It was such a conversation with one of his clients, Remax founder and president Dave Liniger that was the final spur to get him to leave his job at the then Bophuthatswana Parks Board and venture out as an entrepreneur. Dave told him that his recipe for success was “setting goals and sticking to those goals”.
Duncan took it to heart, and his fantasy of building the biggest and best hunting and safari operation in Africa became, simply, a goal from which he did not deviate. As simple as that goal was, so difficult was it to achieve. Any young entrepreneur lucky enough to catch Duncan beside a camp fire is in for more than an MBA’s worth of business lessons, told with a self-deprecating sense of humour.
Duncan jokes that he is today a professor in business partnerships; a qualification earned the hard way right from start when he set up his company Hunters and Guides in Pietermaritzburg in 1992. It was a partnership between no fewer than eight professional hunters – a grumpy, hard-headed lot at the best of times. “It was a bloodbath,” is how Duncan summarises the partnership clashes that followed.
A few difficult years later, there were only four partners left, and Hunters and Guides were indeed the biggest and “probably the best” safari company in Africa. But Duncan had learned one of his most important business lessons: before partnering with someone in a business, make absolutely sure that the goals and vision of the partners are aligned. “You have to have a shared passion and a shared goal, but more importantly, you have to have shared morals, shared values. If you haven’t, someone is going to take the short cut sooner rather than later and there will be tears – that’s guaranteed.”
South Africa’s tumultuous transition years put a major damper on the safari industry, and Hunters and Guides started off very slowly. This, plus the fact that “I couldn’t get a decent steak in Maritzburg” led him to open a Spur restaurant, the first of several. As slow as the safari business was in taking off, so fast did the restaurant grow. Within two years the restaurant was paid off.
“One minute it was buffalos and the next it was burgers,” says Duncan of the hectic 15-hour days that he spent juggling his businesses. Because both the safari trade and restaurants are in the hospitality industry, they are not all that different. Both aim to have as their end result a happy, satisfied customer.
But Duncan admits that he is easily distracted by all sorts of business opportunities, and has almost lost everything because of it. He does not hesitate to advise young entrepreneurs to “stick to your knitting”.
Duncan’s best business lessons came from the biggest business crisis of his career. Early in the 2000s, political changes in Africa, including a coup in Central African Republic, meant that Hunters and Guides lost important concessions in three different African countries. At the same time he expanded too fast on the restaurant side, with his fourth Spur bought with a 100% loan. He didn’t recruit the right managers for his restaurants, and his business was haemorrhaging.
Lesson one learned from the crisis was the importance of being on top of your finances. Duncan said the only reason that Business Partners could see their way clear to give him the emergency finance that he needed to turn the business around was because his financial accounts and plans were detailed and up to date and he could show them exactly how he planned to fix things. For Duncan, staying in touch with the finances of his businesses revolves around a monthly financial meeting which he will never postpone or neglect.
Lesson two was the importance of recruitment. He had been appointing managers in his restaurants who were not suited for the job. Today, Duncan uses a detailed screening tool designed especially for him by an industrial psychologist.
Lesson three was the importance of controlled, moderate growth. A bad sign was the fact that he geared his last purchase of a restaurant by 100%, a mistake he would never make again. He has learned in the process to surround himself with a “conservative support team” who can keep his wilder entrepreneurial enthusiasms in check. They include his accountant, lawyer and a business mentor.
Duncan’s most powerful business lesson relates to a different crisis. In the early years of his restaurants, he picked up that a landlord had miscalculated his rent and had billed him R500 000 short over the period of a year. Despite the fact that the landlord would never have picked it up, Duncan pointed out the mistake and settled the bill. Several years later, the same landlord was about to wipe millions of rands worth of value off one of his Spurs by moving it to an unfavourable spot in the mall. Duncan believes that the only factor that swung the negotiations for a better position in the mall in his favour was that act of impeccable integrity.
“If you lead a life of integrity, and do everything right every day, doors will open,” he says