Dinner with Herman Alves

An interview with an ultra successful Montreal businessman, a Portuguese man who has made millions and lost millions. 

By Jorge Armand, Staff Writer

“If I try to push you with a rope, the rope has no power, because it will bend and fall. If you want to be pulled, you will go somewhere. But if you want to be pushed, you will go nowhere. Be certain of what you want to do.”

via www.breakingstones.com

It’s 6:00 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. I speak to Herman Alves on the phone; he finally agrees to meet for a short interview at 7:00 p.m. He tells me to see him at his restaurant. I need a shave; I don’t have the time. I almost walked out the door wearing sandals and a beater, but I figured I would wear something more appropriate.

Alves was born in Fatima, Portugal. It might have been 1957, but the living conditions in Fatima were Stone Age – no electricity or running water, not even toilets.

At the age of 5, Herman’s father left him and his mother in search of a better life in Brazil. Alves and his mother were left to work the land in order to live. After experiencing social alienation in Germany, his father returned. Then the Alves family moved to Montreal, where he lives now.

In the subway, it’s about 30 degrees Celsius. I envy Montrealers and their trendy summer outfits. I stride hurriedly on Notre-Dame Street. I look pretentious. People smoking outside a dive bar shoot me sharp-eyed looks and rattle in French. I check my watch, it’s 6:56 p.m.

Behind a waving Portuguese flag, the wall reads “Bitoque.” I pull on a heavy door and enter the restaurant. I sit down at the bar. A pretty waitress asks me if I want a drink, I accept. I quickly change my mind and ask for iced water; it could be early for booze.

At 7:00 p.m. Herman is facing me. He is agitated because the phone rang and no one at the restaurant was able to answer in time. Herman asks me to sit at a table. He wears a grey suit, no tie. He stammers a bit, but speaks with confidence. His hand gestures are exemplary of European culture. He asks with a big smile, “Would you like something to eat?”

“The back of your recently published book, Breaking Stones, says you have made millions and lost millions, tell me about that,” I say. Herman pauses for a second then says, “On paper, I was a millionaire at the age of 26, because I started buying buildings at the age 18. But I lost everything, in 1984, because of my divorce. I had to start from scratch. I bought a restaurant in a hot area of Montreal, but the concept just didn’t click; I made bad deals, bought too many buildings too fast, had problems with tenants. I was at the brink of bankruptcy.”

 Herman has lived many lives in only 50 years. He has done a hilarious variety of jobs: worm picker, club-owner, calèche driver, marketing consultant, and even a political activist. He has endured incredibly hard times. Creativity and perseverance are Herman’s keys to phenomenal episodes in his life.

We are interrupted by a tall, middle-age, tanned woman with perfect make-up. She hands Herman a fat envelope, then walks away. Herman takes the envelope and says, “That’s my ex-wife, she does the accounting for my restaurant.” He chuckles.

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