How have you played to your strengths in building your company?
We will go to places where other people won’t go and we have a unique model around which we operate. Our head office, based in Port Elizabeth, consists of probably 10 people, and we’re very strong in decentralisation. We’ve put in our systems and we have a very simple weekly report that anybody can read and we know where we are, but the strength of our organisation is our people. I can say that very few people have left in the 25-odd years that I’ve been in hospitality. If they want opportunities then they can either get involved on our boats on the Chobe River or they’ll end up for a short stint in Nigeria. When you start paying people in foreign currency they look forward to going to work for you in other countries.
You’ve partnered with some big celebrity names in creating unique hospitality opportunities.
I started a boutique travel company, Gilt Edge Travel, with my one son and his partner, which now has offices worldwide, while my other son lives in London and looks after our marketing. He’s got four strategic partners, one of which is adventurer Bear Grylls, and we run all the survivor courses, the family courses and weekend things like that. We’re busy with a few races that we’re doing with these brands, so Mantis and Bear Grylls have formed quite a strategic and powerful partnership.
That must be an incredible brand to align with?
Exactly, but we also get approached by people like Sir Clive Woodward, who’s building an incredible training centre in the Alps, with a hotel and everything. So they come to us. We deal with sports teams, and my son will get hold of them to offer them a Bear Grylls programme to add to their training regime. That’s how we strategically try and leverage our brand into spaces where other people already have their brands - and we partner with them.
What mistakes did you make early in your career… and how did you recognise and correct those mistakes in order to rise to the top?
First of all, I ended up in Port Elizabeth because I started my career sifting through an accounts department of Spar, the grocery chain, and their head office used to be in Cape Town. I migrated to assistant in the marketing department before leaving to become an assistant to the general manager at Golden Arrow Transport, the bus company. That taught me quite quickly that corporate life wasn’t for me. That lasted about four months before I got a job in Port Elizabeth as a Spar Wholesaler.
We sold out in 1974 and, because I had a little share in one of the outlets that we owned in the Free State, I left with the princely sum of R10 000, which was fair money in those days. I was able to buy 50% of the Penguin Pools operation in Port Elizabeth and we became very successful in the pool industry. I owned all the franchises there but the problem was that I was stuck with equipment that we couldn’t use in winter, so I started building tennis courts and then I started building small roads with the equipment. Next I started a transport company and a crane hire company and it all went well until 1979, which was when we had the first real inflation. I had some big contracts by that stage but, regrettably, I didn’t have any escalation clauses built into them - and I also had big, bad debt. I lost everything in 1979. I’d signed some suretyships and, because I believe that my signature is more valuable than just pen on paper, I didn’t walk away from my obligations. I paid everybody back that I’d signed with and then I started again. That was my university of life and the experience taught me a lot as I had to start all over again. I think I was 35 then, but I took it on the chin and started again with transport and I got the crane business back. That was my life for a long time.
In those days there were quite good tax incentives so, for instance, you could go and run a farm and take income from one business and offset it in a farming venture, although that’s been ring-fenced since. I got quite big into horse racing and breeding, so we started that stud in Plettenberg Bay, and I built a stud farm there. I think we won eight races in a year, the Filly of the Year and Sprinter of the Year titles, so we cleaned up.
Soon after that I got a good offer for the land, sold the horses and said, “Right, now I want my own bit of Africa.” I went back to Zimbabwe, where I grew up, as I wanted a game farm for my own private use, but then I realised that I needed to be close to where I lived so, instead, I bought a farm near Port Elizabeth. After having lived in PE for about 20 years, only once I had bought the farm did I truly appreciate what an incredible part of the world it was, so I started Shamwari in 1989 when I bought the first piece of land. Although I sold Shamwari, I think our legacy is that what we created there helped to turn the Eastern Cape into a destination for wildlife. Everybody followed what we did. All the farmers laughed at me to begin with, but most of them have now done exactly the same thing. We turned land values from R400 a hectare into R15 000 a hectare—and I think that’s probably one of our major legacies.
