From the corporate world to contemporary art: ex-Puma chief executive Jochen Zeitz has his eye on another prize

When he became the chief executive of German sportswear firm Puma at the age of just 29, Jochen Zeitz also became the youngest boss of a listed company in Europe. It was a highly unusual appointment at the time and Zeitz credits the company’s more liberal-thinking Swiss shareholders for taking a leap of faith.

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A quarter of a century later, with his fortune made and considerably more business acumen under his belt, Zeitz’s entire focus has shifted from the corporate corridors of luxury sports manufacturing to the plains of Africa. He is no longer at the helm of Puma but remains as a director of the Kering group and chairman of its sustainable development committee, allowing him to devote time to his foundation, which bears his name and is focused on conservation projects in Africa with a credo of the four Cs – conservation, community, culture and commerce.

Zeitz is also building the first ever museum of contemporary African art in Cape Town. His first conservation project is a newly renovated ecological lodge in Kenya called Segera Retreat, a charming estate that looks like a scene from the movie Out of Africa, which coincidentally was filmed nearby.

Surrounded by traditional Masai villages, Zeitz transformed the ancient farm and its stables into a luxurious sustainable 20,000-hectare sanctuary for the big five and their predators. A few miles away from Segera is Zeitz’s foundation, which he launched six years ago.

“I had this idea a long time ago to create and develop sustainable tourism projects but it took a few years to mature.” says the 51-year-old German entrepreneur.

“It was never my plan to just have a house or a farm. It goes far beyond that. With tourism, more than just agriculture, you can influence a much broader audience. You can create jobs locally and have a knock-on effect on things. In the end, it is not as small as you thought it would be.”

This is exactly what Segera (Swahili for coral shell) has become. The estate is now a lush haven of peace.

In Karen Blixen’s novel Out of Africa, the character Isak Dinesen says: “Here I am, this is where I belong.” It was a thought echoed by Zeitz when he first visited Segera eight years ago. At the time, he was at the peak of his career and in his 40s. As the chief executive of a multi-billion dollar company, he employed tens of thousands of people throughout the world.

“I love adventure, nature and I have a passion for Africa. I went there for the first time 18 years ago and have been back every year since.”

After a fortnight in the bush in 2010, Zeitz decided to upgrade Segera and turn it into a luxury tourist destination. He now employs hundreds of local people to grow vegetables and crops. The water and the energy are all sustainable, he says, as well as all the food served for the meals.

Since taking over the lodge, Zeitz – who does not sleep more than three or four hours a night – has also published a book called The Manager and The Monk, an exploration of values, spirituality and sustainability in business, following intense discussions with German spirituality guru Anselm Grün.

Zeitz says: “I met Anselm at a decisive moment in my life. This book really helped me grow my consciousness and enhance my perception of the world. Curiosity guides my life. This is how I discovered many of the deep and human principles that we describe in the book. It was an important step because afterwards, my understanding of what I could achieve in the world was far stronger.”

I love adventure, nature and I have a passion for Africa. I went there for the first time 18 years ago and have been back every year since.

Before that adventure, Zeitz was always on the run. Without family or children, he lived in the moment.

“I decided it was time to move on and change my role at Puma. I had been a senior executive for more than 20 years and my ambitions were very different. Having had such a career gave me the credibility to do other things. I had learnt enough about business to know what we can do better economically but also socially and environmentally.”

But changing direction was not an overnight occurrence.

“I did not start behaving ethically when I stepped down from my position as chief executive [after 18 years]. It has always been important for me at Puma and in everything I have ever done. One must always do more than create short-term financial revenues.”

According to Zeitz, it is not about charity but being responsible. “The power of an entrepreneur is finding solutions. Of course, you need to improve the gross profits of a company in order to enable it to survive but you need to get things done in the right way from the start. Otherwise it is often too late.”

He says solutions come from being open-minded and trying to understand and learn what others do while culture and art bring an extra touch of soul. Zeitz has accumulated more than 150 pieces of art, sculptures, photos, paintings and video installations at Segera, collected over the years from auctions in London and South Africa.

He has also established a rotating artist in residence programme lasting three months, so a visit to Segera could include breakfast with South African artist Sue Williamson or Ghanaian-German painter Owusu-Ankomah.

However, Zeitz’s artistic vision goes far beyond the walls of his retreat. He is opening a non-for-profit $56.5 million museum called Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town’s historic grain silo building on the V&A waterfront. “I wanted my collection to be stored in a safe place and to give the African continent its first important museum in the field of contemporary art.”

The nine-storey complex, centred around a light-filled atrium with a glass roof, is expected to feature 80 galleries when it opens in 2016 and will house more than 500 pieces of contemporary African art.