72 Hours in Cartagena
Crashing an elite Colombian wedding, a rookie finance blogger discovers the secrets to success
As I stepped into my new Toronto apartment, I was disappointed. It was dingier than I had hoped. I had left behind my life in Vancouver, driven by the dream of creating a stock market website. Canada's financial markets, particularly in mining and oil, had made fortunes for many players, and I wanted to be one of them.
This was 2012. I was a young, naive, nobody in a competitive game; a bit funny, excellent at flattery and wildly ambitious. My secret weapon was the part in my hair, giving me an aura of success that surpassed the reality of the situation.
These days, I have slightly more experience. Everyone’s always asking me about this stock or that commodity. But there’s a lot to be said for serendipity, and that’s what this story is about: a happy coincidence that was life-altering.
A few months before launching CEO.CA, I was introduced to Frank Giustra, a mining legend, through a mutual friend who recognized my ambition. The internet was begging for Frank's insights on the markets, and, to my amazement, he agreed to an interview with me.
In the days following my move to Toronto, I debuted the website with Frank's story, and it quickly took off.
I pleaded with Frank for more opportunities. In a gesture of incredible generosity, he invited me to Colombia to tour some of his investments.
Frank's friend and business partner, Serafino "Fino" Iacono, picked us up in Cartagena with tight security. Fino, a co-founder of a $10 billion Latin American oil company, exuded confidence. He had a strong New York accent and frequently boasted, "We're the biggest" and "We're the only," but he also had a great sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself.
While touring one mine and another port construction site, it was clear that Fino and Frank's connection went beyond business. An important football match in Barranquilla was our next stop, and we raced down the highway, escorted by an impressive police motorcade. These were powerful men and Colombia was known for turmoil.
Colombia dominated Bolivia in the match, and our box seats were filled with dignitaries, including a former president, beautiful women and high energy.
In a surprising turn, Fino, whom I had met just hours earlier, turned to me and warmly asked, "Are you coming to the wedding?"
Back at Fino's stunning estate in Cartagena, I found myself puffing on one of his menthol cigarettes, despite not being a smoker. It was a surreal moment. Fino's upcoming wedding to Maria Paola Meija, a journalist, designer, and former beauty queen, promised to be a remarkable occasion.
Fast forward to the wedding week, we boarded Frank's enormous golden plane, larger than my own home, with its own master suite and shower. It was breathtaking. We were joined by several prominent figures in the mining world and their dates.
Midway into our 8-hour journey, we realized that Mr. Anderson, a fellow traveller, had accidentally left his passport behind. However, he was the kind of guy who had a knack for talking his way out of any situation, and we pressed on.
Cartagena, founded by Spanish settlers in 1533, is a historical gem, rich with tales of fortune seekers and pirates. Now, it’s a Caribbean paradise hidden behind ancient fortifications.
In the heart of the Old Town, historic buildings and churches stand shoulder-to-shoulder, their inner courtyards concealed from the outside world.
The grand three-day wedding brought together leaders in mining and energy, who had fuelled a Latin American natural resource boom driven by China's relentless demand. Fino, with his massive empire and diverse partnerships, attracted an elite crowd, and rivalries were set aside for the newlyweds.
After checking into my hotel, I wandered over to Frank's villa. Security granted me access, where I rubbed elbows with a few Canadian big shots I had only known by reputation.
There was Gene McBurney, founder of an iconic investment bank and a seed investor in Blackberry; Pat DiCapo, a young financier with a remarkable track record; and CanaccordGenuity CEO Paul Reynolds and his lovely wife. Another guest, who we'll call Mortimer, was once Canada's highest-paid public company executive, earning a whopping $34.6 million a few years back. It was intimidating.
I was a lot taller and heavier than Frank, Pat and Mortimer, but the runt of the litter in terms of life experiences and achievements.
In a surprising move, Frank hoisted his arm over my shoulder and proudly introduced me as his son, leaving Pat and Mortimer bewildered.
