He had never worked in a bar, let alone done anything in the hospitality industry before, and there he was, behind the counter in a bar full of rugby supporters who had come to watch the Springboks play Ireland in his very own Sutherland Hotel.
“What have I done?” is a question which the then 48-year-old financial manager would ask himself again and again over the next four years. He wanted a challenge, but at times the hotel seemed like a suicide mission. It was so run down that he couldn’t possibly charge more than R100 per day for bed and breakfast. The chips maker and steak grill didn’t work, only one stove plate in the kitchen worked, the restaurant was a collection of plastic tables and chairs, the mattresses were broken, and the hotel came with two demotivated staff members.
The previous owner, who had only lasted for a few months before throwing in the towel, didn’t try to hide the defects from Du Plessis, but fixing them turned into a much bigger job than he had projected. Not only did he have to teach himself the ropes of the hotel industry, but he had to appoint and train competent workers, re-equip the kitchen and, bit by bit, rebuild the facilities himself.
After three months he was so miserable that he started a ritual which provided much-needed motivation. As he tackled each room, fixing them and adding en suite bathrooms, he collected all the photographs he took of the hotel as it was and of his progress, and he would watch a slide show just to remind himself how far he had come.
Eventually, it took him no fewer than four years for the hotel to start running smoothly. Today, the Sutherland hotel has 23 rooms, up from the 12 it had when he started. Each room is luxuriously set up for the winter months, Du Plessis’s busiest period, when visitors come to the small Karoo town to experience what is believed to be South Africa’s coldest place. They also come for the famed Sutherland Observatory – the stars are believed to be clearer in winter.
Du Plessis grew up in Sutherland and left after completing school, returning only to visit his parents. Once, in the early 90s, he seriously considered buying the hotel which was already run down, but decided against it. More than a decade later, however, Du Plessis was desperate to get out of the corporate world, where he found himself working as financial manager for a textile factory in the agricultural centre, Worcester.
A measure of his frustration and need for a challenge was his decision to enter the Comrades marathon at the age of 47 despite being unfit and overweight. Nine months later he completed the ultra-marathon, and a year later, in 2006, he bought the hotel which he tackled with the same determination and perseverance.
Of the difference between his corporate life and his struggle as a business owner he says: “If I stayed on (in the corporate world) I would have either hit my boss or I would have died of a heart attack. Here (running the hotel) it was more difficult, but it is a different kind of pressure. It’s more physical, although I still put in my hours behind the computer.”
But the main advantage was the freedom that it gave him from having to follow the dictates of others, and the fact that everything he did, including the mistakes he made, was for his own account.
Du Plessis had approached the banks to help him finance the purchase of the hotel but they had no appetite for the rural hospitality industry, and besides, he had no collateral to offer for the finance.
Business Partners, however, were prepared to take the risk, and financed the deal in return for a minority share in the hotel building. Eight years later, the loan and the buy-back of the shares in the building are almost complete.
Du Plessis says although the Sutherland Hotel can always do with more rooms in the winter months, his calculations show that the expansion would not be sustainable. That is why, when the hotel started running smoothly and Du Plessis looked for a new challenge, he bought a corner shop in Sutherland and turned it into an OK Minimark, also financed by Business Partners. Again he had to teach himself the ropes of an entirely different industry, and he learned that “it is harder to sell a tin of baked beans than it looks”. But his struggle to grow the shop was not nearly as daunting as his experience with the hotel.
For now, the hotel and the shop keep him happily busy, but Du Plessis does not discount the possibility that he might “start itching for another challenge”, which he will no doubt tackle with the simple motto that he has come to live by: “If you want to, you can.”