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Interview With Jochen Zeitz: B Team Building

Jochen Zeitz is an adventurer who got bitten by the African bug before opening his Segera eco-retreat. He is now looking to CEOs and business leaders to prioritise people and planet with Sir Richard Branson as part of The B Team.

Jochen Zeitz: “I’m an adventurer at heart and I don’t really have a home.”

Like many self-made millionaires, 52-year-old German businessman Jochen Zeitz is a nomad. He lives between Kenya, Lausanne, Santa Fe and Los Angeles, (where his film producer fiancée Kate Garwood is based), and he recently bought a home in west London. “If I had been born in the 18th century, I would have been an explorer,” he says over the telephone from Switzerland. “I’m an adventurer at heart and I don’t really have a home.”

But if he had to pick, he would say his heart lies in Africa. Zeitz developed a passion for Africa when he first travelled there in his mid-20s. At the time he was a young graduate working as a marketer for Colgate-Palmolive, a job that would lead him into Puma, where he would make history as the youngest chief executive of a listed German company. “When I first saw Africa I was hooked; everything associated with it I was passionate about,” he recalls.

It was at Puma when he started to invest in the African continent. When he took the role as chief executive at the age of 30, Puma was in dire straits. The sportswear group had gone through three CEOs in a year and was in need of a makeover. With a modest marketing budget, Zeitz developed a new audacious edge for Puma by putting its shoes on the feet of lesser-known African football teams.

Zeitz signed a sponsorship deal with Usain Bolt before he became the world’s most famous athlete. He famously grew the company’s share price by 4,000 percent in his 18-year tenure as CEO. Part of his success, says Zeitz, came down to engaging ethics within the business, principles of being fair, honest, positive and creative. All the while, Zeitz was falling deeper in love with Africa. “But I wanted to get under the skin of the country, not just visit as a tourist.”

A decade ago he purchased a 50,000-acre plot of Kenyan grassland. It would become Segera, an eight-villa eco-retreat where nightly rates start from US$1,000 per person (bookable through A2A Safaris). Poaching and overgrazing was ruining the land so Zeitz designed the 4C concept — community, commerce, culture and conservation — to protect the biodiversity and engage the local indigenous peoples.

He created the Zeitz Foundation to ensure the protection of the land in association with the global Long Run Alliance and the Laikipia Unity Programme. Big game and endangered species have now returned to Segera. Although the idea was initially to keep the lodge as his private bolthole, in 2013 Zeitz opened its doors to visitors, who reportedly include celebrities such as fashion’s grand dame Vivienne Westwood and actress Daryl Hannah. He is in residence at least six times a year. “When I’m there I go horseback riding and tour the grounds in my 1929 de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane, which was the one used in the film Out of Africa,” he says.

Zeitz at his eight-villa eco retreat, Segera, in Kenya

His years in Africa saw his art collection blossom, which Zeitz says, only had “a purpose” once he focused on Africa. Next year he is opening the world’s largest museum devoted to contemporary African art, located on Cape Town’s waterfront. “When I went to art shows such as the Venice Biennale year after year I saw there was a void for African art. So I decided to make a platform for Africa to present itself to the world.” Due to open in 2016, the 10,000 square metre Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art will permanently house Zeitz’s substantial personal collection, which includes names such as Kudzanai Chiurai, Sue Williamson, Chris Ofili and Marlene Dumas.

Perhaps Zeitz gets his instinct to preserve and protect from his ancestors — he comes from a family of medical doctors dating back to the 16th century. Unlike many super-rich tycoons who make money fast then preach about saving the Earth, Zeitz has always done business in an ethical way. He is now one half of The B Team, a global non-profit organisation that champions ethics in corporates, his co-founder being Sir Richard Branson. Zeitz published The Manager and the Monk — A Discourse on Prayer, Profit, and Principles, a book he co-wrote with Benedictine monk Anselm Grün, which has since been translated into 15 languages. He is chairman of sustainability at luxury conglomerate Kering, which owns brands such as Alexander McQueen and Gucci, and also chairman of sustainability at Harley-Davidson.

What is taking up much of his time at the moment is persuading others to prioritise people and planet as well as profit, as part of The B Team campaign. “People don’t realise that their business model is based on that of the Industrial Revolution,” says Zeitz. Of course, CEOs have shareholders to answer to and change is slow. The initial 19 business leaders who have been named to The B Team board include Paul Polman of Unilever and Indian businessman Ratan Tata. “I hope by 2020 we’ll have thousands of people who’ve signed up in all the major markets around the world where problems need to be solved.” Zeitz wants to appoint more ambassadors every year but, revealingly, there are no representatives from financial or energy businesses.

“Philanthropy is of course important. But business contributes more than 70 percent of environmental impact, so it is business that inherently needs to find solutions, as opposed to people creating wealth that can be reinvested. Business needs to be part of the solution.”