Luxury’s Man In Africa
Kering director (and former Puma CEO) Mr Jochen Zeitz gives us a tour of his Kenyan farm.
Pushing his nimble little yellow Super Cub out of the hangar at his ranch in Kenya, Mr Jochen Zeitz – tall, fit, wide-shouldered, with dark blonde hair and expressive blue eyes – looks the picture of Out of Africa-chic in his well-tailored khakis. Except, that is, for his Pumas – which give his African style a subtle but resonant edge. This is the man who, in 1993 at the age of 30, became chairman and CEO of Puma – an 18-year stint that saw the company switch up from a brand worth less than €200m in sales to one worth €3bn by 2011.
These days, Mannheim-born Mr Zeitz has his African dream: Segera, a farm in Laikipia, northern Kenya, where he spends four months of the year – as well as a ranch in Santa Fe and a home in Switzerland. He built Segera from wood sourced from within a 300km radius. The food he eats is grown in his garden. The cheese at breakfast is made by a producer nearby. Out here in the wild, he is of the earth, but he also keeps one toe in a different-paced world, dictated by fashion.
“The man I bought this farm from said I was crazy. He said I was putting myself into the Wild West in Africa”
You see, Mr Zeitz can’t quite shake off the Puma-clad feet. He remains director of Kering, the luxury goods conglomerate that owns Puma, and is chairman of the board’s sustainable development committee. He is a co-founder and co-chair of The B Team, set up in 2012 with Sir Richard Branson and other high-profile leaders, including mobile communications mogul Dr Mo Ibrahim, to change the way big business operates by improving its impact on the planet. It’s hard to know when he carves out time to think, because the man surely cannot sleep. Mr Zeitz has written two books, including one co-authored with a Benedictine monk titled The Manager and The Monk: A Discourse on Prayer, Profit and Principles. And in recent months, he has been occupied with the small matter of developing Africa’s first major museum of contemporary art: the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, or Zeitz MOCAA. In a building designed by Mr Thomas Heatherwick on Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, this new not-for-profit undertaking, due to open in 2016, will not only house Mr Zeitz’s own collection — he has amassed the largest collection of art from Africa and the African diaspora — but will also host visiting exhibitions in programmes put together by South African Mr Mark Coetzee, with whom Mr Zeitz has worked closely for the past six years. Prior to this role, Mr Coetzee curated the contemporary art collection of the Rubell family; based in Miami, theirs is among North America’s most significant private collections.
If I want to talk about any of Mr Zeitz’s past successes or big ideas, however, I can forget it; right now, his focus is on flying. We lift off the bush strip towards the African sun, with Mr Zeitz at the controls. He is a natural pilot, doing what he loves most, which is being as free as a bird in Africa (he recently bought the little 1920s Gipsy Moth biplane, G-AMMY, which starred in Out of Africa). As we ascend, I can see a river looping into elegant oxbows like a curled snake. Mr Zeitz ducks and dips, showing me a pool where Lord Delamere – depicted in Ms Karen Blixen’s 1937 book – used to come and bathe. He shows me giraffe on the 50,000-acre swathe of African wilderness he has owned since 2005, and buffalo and impala. We look for elephant. We see majestic Mount Kenya, and then turn to face his homestead, Segera. While low-lying with thatched roofs, it is also conspicuous, with cottages built into a tropical garden as lush as a forest. The former farmhouse is his home, where later we smoke hookah pipes in a bar that reminds me of a dark Alpine chalet in winter.
But it’s the bush that excites Mr Zeitz most. I can tell this from the way it animates him when, on another afternoon, a group of us walk among the flat-topped acacia, where the giraffe now graze. He is alert and intelligent, with a keen sense of our vulnerability in this wilderness. He is also aware of the Cape buffalo in the long grass long before anyone else sees it. But still, Mr Zeitz doesn’t say much. He is a man who listens more than he speaks.
“I’m always looking at how to make business more sustainable. Africa inspires me in that sense. It always has”
Little by little, I get past this reserve. He tells me the story of when the Berlin Wall came down. He was in Kenya that day, on 9 November 1989, sleeping in a tent. “I was missing out on a major event in history back home in Germany, but it was also the day I’ve not been able to shake off. Africa just got me,” says Mr Zeitz. “In a past life, I would have been an explorer,” he says: “I would still want to be one now if there was anything left to explore.”
We sit together looking at maps of Segera. He explains how the chequerboard in modern African conservation has to work, drawing in local communities rather than fencing them out, while managing the need for cattle grazing so it can coexist comfortably with Kenya’s wildlife. “I’m always looking at how to make business more sustainable,” he says. “Africa inspires me in that sense. It always has.”
Mr Zeitz was the first person to sign up African football players to a major sports label — the Cameroon team to Puma in 1995. He did the same with Jamaicans, sponsoring Mr Usain Bolt at a time when no one else was interested. “Our relationships always went beyond sponsorship,” says Mr Zeitz. For some years, the Cameroon-born footballer Mr Samuel Eto’o, has been supporting the philanthropic Zeitz Foundation on a new Laikipia Unity Football Academy, which broke ground in January 2014. It’s not like the usual tin-roofed African school, but typical for Mr Zeitz, is ingeniously designed to double up as a “water bank” — the roof is designed to capture rainwater, which is then stored beneath the buildings — as well as boasting a football pitch and stadium.
“The man I bought this farm from said I was crazy. He said I was putting myself into the Wild West in Africa,” says Mr Zeitz of his house. I smile. Little did that cattle rancher know what would become of the stable block. It’s now a gallery showcasing an installation of video art, with the grazing beyond marked by a 15ft-high effigy in aluminum wire (“Suit II” by Walter Oltmann). The mix of old and new, of romance and avant-garde, is, in the end, the core of both the man and the place. And it works, stimulating a different kind of thinking about how commerce, community, conservation and culture can comfortably coexist — or the four Cs, as Mr Zeitz calls his mantra, in a place that is as beautiful as it is curious. “It would appall me to be considered a man who has bought up a swathe of Africa to create a private playground,” says Mr Zeitz — the “wild man” who feels his passions deeply, who collects the unpublished letters of Mr Ernest Hemingway and Ms Blixen, who builds a museum for a continent; who, in his Pumas, is constantly thinking (and flying) outside the box.
Mr Zeitz’s home in Africa, Segera, has six one-bedroom and two two-bedroom cottages in the grounds, which can be booked through segera.com.