Byline: WILLIAM CASH;SONIA PURNELL
Drive up to the imposing Palladian entrance of Ston Easton Park Hotel, near Bath, formerly the family seat of Lord Rees-Mogg, and the chances are that parked on the gravel is a Bentley Continental. Standing on the front lawn is also likely to be a Sikorsky helicopter.
Ask who they belong to and you will get the hushed answer 'Lord Davis', as heads nod towards an energetic-looking figure in Hermes-belted jeans marching around the lobby barking questions in an estuary accent into a mobile phone.
On his 40th birthday last month, the little-known Andrew Davis appears to have had plenty to celebrate at the party he threw for 50 friends at his Devon manor house in the picturesque Culm Valley. On paper, at least, Davis now ranks as one of Britain's most successful young businessmen. His von Essen group owns a clutch of country-house hotels, including Cliveden and the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath.
He is now said to be interested in buying the Lanesborough, the five-star hotel on Hyde Park Corner.
But information about the man himself is surprisingly hard to come by.
Described by a colleague as 'manic, bright, exhausting and over-enthusiastic', and by another as 'Arthur Daley with crested cufflinks', aspects of his rise could feature in a Thackeray novel.
The Andrew Davis story begins with a mystery: his education. According to Davis, in a rare interview with ES, he is the only son of a West Country farmer and attended Gordonstoun (he would have been there with Prince Edward) for just a few weeks, although he admits: 'Gordonstoun and I did not work out.' He then went on to Caterham College and Reigate Grammar in Surrey, near where his father, Brendon - who left farming to work for Redland Tiles - and mother still live. However, a call to Gordonstoun's registrar could find no record of Davis ever having attended the school. Then there's the puzzle of the source of his fortune. When quizzed on this, Davis replies: 'My main money was made primarily in art and then property and then art again.
I've had various property antics over the years but my hardcore business was art and diamonds.' By diamonds, he actually means flogging antique jewellery around the West Country, his first moneymaking venture according to his accountant, Major Alan Howard of Mazars Chartered Accountants in Poole.
Then he moved into trading Old Master pictures. From art he moved into property, making and losing various sums from a series of aggressive deals, including the conversion of Bliss Mill in Oxfordshire into 35 yuppie-style flats. Along the way he acquired a reputation for only touching deals in which he could drive the hardest of bargains.
Davis got into the hotel business by accident after he bought his first hotel, the Mount Somerset just outside Taunton, in the early Nineties, which he planned to turn back into a private residence.
After realising the Mount Somerset made a tidy profit, he left it as a business and decided to look around for other historical hotels to acquire.
Unlike many other luxury hotel groups - such as the Four Seasons - which lease their properties and make their profit from the hotel services, Davis has gambled on making large profits through the increasing property value of his stately home-grade hotels.
There are other theories as to the source of his wealth. It has been put around (most recently in a profile of the group in Caterer & Hotelkeeper that Davis sent us himself) that his money comes from a family trust belonging to his wealthy aunt, Erica, the Countess von Essen of Austria. He is related to her through his mother's family, who fled to England from Austria in 1939.
'Andrew comes from a very wealthy family,' says Major Howard.
Yet enquiries into the eighty-something Countess von Essen (family motto: 'Ex Cineribus Phoenix Oritur' - the phoenix rises from the ashes) draw a blank. …