiter and working the bar. “ I had no clue what I was doing,” says Weingard, “and wasn’t particularly well suited for the job.” He returned to University, then dropped out to start a career in banking before going back part time to the University of London where he received a 1st Class Honours degree in Economics.
Convinced he could make it as a trader because he had an aptitude for numbers (“I thought trading would be like playing a computer game,” he says), Weingard entered the world of finance. His first jobs were in the administration departments of several banks. At the age of 24, he landed his dream job as a trader in the London office of J.P. Morgan, and by his early 30s, he was earning a million dollars a year. But money was not his initial driver; his original goal was to find a nice house and live a good life. “I never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur and have my own businesses,” says Weingard.
On 9/11/2001, Mark Weingard was due at his offices next to the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but he was running late. He phoned the office and was told a plane had crashed into the tower and not to come downtown. That was his first escape from death. The following year, Weingard, split up with his girlfriend, Annika Linden, whom he had been with for seven years. The next month Annika went with her friends to Bali and was tragically killed in the nightclub bombings.
As if enough tragedy hadn’t struck, two years later, Mark Weingard was at home in Phuket when the 2004 tsunami struck. Miraculously, there was a reef in front of his house which stopped the water from engulfing his entire home. Weingard and his friends took sanctuary on the roof of the property.
To commemorate his fiancée’s death, and perhaps because he had survived three tragedies, Mark Weingard became a philanthropist and created the Annika Linden Foundation. On the 10th anniversary of the bombing, 2012, Weingard opened the Annika Linden Centre as a permanent memorial and changed the name to the Inspirasia Foundation.
Inspirasia focuses on education and disability projects in Indonesia, Thailand and India, and funds several NGO’s including Puspadi (which makes prostheses and distributes wheelchairs). Eight-five percent of the staff at Puspadi are disabled. Inspirasia also includes YPK that has a stroke-victim centre and runs a school for children with cerebral palsy. The Foundation has donated more than $10 million to 13 educational health and rehabilitation programs in three countries. “The core of the foundation is to create light from darkness,” says Weingard.
Two years ago Mark Weingard moved to Valletta, Malta, where he hopes to start some new projects, and where we caught up with him by phone:
Q: Did your parents give you any advice?
A: My father died when I was 10 so it’s hard to remember his advice. My mother is a very wonderful woman and always gives me advice whether I want it or not. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a very big influence to my life. He told me to always be honest and help other people. I didn’t really come from an academic and intellectual background but I grew up with good friends. I think you are the sum of the people who surround you and I was lucky to be surrounded by very good people.
Q: Your father, a taxi-cab driver, died in a car crash right before his 36th birthday. Your father’s sister, your grandfather’s first wife and two of his children died young – how did that affect you?
A: I think I was very conscious that I wouldn’t live forever and decided I didn’t want to remain a banker even though I was earning a lot of money with a lot of job security. I decided to give that all up. I’ve always felt that life isn’t going to last forever so you’ve got to do as much with it as you can. My first post-banking business was Worldmine, intended to be the first global ranking system for hotels based on “mystery shopping reports”. It was a good business idea, but unfortunately I decided to take on Lonely Planet and create city guides as well. This was 1999, the year the Nasdaq tech Bubble burst. My business didn’t survive. I learned a lot from this however.
Q: You’ve had so many tragedies in your life but also some very strange experiences. Tell us what happened when you learned about the Bali bombing?
A: As soon as I heard about the bombing I knew something was wrong. I got on the flight the next morning and went to look for her. When I arrived in Bali I had to go from place to place viewing bodies on ice slabs. Luckily I had two close friends with me who happened to be in Bali at the time, and they shielded me from much of the horror.
When I realized I wouldn’t find her alive I went back to my hotel room. I took a shower and wrapped a towel around me, then sat and wrote. I wanted to try to think what she would think. As I did this the bedroom door slammed open.
I went to see who opened it and as I stepped into the corridor, the door slammed shut. Annika had played her last practical joke on me. I just laughed as I went to the receptionist and had to explain that I had locked myself semi-naked out of my room. I felt like she was telling me to be positive and not think of the negative. I went back to my room and decided there and then to set up a foundation in her name to mark this negative event with a positive so the terrorists would not win.
Q: What are you most proud of in your philanthropic work?
A: I suppose I’m most proud of the fact that the organizations are run by people with disabilities, we really focus on helping people get jobs and helping them find a reason to live.
Q: In 2004, you survived the tsunami in Phuket, your third devastating tragedy in three years. What did that feel like?
A: As is sat on top of the roof, I just looked up to the sky and wondered, “Now what am I supposed to do?” I decided to take a month off and work on the relief efforts in Phuket and dedicate even more of my time to my charitable work.