What is your advice in terms of creating a global legacy brand that is sustainable?
We trade in five divisions—we call it the Mantis Big 5. We get enquiries from all over to say, “Look we either want to convert our land into a nature reserve or we want to build a lodge or we want to build a small boutique hotel.” Most of the people find it very difficult to make money out of a small hotel, so our hotels vary in size from seven rooms to our largest being about 60 rooms, so that’s where our development team comes in. People will come to us and say, “This is what we want”, and we will run the project team, look after the architects, the quality surveyors, all of the engineers and everything. That’s our development division.
Then we’ve got to run these places, so we have our hospitality division. Those are the people who are organised to run these small hotels, but you have to empower the general management to a very large extent. We teach the general managers exactly how to run proper accounting systems, to understand them and not just be a manager, so they’ve got to be hands-on.
I say I’ve succeeded when the manager believes they own the property, and we try to make sure that they’re empowered. That’s our hospitality division.
Then, the hardest part is, you’ve got to fill the rooms, so we have a marketing and sales division with global offices. We’re in South Africa in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Johannesburg, we’re in London, we have representation in Australia, we have representation in Europe and we have an office in America. That’s what I call the hardest part of it.
Then the third division is where we offer just marketing. We’re quite careful about that and, for instance, we need to know who the owner is because we’re putting our stamp on it and we will do the marketing, so they will feature on all our collateral websites and other marketing drives. The fourth division is what I call our badges. If you look at our website, you will see that we have a Mantis Hotel in New York, which is probably the best boutique hotel in New York. We also have a hotel in Washington, Paris and London, so we have all our collateral placed in those hotels, and that plays a key role in how we’ve got our footprint around the world. Our real boast is that we’re the only hospitality group in the world based on all seven continents, as we open our igloo tent in Antarctica for 10 weeks every year.
And your fifth division is vital in terms of sustainability!
Yes, it’s our conservation division, which is tied up with the Wilderness Foundation. We have offices in Australia, Vietnam, Europe, England and America, and that’s become quite important. I believe we have to raise funds for specific conservation issues in those countries, but primarily for what we’re doing in Africa – a great ethos is that one of our greatest USP’s of Africa is our wildlife, which is the reason to come here. For example, Nigeria has zero or very little to give tourism there, while Kenya still has great tourism because of its wildlife.
How are you and the organisation helping to educate and grow people?
Within the Wilderness Foundation there is an initiative called ‘Umziwetho’, which is hope, and this is growing into a phenomenal part of the business there. We help kids who have been orphaned through their parents dying from Aids, by putting them through a programme, which we receive international funding for, and we’re growing that. It’s becoming quite a big organisation and I think it’s a model that a lot of people can follow. That’s the easy part, though—finding those kids, educating those kids, teaching those kids. Now I’ve got to find them jobs. So let’s not just educate the people, let’s also look at where do they go when they’re finished with us?
What should people in your industry, and across all industries, do in the next five years to promote growth and development?
You know, that’s an interesting question. I think any real South African at the moment is concerned, and what are our concerns? Our concerns are obviously the vast number of people who are unemployed. We can’t live in a society where we don’t have jobs for 30% of the people, educated people. That is really a major concern. I’ve recently been appointed to the Mandela Bay Development Agency and my aim is to play a role in helping to create employment. The biggest employer in this country is our government, so they’ve got to be more creative. I believe the government need to get involved with entrepreneurial business people who could help them to grow and develop our country. Politicians are great people, but if I can be really crude, they’re bloody useless businessmen—and, by the same token, businessmen are probably bloody useless politicians. So why don’t we marry the two and try to grow this whole place? I think Cyril Ramaphosa is doing it to a large extent, and I think he saved us by going around the world with business people, so there’s a good example of when they’ve used businessmen. However, I believe they should use local businessmen to help the public sector to create a model that’s sustainable and that creates employment.