SOVIET UNION TO EAST LONDON

Premier Hotels recently celebrated 25 years of excellence and, for their owner, it represents a remarkable journey

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South Africa plays host to many top quality entrepreneurs who have created and grown their own businesses into success stories, and it is no different for Samuel Nassimov, the owner and managing director of the Premier Hotels group, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. To celebrate, they hosted a gala evening at the East London International Convention Centre (ELICC). A long list of distinguished guests graced the red carpet welcome, including Alfred Mtsi (the Executive Mayor of Buffalo City Metro), Prince Burns Ncamashe (the Prince of Rharhabe Kingdom) and Les Holbrook (the Executive Director of Border Kei Chamber of Business).

Surviving and thriving for 25 years in the hospitality sector is certainly not something to scoff at, and Nassimov has had many challenges to contend with over the years. Fortunately for Nassimov, he acquired the skill of perseverance at a very young age and it has stood him in good stead ever since. Growing up in the old Soviet Union (now Russia), Nassimov was one of four boys and had a passion for hotels from an early age. His late father and mentor worked as a cobbler, while his mother pursued a career as a nurse.

His father worked in faraway cities most of the time and was only home on weekends and holidays, but on occasion Nassimov joined his father at work. On such occasions when father and son were making their way back home, they travelled past a “beautiful hotel” where Nassimov saw many international guests and dignitaries passing inside and leaving in high spirits. He also witnessed a band playing in the lobby, which he recalls was a sight that was “very exciting for a young boy”.

That was the point at which Nassimov’s passion began and it grew stronger as he grew up. He finished school at the age of 16 and enrolled at a technikon to study a three-year hotel management course. Unfortunately, after only six months, his father informed him that the family would be moving west—to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

However, instead of continuing his studies, Nassimov chose to “rather learn a trade”. The trade of choice was hat-making. While hats have always been big in Russia, it is also a trade that is passed down from father to son, so finding someone to teach the young Nassimov was a challenge.

However, luck favoured him as his father found someone in a remote area to assist his son. The cost of 300 rubel was the equivalent of “six month’s salary for a normal employee in those days”.

He quickly learnt the trade and soon had a job. Just short of his 17th birthday he was a full-time employee and, despite the fact that one of his first hats turned into a complaint from a client, he made a great success out of his trade and earned enough to pay his father back and pay for his ticket to Israel.

His five months in the hat-making business also taught him a great deal about customer service and how to deal with issues that may arise. Nassimov enrolled once again in hotel school, but fate intervened as he was called up to serve his country in the army, where he was responsible for food preparation in a big kitchen. After three years of service he returned to Israel, where he then worked as a chef in many international hotels. He later relocated to South Africa.

Nassimov never let the dream of owning a hotel leave him, despite numerous setbacks at crucial times. However, perseverance certainly pays off and once again, an opportunity arose for him – this time in East London.

“The Carlton Hotel in Quigney came on auction and I thought to myself, maybe this is my opportunity – to buy, renovate and manage my own hotel. I decided to take the opportunity.”

By the time Nassimov took over, the Tourism Board had taken the one-star the hotel had away, as it no longer complied with the ratings criteria.

The goal was to create a three-star hotel and, 14 months after starting, his first goal was achieved. Once again, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“In this time we experienced it all, from fire to floods, and many times I was demotivated. I questioned what I was doing, but in the end decided that this was my dream and I can’t give up on it,” recalled Nassimov.

The King David, the humble beginning of Premier Hotels, quickly became known for its good food and fantastic conference facilities— and it still stands in all its glory today.

This success further inspired Nassimov’s passion, and he decided to embark on bigger projects.

In 1996, he developed a vacant plot on the East London beachfront. This is also where Nassimov had the opportunity to meet the late, former President, Nelson Mandela, who gave Nassimov a quote he remembers to this day.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Madiba told him.

As I stood on the balcony of my 14th story room and looked out over the East London habour in all its beauty, it was easy to see why Nassimov was -and still is - so passionate about this project.

The right backing

Nassimov credits the IDC and Absa for their wonderful support with this project, as well as the many projects he has embarked on since. It was fitting, then, that the teams from the IDC and Absa were in attendance at the 25th celebration.

”At our first meeting with Mr. Nassimov to discuss his financing needs, we could already sense his entrepreneurial spirit, vision, drive to succeed and, most importantly, his business acumen,” said Leon Steunenberg, Regional Manager of Absa Commercial Property Finance. ”We have been privileged to witness and, at times, share in his extraordinary growth and success. We are still as proud and honoured to be associated with Sam and his group of companies today as we were 25 years ago, and we look forward to continuing our relationship into the future.”

As Nassimov continued to grow within the Eastern Cape, many people began questioning him as the economy at that stage was far from buoyant, and East London certainly wasn’t thriving. However, he pulled through, “thanks to the understanding and continuous support of Absa”.

It was only in 2004 that Nassimov decided to create footprints nationally, and his first non-Eastern Cape development came about when he acquired the Cape Manor Hotel in Cape Town. After this, he moved on to Johannesburg, Pretoria and then KwaZulu-Natal.

When the Premier Hotel Regent first won the tender to develop the land, it was for an indoor sports centre as well as a hotel, but they decided that the city required an ICC rather than an indoor sports centre. “This would help increase business in the area and bring more investment and, in so doing, create more jobs,” said Nassimov.

“Since the ICC has opened, it has hosted many international conferences, some so big that they needed marquee tents outside,” Nassimov says, “This would not have been possible without the IDC’s support and investment in these three projects — 260 bedroom Premier Hotel ELICC, The East London International Convention Centre and 275 bedroom Premier Hotel OR Tambo.”

The IDC made a total investment of R300-million in these three investments.

Currently, the Premier Hotels group has 16 hotels and resorts throughout South Africa, with over 1900 rooms as well as the ELICC. The group turnover is R540 million.

Premier Hotels has also created over 1500 permanent jobs for people, with many others outsourced. Due to service delivery playing such a vital part in the hotel business, Premier Hotels has also started its own tertiary education platform, The Academic College, which specialises in the hospitality sector and has trained many students, many of whom now work for Premier Hotels.

Many of the staff members have been with Nassimov for many years, and a few, including his wife, have been there from the very start with the King David Hotel.

“Premier Hotels was started by one man with a dream, however, I could never have achieved all this alone,” admitted Nassimov in his address to guests and colleagues that evening. ”We learn by making mistakes and we take these experiences and turn it into something positive.”

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