Trump’s Ecstatic Brazilian Partner Sees Big Deals in His FutureBy
Ricardo Bellino wants to franchise movement, and monetize it
He typifies Trump partners with expectations around the globe
The most lucrative deal of Ricardo Bellino’s life was Villa Trump, a half-billion-dollar golf resort that never got built.
Bellino pitched Donald Trump on the idea in 2003 in his Manhattan office under the pressure of a three-minute deadline. The deal that featured a Jack Nicklaus-designed course and Bill Clinton as honorary celebrity member fell through when the project’s Brazilian investors backed out -– but not without termination fees. Trump walked away with $7 million, Bellino and his partners twice that.
By then, Bellino had already spun his encounter with Trump into a book on the art of the pitch. He called it “You Have 3 Minutes!” with a foreword by Trump.
Now a multimillionaire with homes in Miami and Barcelona, Bellino, 51, has made a career out of peddling the Trump name. He is giddy with plans to parlay his proximity into something bigger. Like middlemen and partners across nearly two dozen countries where Trump has done business, Bellino is vying to play a role in a presidency rife with potential conflicts of interests in foreign policy.
On Thursday, Trump is due to lay out his plan for separating himself from his businesses to assume the presidency. Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, said partners like Bellino offering to broker political dealings can create new conflicts.
“Even if there’s not a direct quid pro quo, you don’t want to have that ambiguity or favors that you’re obligated to,” she said.
Bellino claims credit for helping bring The Apprentice reality show to Brazil, for creating the first Trump Open (with a sports marketer recently indicted in the FIFA scandal) and laying the groundwork for Trump Towers Rio, the largest urban office complex in a developing nation (it’s on hold). As a token of his admiration, he once gifted his billionaire partner a large-scale pixelated portrait -- of Trump. It was made from hundreds of coffee capsules.
Trump has said that he has a stake in the Apprentice franchise; MGM revealed that he will remain executive producer on the new season of Celebrity Apprentice as well.
Bellino says he’s not a sycophant, he just knows a deal when he sees one. He’s an idea guy, and he believes in Trump’s ability to think big. That’s why, after years of defending Trump to the skeptics in his business circles, he’s ready to pounce.
Most of Trump’s projects in Latin America are either delayed or failures, but that shouldn’t stop his political revolution from taking hold here, or at least fueling some hat sales, Bellino says. Bellino sees a chance not only to franchise Trump’s political merchandise, but to wedge himself into Trump’s political dealings like he often did in his business negotiations.
‘Delicate Diplomatic Thing’
He wants to set up a meeting between Trump and his friend Marcos Pereira, the Brazilian trade minister, and Brazilian President Michel Temer, "creating an agenda for collaboration on commerce," in what he called, "a very delicate diplomatic thing."
The goal? “Make South America great again!” Bellino said in an interview in Sao Paulo. “I ordered the hats. It’s going to be fantastic."
The Trump Organization didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For Bellino, Trump’s political victory is a story that’s easier to sell than his business dealings in South America. The only Trump project fully completed in Latin America was the Trump Panama. Bellino’s Villa Trump and a resort in Mexico’s Baja peninsula fell through, while several other projects are behind schedule or unfinished. The Trump hotel in Barra de Tijuca was slated for the Rio Olympics. While it did have a soft opening, only half the rooms are functioning and it is still being completed four months after the games ended. Meanwhile, the bigger Trump Towers Rio downtown has yet to break ground amid delays. Both projects have been cited in an investigation by prosecutors into corruption at Brazilian pension funds.
Anselmo Henrique Cordeiro Lopes, a federal prosecutor in Brasilia, opened a probe into $40 million in investments made by two small Brazilian pension funds in the Trump Hotel Rio, which was owned by Trump’s Brazilian partner, LSH Barra.
An October 21 court filing by Cordeiro also cited the separate Trump Towers Rio, five-tower corporate office project for 5 billion reais that is part of a downtown port revitalization area. Cordeiro said The Trump Organization “was favored in a suspicious way” by a state bank’s investment fund that’s been singled out in an alleged bribery scheme involving the former head of Brazil’s lower house. No one from the Trump organization has been implicated in the probe, and the Trump organization has said it wasn’t directly involved in developing the projects.
Bellino, who managed a modeling agency before he met Trump, says he was an early proponent of bringing Trump to the port revitalization project, but is no longer involved in the project, which appears to be on the same path to nowhere as his Villa Trump -- the developer had once promised to finish the first two towers before the Rio Olympics.
It’s been more than a decade since Jack Nicklaus visited Villa Trump about an hour’s drive north of Sao Paulo in preparing his signature golf course, but it’s now just a cattle ranch with 300 head, and the only sign of the abandoned golf course is a grass nursery that’s still maintained by landscapers. The Depieris and Meyerfreunds, Brazilian families who made their fortunes in pharmaceuticals and chocolates, pulled out in 2006 after a falling out with Bellino over who was the real local Trump partner.
Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city with a history of conservative politics, is fertile terrain for Trump business development. In October, Brazilian entrepreneur Joao Doria, the former host of the local version of The Apprentice, was elected mayor. It was a harbinger for Trump’s win a month later, and a sign of Latin America’s broader shift right.
Bellino says with Trump headed to the White House, he’s moving to cash in.
“The thing I made the most money on in my life was something that was never built,” he said. “But we built a relationship, which is great. My friend is now CEO of America.”