- Alberto Chang is missing from Grupo Arcano, executives quit
- Follows questions raised about education, Google investment
Among the many troubling questions swirling around Chilean investor and Miami personality Alberto Chang-Rajii, the most pressing one is this: where is he?
The founder of private-equity firm Grupo Arcano is suddenly nowhere to be seen, worsening concerns about a career ascent that had him rubbing elbows with billionaire Richard Branson and coaxing Chileans to pour millions of dollars into his fund. His disappearance from public view caps two whirlwind weeks in which newspapers raised the possibility that Chang’s past -- from assertions that he was a seed investor in Google to his Stanford University MBA -- and investment record aren’t what they seem.
Colleagues and family members received an e-mail Wednesday from Chang’s personal account with “from Malta :-)” in the subject line. The 42-year-old said he was quitting his “job, company and life” after a “plan to fix things from abroad had failed.” In the latest twist, e-mails to Bloomberg Monday purporting to be from Chang’s work account said he has been traveling between Malta and London and that Grupo Arcano is a “solid and reputable” company and that every investor will be paid.
Executives of the firm resigned last week, telling clients they’re providing information to authorities.
“We have worked in Grupo Arcano for several years and have always performed real operations,” according to an e-mail received by fund clients from David Senerman, Grupo Arcano’s chief investment officer, his wife Nicole Soumastre, chief executive officer of its investment unit, and Paulo Brignardello, Arcano’s chief business officer. “We invested much of our own savings and our families’ savings with him. This deceit affects us personally, professionally, and also in our own wealth.”
People who say they are customers of Grupo Arcano and its investment-management affiliate Onix Capital LLC have been milling outside its offices in the posh Santiago neighborhood of Vitacura for days, saying nobody is responding to their e-mails and telephone calls to the firm. A sign reading “Out of Order” was affixed to the door of the building on Thursday, its provenance unknown.
To date, nobody who invested with the eight-year-old fund -- which offered some clients guaranteed returns of as much as 36 percent a year -- has told Bloomberg that they failed to get either their money or the promised returns when they came due. The public prosecutor raided Grupo Arcano’s offices on Thursday as part of an investigation into the case. Calls to the agency from Bloomberg outside of office hours were unanswered.
In the letter received by investors, the three resigning executives said they have “serious doubts” about the “amount and accuracy” of Chang’s assets. Efforts to reach the resigning executives, and the company’s former chief executive officer, Jorge Hurtado, have been unsuccessful. Phone calls and e-mails to the office went unanswered.
Two e-mails received Monday from a Grupo Arcano domain name purporting to be from Chang said despite a media maelstrom, “Arcano Group is a solid and reputable company with resources in Chile and abroad” and that the fund pays “each and every one of our investors.” One said Chang’s personal e-mail “was hacked in Malta” and “I have never had any intention of suicide, I’m still at the head of my company working as usual.”
It’s been a stunning turn for a man who catapulted himself from unknown businessman on the southernmost tip of South America to Branson’s neighbor in the British Virgin Islands and purported Silicon Valley seed investor. Chang, who said in 2014 that his private-equity firm generated $1.8 billion in annual income, is a fixture on Miami’s tech scene, serving at one time on the board of a non-profit aimed at boosting entrepreneurs. His reach goes as far as London and Sydney, where he opened offices in recent years.
Following several reports in local newspapers casting doubt on his college education and about probes into other investment firms, the Peru native tried to assuage skittish investors on March 28 with a statement saying nothing was out of order.
“I understand that the cases of fraud that have populated the press in the past few weeks are generating fear,” Chang wrote in the e-mailed statement to investors, seen by Bloomberg, “Grupo Arcano is far from these types of companies and it’s backed by its financial solvency.”
Not everyone was convinced. Two clients, one of whom had more than $1 million with Grupo Arcano, said they asked for their money back. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. At the time of the inquiry, the firm’s executives told them they couldn’t comply until the agreed-upon period of their investments expired.
At the center of Chang’s teetering empire is Grupo Arcano and the investment arm Onix, which promised investors sky-high returns -- in one example, 1.5 percent a month for an investment of 200 million pesos ($300,000), according to a contract seen by Bloomberg.
CEO Hurtado said in a March 27 interview with local newspaper El Mercurio that the guarantees went as high as 2.5 percent a month -- 36 percent a year. He quit Grupo Arcano on April 1.
Chang portrayed himself as an investment guru, saying he got an MBA and master’s in behavioral science from Stanford and bought 1 percent of Google for $10,000 when the company was founded in the 1990s. He showed photos of himself and Branson, the founder of U.K. conglomerate Virgin Group Ltd., to prospective investors.
A person close to the company, who asked to remain anonymous because the information is private, said Grupo Arcano had almost $100 million of assets under management in Chile as of last year.
Stanford’s Office of the Registrar told Bloomberg it couldn’t find anyone in the university’s records with Chang’s name ever attending the school or obtaining a degree. In his letter to investors, Chang backtracked on earlier statements, saying he attended Stanford but “didn’t take the final exam.” References to Stanford were removed from Grupo Arcano’s website.
Andy Bechtolsheim and David Cheriton, two of the first investors in Google, told Bloomberg they have never heard of Chang other than from inquiries about his relationship with Google, and doubt Chang’s claims that he gave Sergey Brin and Larry Page a $10,000 check in 1996. Winnie King, a spokeswoman for Google, declined to comment.
A 2015 investor presentation showed that in return for their money, Onix gave investors promissory notes that entitled holders to a monthly payout from “income-producing companies” and “successful exits” from startup firms. The notes are also backed by stakes in U.S. technology startups, the presentation showed.
Only two of the nine Chilean companies that Grupo Arcano said until recently it fully or partly owned -- payment processor Pronto Pago and real estate company Highlander -- generate income for the fund, according to CEO Hurtado in the March interview.
Chang said in a 2014 speech at the University of Arkansas his company had $1.8 billion of income from investments in 2013. But Hurtado said in the El Mercurio interview that Chang had meant that was money generated since 2001, when Grupo Arcano was founded. Hurtado also corrected information in the company’s website that said the group has 700 employees to say it has 46.
Grupo Arcano has said it profits from the sale of stakes in non-public companies, most of which are technology firms it has invested in since 2014. According to a 2015 presentation, investment arm Onix owns 0.01 percent of San Francisco-based mobile payments system Square and Los Angeles-based messaging provider Snapchat. Grupo Arcano’s website says it also owns undisclosed stakes in Uber, Yodel, Open English and U.K.-based Cambridge Quantum Computing. Of those, Bloomberg verified it made investments in Uber and Cambridge Quantum.
Chile’s Internal Tax Service said Chang didn’t live at his stated address and didn’t show up when asked to present documentation, according to its website. The Chilean Treasury sued him in 2011 for unpaid taxes and ruled to seize his assets. The case hasn’t been resolved.
Until recently, Chang’s Facebook profile displayed a picture of him boarding a private jet, and another one with his arm around Branson saying he was visiting his new home in the British Virgin Islands. Branson said on April 4 he was on good terms with Chang.
“I’ve known Alberto Chang for several years and I have been struck by his passion for innovation and his positive impact in a number of areas from education to space travel,” Branson said in an e-mail before his disappearance. In a follow-up message on Saturday, he said: “I am saddened to read the reports about Alberto Chang. Clearly, this is a developing situation and it would not be appropriate to comment until the facts become clear.”
Grupo Arcano’s three executives described last week’s e-mail from Chang’s account as “very disturbing” and said they had much of their own savings with him.
“We share the impact that this news causes in all the clients receiving this letter,” they wrote.