A French P.T. Barnum, Gilles Assouline is the carnival barker behind such ventures as undersea theme parks and a credit card with a $200 million limit.
Gilles Assouline loves to joke about being searched by airport security when his solid gold credit card sets off alarms. "They can't believe such a thing exists," he exclaims in a Gallic brogue. Perhaps for good reason. Called Seven Royal, the card is said to carry a $200 million credit limit and is available only through a secret Web site that outlines how the Swiss company that issues it, the Aduno Group, can procure novel amenities for cardholders. Want to rent the Orient Express or have your son's university diploma presented by Bill Clinton? No problem, says Assouline, who sits on the card's governing board. Some 150 high-net-worth individuals from 20 countries are Seven Royal members, he says, each of them posting $50 million of collateral to sign up, though he won't say who they are. Assouline declares that business is so good, even in these tough times, that membership will soon be closed.
Assouline's power card has one thing in common with his many other ventures: It seems too good to be true. In the last decade the French entrepreneur has raised millions to back investments ranging from a German music video channel to an aquatic theme park in Wuxi, China--with little to show for it. He started by founding a tiny software outfit that he used to take over the Parisian Capital Media Group in 1997. Its main operation was a music video channel; within a year cmg posted a $16 million loss and the company was delisted from Nasdaq. Assouline soon left. "It was a terrible time to be in digital media," he explains.
So Assouline switched gears, believing he could market monkfish better than Milli Vanilli. He decided to build an underground aquarium in Niagara Falls. The fact that the city already had an aquarium did not deter Assouline, who with former cmg board member David Ho lured investors and town officials with a stunning video of the "Blue Zoo," a 1-million-gallon seawater tank that had just opened in Beijing. "It wowed us," says George C. Hamberger, the real estate agent who sold Assouline's consortium the land where the $35 million aquarium would be built.
Then-New York governor George Pataki attended the groundbreaking in August 1999. A demolition team blasted through 40 feet of dolomite, leaving a pit the size of a football field only 1,000 feet from the northern edge of Niagara Falls. Then work came to a halt, because, he says, there was a fight among his consortium partners over the project's design.
The aquarium partners raised $6 million from investors. Where did the money go? Assouline says the excavation, which sat vacant for the next five years, cost $4 million. "That hole crippled downtown tourism," says Frank Parlato, a Buffalo, N.Y. developer who bought the land at a foreclosure sale in 2004.
Assouline was soon at work on another aquarium that would anchor a $280 million theme park at Montreal's largely shuttered Mirabel Airport. A??roports de Montr??al Chief Executive James Cherry announced an agreement in February 2006 to work with Assouline's I-Parks Oger Consortium. Its first phase was to be completed by 2007. Alas, the financing fell through. Assouline says the project's chief investor, a London asset management firm, is now out of business.
Now Assouline is at it again, in search of investors for a new development in China. Assouline's $3.2 billion plan in Wuxi calls for a 75-story office tower, a "digital animation city" and 15 attractions. But the capital hasn't come through.
That's a good thing, says Frank Parlato. He calls Assouline's aquariums "imaginary schemes." Parlato recently filled in Assouline's hole in Niagara Falls. It is now a parking lot.