Q: You’ve just opened Iniala, an incredible beachfront resort in Phuket. You have stated that it is trying to redefine the ultimate levels of hospitality and focus on Design, Art and Gastronomy. But does it have a philanthropic focus?
A: In its first year Iniala Beach house will have donated US$ 200,000 to charity (10% of net room revenues and 5% of other revenues); next year that number will hopefully double. My aim is that Iniala will account for US$ 5,000,000 annually in charitable giving by 2024.
Q: Why Design, Art and Gastronomy?
A: We have employed 10 leading designers and 20 recognized artists to create individual spaces that are all “out of the ordinary.” We are also lucky to have at the helm of our restaurant, Eneko Atxa, a 3 Michelin star chef rated number 26 in the world.
Q: How much does it cost to stay at this resort?
A: The magnificent 450 square meter penthouse, with an enormous private pool ranges from US $2,000 to $3,500 a night and the individual villas range from US$ 3000 to US$ 7500 a night depending on the season. The best deal though is if you want to take over all 10 rooms and have exclusive use of the resort. The rates start at US$10,000 nightly in low season to US$25,000 nightly at the New Year. For this, you get exclusive use of one of the world’s great resorts.
Q: Last year you went to Java to buy art for Iniala and met a woman in a wheelchair who told you how a converted motorbike had allowed her to get a job and get back into life again. How did that inspire you?
A: Sri lestari is a very inspiring woman. This year we sponsored her trip through Sumatra and Java by motorcycle .Every day she met many disabled people and inspired them to have normal and productive lives. At the end of the trip, she was met the president of Indonesia. I am very proud of what she is doing there and we now have a new initiative called Dnetwork where we try to directly encourage people to employ those with disabilities. We plan to do something similar in Thailand, Spain and Malta. This is a project we want to push and go global because it can really help change lives for many people.
Q: Why do you choose to create hotels to raise money?
A: I don’t do anything purely for monetary reasons; I do things to create change. At the Beach house we have introduced many new standards: each villa has its own spa and therapist, a personal chef and housekeeper, a personal driver and villa manager. If you go out on a trip, you take our masseur and chefs with you.
Q: You have said that Iniala will be one of many resorts. In 2016, you’re opening a new resort in Malta (where you live), which will raise even more finds for Inspirasia. Can you tell us about that?
A: We’re set up to open in beginning of 2016. Barbara Bastions is the most beautiful and peaceful street overlooking the grand harbor of Valletta. I have purchased two beautiful townhouses there and I am currently converting them into a 16-room luxury resort. Once again, we will focus on Design and Art, but here we will reference Maltese and European designers.
Q: Why Malta?
A: The place has amazing people, amazing architecture, and a fantastic culture. There is nothing special in terms of the palatial hotels that you can find today in Italy or France, and we want to try something that is really special, a benchmark for the level of hospitality in the country.
Q: Does Malta have a market for high net worth individuals?
A: The government today is firmly targeting HNWI and wants to attract them to come and live in Malta. With its fantastic climate and good taxation it is a great place for people to settle. We firmly believe that the “Jet Set” is coming and Iniala is at the forefront of creating high end hotels and residences for. We want to be an integral part of the enrichment of the country.
Q: I understand Malta International Airport has just built a new VIP terminal.
A: Yes, it compliments the Ministerial Lounge, previously used exclusively by senior government officials. The Ä450,000 investment will help position Malta as an aviation industry player and enhances the island’s commercial aviation product, giving the quickest access and the shortest possible distance between a passenger and their arriving or departing flight. Regular passengers can spend 90 minutes in the waiting area, but the process for VIP passengers is 10 minutes flat.
Q: Have any VIPS used it yet?
A: The first guest was Prince William, and Angelina Jolie used it recently.
Q: What does Malta do about the catering needs of private jets? What kind of catering do they offer?
A: There are a number of licensed aircraft handling and flight operations support companies on the island. DC Aviation Ltd, Mediterranean Aviation Co. Ltd (Medavia) and Executive Aviation Malta are the main caterers for private jets.
Q: Will the new range of jets currently being prepped, eg Dassault’s FX5, Bombardier’s Global 7000 and 8000; Cessna’s Longitude, Gulfstream 280 be able to land there?
A: The airfield’s main runway; RWY 13-31 is 3.5km long and can handle those and most wide-body aircraft.
Q: You’ve flown on the Mustang and the Citation. Have you ever thought about buying your own jet?
A: Yes, a few years ago I really thought about doing it and I thought it would be fun to fly. I still think it will be quite fun to fly but normally I don’t have time to tie my own shoe laces.
Q: Where would you go with it?
A: I would travel to Barcelona to go see my kids. That is the one thing I would really consider doing.
Q: My last question: almost 2 years ago you moved to Malta, and you plan to invest in Valetta. Why?
A: I want to be part of the city’s future and create something special for Valetta by creating momentum. Work is my mistress.