On a rocky Channel Island, wanderers and millionaire built private sanctuary

February 10, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Correspondent Sun staff writers Ian Johnson and Ed Brandt contributed to this article.

GUERNSEY, Channel Islands -- People come to these islands in the English Channel to shelter their money and their lives. And so, it seems, William Norman Clever, a middle-aged sailing wanderer, and Peter Ogden, a clever millionaire, found a common reason to be here.

They both wanted privacy.

Mr. Ogden, the founder of the largest computer sales company in Britain, is so publicity-shy that his own public relations officer says he doesn't know his age. He is said to be 46.

The son of a trade union official, the Englishman did not come from the privileged class that tends to rise to the top in Britain. If it hadn't been for a graduate business degree from Harvard and entree to a less exclusive way of working for an American investment banking house in London, he might not have become rich enough to buy his own company, or his own island.

Mr. Clever went into retirement in his 40s, having run a number of successful ventures in California. He sailed around the world with his wife, Kathleen Marie, and ended up as captain and cook on a charter yacht working France's Cote D'Or.

The English millionaire met the Clevers on a charter more than two years ago. They became friendly, and he hired the Clevers to help him create his dream world on Jethou, a rocky hump-backed island of about 100 acres that rises sharply from the sea about two miles from Guernsey.

A few weeks ago, the Clevers were rewarded for their services with a Caribbean vacation aboard the company yacht. It was their last boating adventure. They were slain aboard the boat, along with two young English crewmen.

The tranquil Caribbean is a long way from this place that's stormy and forbidding in winter. Once a sanctuary for smugglers and privateers, Jethou is a difficult place to get to even in the best of weather.

"If you ever see it at low tide, the rock situation around there is unbelievable," says Andy Grendall, a young builder who worked five months with Mr. Clever. "You see the rocks what they are, and you think, 'Jeez-us.' "

But Bill Clever thrived here in his own way. He renovated Jethou island virtually from the ground up for Mr. Ogden and his partner, Philip Hulme, who had bought the place about five years ago as a residence and customer hospitality center.

When he was done, Jethou had a handsome white mansion perched on a promontory, two staff cottages, a power station, tennis courts, swimming pool, lovely lawns and skeet shooting. The landscape includes a locally famous "fairy woods" with ancient gnarled trees and bluebells growing along the pathways.

"Bill converted it from being like a rundown shack of a place to being a really sort of nice . . . palace, if you like," said Mr. Grendall

On Guernsey, the cost of the island and its renovation is estimated at $24 million.

This might seem a lot of money for a company that took in $382 million in 1992, but showed just $8 million in net profits. But Computacenter Ltd. is privately held, so there are no stockholders to complain about what might seem an extravagance.

Guernsey is one of the main Channel Islands, where offshore banking and finance institutions are attracted to avoid taxes and scrutiny. The companies here, along with yachting and tourism, box fishermen and lobstermen into smaller and smaller corners, much as watermen find themselves displaced on the Chesapeake Bay.

But the work they bring is good. And nobody asks many questions.

Many people remembered Bill and Kathy Clever for their youthful vitality, but also for their strong sense of privacy. They don't seem to have made many close friends on Guernsey, or even on Herm, a slightly larger island nearby where they occasionally stopped in at the Mermaid Tavern. Bill Clever hardly ever left Jethou.

"No, no," Mr. Grendall said. "The only time he ever left the island was to get supplies from here, or he used to go over to Herm for drinks."

The builder recalled the American as an energetic, hands-on construction supervisor who zoomed around the island on a four-wheel Honda bike.

"He was roaming free," Mr. Grendall said over a beer in the Library Bar of Moore's Hotel. "He'd shoot off and we wouldn't see him for half a day.

Mrs. Clever was friendly, but also a private person.

"She was forever carrying down sandwiches and tea every couple hours, making sure the boys were all right," Mr. Grendall said. "She was very quiet. You could hardly get two words out of her."

And the workmen were not invited inside the mansion.

"No, no, no. Even for signing checks. It was always signed on the doorstep," Mr. Grendall said.

But Mrs. Clever had more contact with people on Herm -- population 113, with about a dozen school-age children. She was especially fond of the children, having raised three girls and two boys of her own.

"She was wonderful with the Herm kids," said Catherine Kalamis, a free-lance journalist whose husband runs the Mermaid. "She brought presents for all the kids -- very beautiful, expensive presents."

Mr. Grendall thought Mr. Clever seemed happy to be away from the United States, because of the violence of American life. And he seemed to enjoy the isolation of Jethou.

"His only love was sailing. All you ever heard him talk about was sailing."

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