THAT DE SAVARY'S entrepreneurial skills are not the product of an MBA program is undeniable. Born and raised on a farm in western England, he never went to college. Actually, he admits with a rather raffish grin, he didn't quite complete his secondary school education: "I went to boarding school and left on my 17th birthday because the headmaster asked me to leave. I'd been found in the bedroom of his nanny."

However, de Savary adds, "I wouldn't have gone to university even had I graduated. I didn't like anything about school except the sports. I was a swimmer, a runner, and a boxer. I rode horses. And from the age of nine I was a sailor." The latter is the only sport he pursued seriously in adulthood, making it all the way to the 1983 America's Cup race, where he came in a close second. But de Savary's early enthusiasm for athletics is still evident, in both the sporting orientation of his resorts - where activities aside from championship-level golf range from all manner of watersports to falconry to beach gallops on Texas quarter horses - and in his still youthfully vigorous personal charisma.

"He has the power to just light up a room," enthuses Richard Hallam, de Savary's development and operations director and a longtime employee.

Upon leaving school in 1961, de Savary immediately started working at a mind-boggling array of jobs. "And I've been working ever since. I was a gardener, and I'd babysit for people's kids in the evenings. I sold secondhand Mercedes cars and encyclopedias. I did some short-order cooking and cleaned rooms in hotels. I was a house painter for a while, and when I came back to England, I ran a small furniture factory and became what's called a joiner, so I'm a reasonable carpenter."

While none of the jobs de Savary worked for the first eight years of his career might appear to have much to do with his present life, de Savary feels they're why he's such a hands-on employer today. "I may not be able to do everyone's jobs as well as they do, but if I had to cook in the kitchen, or make your bed, I could do it - because I've certainly had a go at it. I had to. My father died penniless; I've never inherited a penny. I've always had to work with my hands as well as with my brain. It's probably why I don't ask my staff now to do anything I can't do myself." Which in turn explains why much of de Savary's staff has been with him for decades, despite the long days and exacting standards he demands.

None of these jobs made him rich, either. But in 1969, says de Savary, "I met somebody who said there were great opportunities in West Africa. At the time, I had a wife and daughter to support, and no money. So I borrowed money and went there." Within­ five years, de Savary had built a solid ­import/export business from that calculated risk, and he then parlayed it into wildly successful shipping and oil ventures that made millions over some 20-odd years. He had three oil refineries and 16 shipyards across the world. "And along the way, through my involvement in the Egyptian oil business," he says, "I got involved in interesting real estate, building my first five-star hotel
in Cairo."

That sounds like a major career change, but de Savary says no. The common thread: people skills. "I built that hotel because I'd gotten friendly with Egypt's President [Anwar] Sadat and he asked me to." Sadat then jump-started de Savary's new business by opening the hotel with the high-profile, historic 1976 summit between himself and Israel's prime minister [Menachem] Begin.