Puma Ex-CEO’s Firm Steps to Owning Luxury Lodge in Kenya

Jochen Zeitz. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • He built an eco-lodge on 50,000 acres in Laikipia, donated artworks to an African contemporary art museum, and now his mission is to promote responsible business practices
  • At first glance, Jochen Zeitz does not strike you as the stiff corporate type.
  • His laid-back attire — khaki pants, a light sweatshirt and simple rubber shoes — belies two decades spent at the heart-throb of Puma, a German sportswear multinational.

He built an eco-lodge on 50,000 acres in Laikipia, donated artworks to an African contemporary art museum, and now his mission is to promote responsible business practices

At first glance, Jochen Zeitz does not strike you as the stiff corporate type. His laid-back attire — khaki pants, a light sweatshirt and simple rubber shoes — belies two decades spent at the heart-throb of Puma, a German sportswear multinational.

Zeitz’s affable persona is far from that of a brutish weather-beaten activist who has spent decades in the African wild running wildlife conservation initiatives. A passionate conservationist, the German owns Segera Retreat, a 50,000-acre luxury resort in Laikipia County. He also sits on the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) board, among others.

He was recently in the country for the launch of the first ever all-female ranger anti-poaching unit in East Africa.

I met him at Muthaiga Country Club where we had a chat on his remarkable tenure at Puma — which he recollects with glee and nostalgia — his investment interest in Kenya and why modern businesses have no choice but to think sustainability.

There is something quite mystical about Zeitz that strikes you when you interact with him. And this has nothing to do with the sandy-haired German’s 6’1’’ athletic build. Rather, it is his whirring brain and ability to see the world in black and white.

He may have left the whirlpool of action at the maker of running shoes, only Zeitz has not stopped running. This time, to save the world. His phone buzzes almost after every 30 seconds, but for purposes of this interview, he does not answer the calls. Only one time does he implore me to allow him to answer ‘‘a critically important call’’. I oblige.

When I ask him what the highlight of his life has been, Zeitz does not think twice.

‘‘My family,’’ he says with a pleasant smile. ‘‘Having children is the proudest decision I have ever made. They are two and three years old.’’

There is a reason why he started out late, he tells me. Zeitz always wanted to be available as a dad, to be as close as possible to his family.

‘‘I’m glad I made the decision late, because now I can see my children grow up. I couldn’t have done it as effectively as I am now when I was busy running the company and travelling for 10 months in a year. That would have been unfair to them,’’ he says.

In 2008, he founded Zeitz Foundation of Intercultural Ecosphere, a non-profit outfit that aims ‘‘to support creative and innovative sustainable projects and solutions that balance conservation, community development, culture and commerce’’. He refers to the project admirably as the 4Cs.

An art enthusiast and one of the world’s leading collector of Africa’s modern art, Zeitz donated his pieces to Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.

A sudden geyser of cheer erupts lighting up his face when I ask him about his interests in Africa and, specifically, why he chose to invest in Kenya.

‘‘I’ve always felt home in Africa since I started visiting the continent in 1989,’’ he says.

On Segera Retreat, which charges anything from Sh70,000 to Sh195,000 a night, he adds: ‘‘I saw an opportunity to prove that we can actually convert degraded land into a treasure where people can work together and care for nature.’’

So, how are his conservation efforts different from the rest?

‘‘Our philosophy of conservation isn’t just about protecting wildlife but one that takes a commercial approach. This way, both communities and investors benefit. By 2020, we hope to preserve 20 million acres of land in Kenya and Africa through engaging private landowners and conservancies who have a role to play in conserving pristine areas of the planet.’’

Is this his proudest investment so far? In every sense, he asserts.

Jochen Zeitz. PHOTO | COURTESY

‘‘Segera has been an absolute joy. It’s satisfying to me because it’s an investment in people and an investment in nature,’’ he says with evident pride.

To him, a successful investment is not defined by the money it generates. Isn’t this odd, I probe, for someone who has spent half his life chasing after a favourable balance sheet for his employers?

‘‘The financial bottom line has never been my driving force even when I was at Puma. I’m more concerned about building a brand that is unique and exciting and one that gives value to customers,’’ he says modestly.

‘‘The best return on investment is about perpetuating business ethics and, at a personal level, having your vision come into fruition,’’ he adds.

So, has he realised these from Segera? ‘‘Some initiatives require a long-term investment before they can become self-sustaining. I am fortunate enough to live my dream.’’

Together with Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, who also owns a luxury tented camp in Maasai Mara, Mahali Mzuri, and whom Zeitz describes as an incredible entrepreneur and visionary leader, Zeitz cofounded the B Team project to promote sustainable ways of doing business.

This initiative brings together global business leaders, including Sudan’s Mo Ibrahim and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria, ‘‘because we all passionately believe that businesses can provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems’’.

Zeitz acknowledges that there is more consciousness now among businesses on the need to actively counteract the challenge of global warming and environmental concerns, arguing that ‘‘while governments may set up the right frameworks, businesses ultimately have the biggest role to play’’ in this equation.

But does he truly believe that modern businesses are genuine in their campaigns to address these concerns, or is this purely a PR gimmick? To Zeitz, it is, sadly, a case of both.

He notes: ‘‘At the end of the day, this has to be within our best interests, otherwise we will soon have a planet that is unsustainable and uninhabitable, thus affecting billions of people.’’

