South African Adrian Gardiner is the founder and chairman of Mantis, a family-run collection of privately-owned hotels, eco escapes and lifestyle resorts located around the world, with a large presence in Africa. Divided into five distinct groups, its specialist areas include boutique hotels, game reserves, eco lodges, ski lodges, and chalets and yachts.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
During the 1970s, I ran various businesses, ranging from roads and infrastructure, tennis courts and swimming pools to other recreational facilities in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. When the 1979 recession started, I lost everything and had to start again. This was my “university of life”, and you soon realise who your real friends are – as well as the people who will stand by you during the most difficult times. I looked at this experience positively and made the best of the lessons that I learned. I have no regrets.
It allowed me to look closely how I could contribute more to my community from a sustainability perspective. I had the opportunity to collaborate with inspiring and world-renowned conservationists such as Ian Player, who worked tirelessly to save the white rhino from extinction; all the way to Shamwari Private Game Reserve, which I founded. This ultimately led to the creation of the Mantis Group in 2000, the name originating from the ancient folklore of a praying mantis greeting indigenous people whenever they came home. The meaning has evolved today to “man and nature together is sustainable” (Mantis). Today, Mantis continues to be a family-run business; but our reach extends beyond hospitality to include a tour operator division, adventure tourism, property development, conservation and education.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
There are many that stand out but the following are most important to me.
The founding of Shamwari Private Game Reserve, the first Big Five game reserve in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. We restored degraded, drought-ravaged, abused land to its natural state with the introduction of all the wildlife that initially inhabited the land.
Lives were changed by this creation. It went from land that employed 15 people to a changed environment employing 350 people.
The founding of a university (Stenden) in a small South African town, Port Alfred. It is the only institution in South Africa where you can achieve a tertiary degree in hotel management and hospitality, with a semester of wildlife conservation and lodge management included.
The partnership with AccorHotels, which has provided the scalability, distribution strength and loyalty potential for our business to thrive and grow. Moreover, our conservation credentials find alignment with AccorHotel’s Planet21 sustainability programme, which provides synergies and further collaboration. One such example was the setting up of the Community Conservation Fund Africa that was announced during this year’s Conservation Lab in Cape Town. This soon-to-be registered non-profit organisation supports the work of three internationally renowned conservation organisations: the Wilderness Foundation, the Tusk Trust and African Parks.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
Believing that I can be involved in too many businesses, which may not always be aligned. I try to say “no”, but if the person presenting the opportunity is so good, it is difficult to decline. Experience has taught me to be cautious.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
Advice is to be structured and formal. I have found that the personal touch, without rigid formalities, has worked for me. We at Mantis value the family ethic.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
Yes – be careful how much you borrow, as the lender has no sympathy and you have no control over interest rates and penalties.
‘The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip, and content production by Justin Probyn and Nelly Murungi.