I slammed back a few drinks to ease my nerves and started to have fun.
The next morning, I headed up to the hotel's rooftop pool to cure my hangover and grab some food. The views of Cartagena were fantastic. In no time I was soaking up the sun and sharing a hair-of-the-dog with my fellow travellers.
Among them was Harry Pokrandt, an accomplished mining investment banker who was really into Bitcoin, the digital currency worth $129 at the time. He was so engrossed in telling us about it that he forgot to put on his sunscreen and soon ended up with a bright pink sunburn.
Later, we found ourselves at a nearby nightclub with the wedding party. Rich Partagas Series D cigars circulated, and the air thickened with smoke. We were grooving to live Reggaeton music when things took an unexpected turn. The federales showed up and apprehended Mr. Anderson for being in Colombia without a passport, hauling him away.
In the midst of the chaos, Mortimer came to me, looking stressed. I knew he was in trouble back in Canada. His company was on the edge of bankruptcy. He leaned in and said with all seriousness, "I need to talk to your dad about making an investment.”
I couldn't bring myself to disappoint him by admitting Frank wasn't my real dad, so I agreed to relay the message.
The next morning, as I was struggling with my tie, my new sunburned friend Harry, the crypto enthusiast, came to my rescue.
The wedding ceremony took place at the convention centre on Cartagena's waterfront. As I marvelled at the staggering beauty of the event, I asked Paul how he managed to stay fresh despite days of partying. He shared a laugh with me about the importance of "buzz maintenance" during his illustrious career in investment banking.
As we chatted, Paul offered me a ride on his Challenger jet back to Toronto. It was tempting, but I had already arranged to return to Vancouver with Frank. I wrestled with the decision, wondering if I was missing out on a valuable opportunity.
Inside, the ballroom was covered floor to ceiling with fresh flowers, and there was word that Fino had exhausted the entire supply of roses in Colombia. I noticed Mr. Anderson, looking dapper and calm, despite his earlier passport mishap. Luckily, Fino pulled some strings and helped secure his release.
As the night unfolded, live bands rocked the stage, and the dance floor came to life. When the mariachi band took over, cowboy hats and bandanas were handed out, making the atmosphere even more electric. Frank Holmes, a renowned investor, along with his son, Nigel, welcomed me with the warmth of family. Frank’s dance moves were nothing short of epic, and I eagerly joined him. It was amusing to think that I had previously seen him speak to packed conference halls, and now, we were cutting a rug together.
As we said our farewells the following morning, I felt the pull of Paul's plane on the tarmac. It's not every day that you have the chance for high quality time with someone you admire. But since you’re supposed to come home with the guy who brought you to the party, I boarded my new dad’s plane.
On the flight home, I reflected on my time in Cartagena and the warm reception I’d received from this exclusive circle. A year before, I was a nobody covering their deals on social media, and now I felt like I was part of their world. It was a testament to the power of seizing opportunities and the serendipity that comes with forging new relationships.
A few years later, a bitcoin venture fell into my lap, and I remembered my friend with the sunburn. Under Harry Pokrandt and Frank Holmes’ leadership, we merged traditional mining finance strategies with crypto mining and became pioneers in the field (NASDAQ:HIVE). That was an easy, liquid and leveraged bet on crypto, and it still is. HIVE was a transformative success, all thanks to the connections I had made in Cartagena.
So was (and is) CEO.CA, which grew into an important hub in the space, serving hundreds of millions of page views each year. It culminated for me in a well-timed exit in 2021 to a buyer I met during a donkey ride in Colombia, of all places.
I think about serendipity all the time. Meeting Frank Giustra and attending Fino and Maria Paola’s wedding ten years ago opened doors I never thought possible. Beneath their imposing reputations, these business giants were people seeking meaningful connections, a truth I discovered during those unforgettable 72 hours in Cartagena.