“What makes you successful in sport, I think translates very well into business.”
So says South African Olympic swimmer turned property investor, Ryk Neethling.
In 2004, Neethling shot into the limelight after he and his team broke a world-record for the 4x100m freestyle relay at the Olympics – taking home the gold medal. This was not his first Olympics, nor would it be his last, but Neethling always knew that his time as a professional swimmer would be short-lived, and he needed to develop skills beyond sport.
“I think a lot of athletes don’t think that far or just don’t think they need [a back-up career] because they think people are going to kiss their butts for the rest of their lives like they do when they are athletes. But that stops quite abruptly when you don’t compete anymore,” he told How we made it in Africa.
Today, Neethling (39) has a number of business ventures under his belt, including four Learn to Swim academies across South Africa, various property investments and even a corporate gifting business. He is also the marketing director and a major shareholder of Val de Vie Estate, a luxury polo lifestyle estate based just outside of Cape Town.
But Neethling’s interest in business and property began long before he tasted Olympic gold.
Starting from the bottom
Neethling was 18 when he competed in his first Olympics in 1996 – taking fifth place in the 1,500m freestyle event. Soon after he enrolled at the University of Arizona where, in addition to a focus on competitive swimming, he studied towards a bachelor’s degree in psychology and business. He then obtained his realtor certificate after meeting a real estate developer and broker who took Neethling on as a mentee and introduced him to the industry. During this time he assisted in the development and management of various commercial properties.
“And I started right at the bottom. I used to make a hundred cold-calls out of the yellow pages back then, and go to these business parks during summer in Arizona… and just knock on doors,” he recalled.
“It was really awkward as I am quite an introvert naturally… But there I was knocking on warehouses and factory buildings and asking people if they have any real estate needs. It was important for me to start there and was where my passion for property began.”
Alongside his education, Neethling was also juggling a rigorous training regime and competed in the 2000 Olympics (again coming fifth in the 1,500m freestyle race). However, after a few years in the US he started to make plans to return home to South Africa and in 2003 secured a job with an investment group in Durban.
But everything changed at the 2004 Olympics when he managed to win a gold medal for South Africa – as well as break a world record. Overnight Neethling became a household name and was suddenly flooded with sponsors.
In 2005 he was offered a R50m (around US$3.75m) contract to swim for Qatar at the next Olympics. While it was a tough decision, Neethling decided to turn the deal down.
“I just thought I could make more money if I stayed in South Africa and kind of do what I do now.”
He completed his fourth and final Olympic Games in 2008, before deciding to retire from professional swimming.
A year later he was invited to join Val de Vie Estate Group of Companies as its marketing director, where he oversees the group’s brand strategy. It wasn’t long before he became a major shareholder.
The company’s investment arm, Val de Vie Investments, is responsible for expanding high-end residential estates in the area and recently acquired Pearl Valley Golf & Country Estate. It is currently developing a retirement estate, among other projects.
The Western Cape property market has seen significant growth in recent years. According to the FNB House Price Index for June 2016, the year-on-year residential price growth rate in the Western Cape Province was 12.1%, while the national average was 7.4%.
According to Neethling, about 80% of Val de Vie’s residential sales are to South Africans – mostly from Johannesburg – who are looking for luxury, out-of-town living.
“The overseas market is not even really on our radar. It is more people moving down here permanently and that kind of stream is showing no signs of decreasing anytime soon.”
Last year, African Rainbow Capital – run by the wealthy mining magnate Patrice Motsepe – acquired a 20% stake in Val de Vie Investments.
Wine exports to China
Neethling also oversees Val de Vie’s wine production operation. It is managed and owned by a Chinese company, Perfect China, and a South African partner, Hein Koegelenberg, who is the CEO of La Motte Estate and Leopard’s Leap Family Vineyards.
According to Neethling, Chinese demand for wine is growing and it is a popular gift item.
He recalls how Perfect China sent over 650 sale representatives – all via business class and accommodated in Cape Town’s top hotels – just to visit the vineyards a few years ago. Today the operation exports about 3.5 million bottles of wine to China annually.
“It’s an incredible success,” he commented.
What it takes to taste gold
There is not much difference between what it takes to be a successful businessperson and a successful athlete. For Neethling, both take hard work, determination, persistence and the ability to stick to goals – as well as a competitive streak.
For example, in competitive swimming, a tenth of a second can be the difference between first and fourth place – and it can take months of hard work, persistence and focus to get just a fraction faster.
“You know, the Olympics is only once every four years. I was training five to six hours a day for four years, and then my race in the end only lasts 47 seconds… The only way to do it is to know that you’ve prepared 100%, ticked every box and paid attention to the small details.”
It is this ability to set and stick to goals which Neethling believes helps him in the business environment today.
“Every day when I go into work, I have goals. I plan things pedantically… And with brand management and building, attention to detail is crucial.”
The ability to learn from failure has also been an important skill he has taken with him into the business world. For example, a year before he won the Olympic gold medal in 2004, he and his relay team came last at the World Championships.
“And we were able to use that to pivot and take a new direction, and one year later we broke the world record. We didn’t change coaches or our training programme – just our mentality, focus and approach to things.”