He predicts that in the next few years, the universe will reach a tipping point where environmental consciousness will cease to be merely an ethical and moral responsibility but mandatory for survival.

In his view, a business can be quite straightforward in its efforts to find solutions that ultimately make it self-sustaining. This may sound somewhat far-fetched, but Zeitz has never caged his ambition.

When he was chosen to head Puma, aged 29, Zeitz became the youngest CEO of a public company in German history. Newspapers in the country and elsewhere in the world welcomed his appointment with cynicism, arguing that he was too young and inexperienced for the high-octane role.

Didn’t the role intimidate him? What were his fears at the time? ‘‘I was fearless,’’ he recounts, dissolving into laughter.

‘‘At this age, you are so ambitious and sometimes that obscures the huge risks involved.’’

His curiosity, strong will and ‘‘a little craziness’’ to thank, Zeitz pounced on any investment opportunity that came his way, sometimes doing things that other top executives frowned upon.

But it is also through his intrepid instinct that, for the next 18 years, he steered Puma from success to success, cutting cynics down to size.

By the time he exited in 2007, the giant sportswear maker’s worth had bulged to $4 billion up from $100 million at the start of his tenure, a feat that anchors him in the exclusive club of the most successful CEOs of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Driven by the need to invent and to understand where his influence was as a leader, Zeitz introduced the philosophy of sustainability at Puma at a time when this strategy was fairly new in the sportswear business.

He even did what was seemingly unthinkable: published both profit and loss accounts as a representation of how Puma’s pollution of land and water and its carbon emissions cost the planet. It was an absurd thing to do. But Zeitz had set a precedence.

When I ask him what success means to him as a man and at this level, and if his idea of true fulfilment has shifted over the years, Zeitz quotes “The Manager and the Monk”, a book about prayer, profit and principle that he co-authored with Anselm Grün, a Benedictine monk.

‘‘Doing what I love and what I have passion for is success. It’s also about living the moment rather than striving for future gratification.’’

On brands that have transformed the business landscape the world over, Zeitz easily picks Safaricom’s M-Pesa, describing it as one of the ‘‘greatest innovations of all time’’.

‘‘M-Pesa has been the game changer in money transactions for millions of Kenyans and people in the region. It’s the dream of any innovator to develop a solution that defines the way things are done in that domain, and to have this technology adopted by different entities across the world,’’ he says.

For him, affording the finest things in life and going on holiday to the swankiest places is a privilege. Only this does not fit within his definition of luxury. Instead, Zeitz considers time as the biggest luxury.

‘‘To be with my family and to play with my children is my biggest luxury. Being able to do the things you’re passionate about in either your private or business life is luxurious,’’ he remarks. ‘‘Whatever that may be.’’

It catches him off guard when I ask him about his sense of fashion. ‘‘I’ve never been moved by fashion,’’ he says quite-matter-of-factly. ‘‘I wear what I like, whatever suits the purpose.’’

Segera, Laikipia, Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY

His fashion sense notwithstanding, Zeitz is almost fanatical about the ‘‘unrivalled status’’ of Puma on the sportswear scene. ‘‘There are great brands out there but I’m a Puma guy,’’ he reveals, chuckling.

He must own oodles of Puma shoes, I ask. ‘‘I have no idea how many pairs I have in my house. I’m not a sneaker freak, and I only buy shoes that I will wear. There’s no pair in my wardrobe that I haven’t worn,’’ says he.

‘‘I’m very practical in my selection of shoes. They have to be either shoes for running or gym wear,’’ he adds.

How many pairs, I insist. ‘‘Just a handful. Not more than that.’’

I take the cue and move on quickly to the next question. About drinks. It turns out Zeitz does not have a palate for alcohol. He loves wine though, red wine in particular. Not quite an enthusiast, but Cabernet Sauvignon floats his boat.

‘‘I like originals. I don’t drink imported wine,’’ he tells me.

‘‘When I’m in Africa, I drink African wine and not European or American wine. It’s pointless to ship wine across the world.’’ But he must have a favourite Kenyan dish. ‘‘I love biryani whenever I’m in Kenya. I also like fresh fish from the Coast.’’

Like any top executive, his most difficult moments as CEO were instances when some of his plans failed to sail through the board and others flopped even when he instinctively knew he was right.

Does the Liverpool and Dortmund fan have a retirement plan and, does he intend to? He confidently answers in the negative, saying that he won’t hang his boots.

‘‘I’ll only retire when they close the lid on me.’’ Is he scared of retirement?

‘‘I don’t see myself sitting idle in a rocking chair. That’s just not me. I like to be in the thick of action,” says Zeitz who is in his late 50s.

Having been at the helm of a multinational through its glorious days, Zeitz knows what it takes to run a profitable venture. But there’s the rule of the thumb: entrepreneurs must always think holistically and not be fixated with short-term financial gain, which ‘‘blurs the long-term vision of an investment’’.

‘‘To build a lasting brand takes at least 10 years. Most people are not patient enough to wait that long. You must also have a vision, especially if yours is the only innovation in that area,’’ he says.

According to him, the biggest threat to upcoming brands is not dominance by established brands, rather failure by young innovators to scale their ideas.

As we wind up, I ask him if he has any aversions. The question prompts a giggle from him.

‘‘I’m not a political guy,’’ he states. ‘‘I don’t understand politics. It’s far too complex for me. Politics makes me uncomfortable.’’

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