TO say that Wilfred Chivell started his award-winning whale-watching and shark-cage-diving businesses with a single inflatable boat is not quite true. Actually, he started with less than nothing.
At the time, Wilfred was busy living through every business
owner’s worst nightmare.
The five brick and cement-works companies that he had built up in the Western Cape harbour town of Gansbaai were all wiped out when his biggest clients failed to pay their accounts due to a freeze in the construction industry in 1998.
He lost everything: property, businesses, home; his marriage fell apart, and his reputation was shattered. When your business goes down in South Africa, Wilfred found out, “people immediately assume you are either stupid or unethical”.
He set about proving he was neither by painstakingly starting a tiny operation taking tourists out to sea in the single rubber duck. He was determined to settle - as a matter of principle - the money his businesses owed when they were liquidated.
“If I were a more sophisticated type, I would have needed therapy,” Wilfred jokes as he thinks back to the hardest time in his life. In desperation, he had turned to his first love, the sea.
He grew up among the fishing boats of Gansbaai, spent a year or two as a diamond diver after school and had become a champion extreme rubber duck racer, among other things.
Wilfred managed to establish a working relationship with the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve that had just opened up near Gansbaai.
From their clientèle he started building a steady stream of customers willing to go on the rudimentary but informative boat trips run by his company Dyer Island Cruises.
He was soon able to make a living, but without a government whale-watching permit, which allows tourist boats to come within 50m of the famous sea mammals breeding along the Hermanus coastline, he couldn’t implement the vision of a boat-based whale watching business that had formed in his mind.
With the same tenacity that allowed him to get back on his feet he pursued the permit, past the government agency which didn’t even bother to look at his application right up to the office of the national environment minister.
His application sketched a vision of a business that would not only enhance job creation, South Africa’s tourism image and black economic empowerment, but also boost research and conservation.
Wilfred remembers the day that he noticed the piece of paper lying in the empty room that contained nothing but his fax machine (he had also lost all his furniture). It was the fax from the minister's office giving his business the go-ahead.
He was as good as his word and over the next few years built a business that is a model of sustainable tourism. At any given time, several PHD students from all corners of the world are part of his operations which support their research.
Wilfred has become the voice of marine conservation in the Overberg and has worked hard to gain and maintain Fair Trade accreditation for his business.
His steps to business success included a new boat (financed with the help of the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve and repaid at the end of the boat’s first operational season), a second custom-made state-of-the-art boat, and buying and turning around a struggling shark-cage diving business, Marine Dynamics, which helped take the edge off the dramatic seasonal cash-flow fluctuations of his whale watching business. Shark-cage diving happens throughout the year.
He also bought a building now branded The Great White House, from where he launches his cruises and diving trips.
Business Partners Limited had no hesitation in financing the purchase of the building, as well as the more recent improvements done to it.
Business Partners was one of the financiers of his liquidated businesses, but by repaying the loan despite the liquidation, Wilfred had turned a business calamity into proof of his creditworthiness.
He is a firm believer in not competing on price, but rather on improving the client’s experience, and he takes a very broad, holistic approach to what it is he needs to sell – not just fun boat and diving trips, but the mystique of magnificent animals and the idea of peaceful human co-existence with them.
For example, he is busy popularising the idea of the “marine big five” which he coined – whales, dolphins, sharks, penguins and seals. Also, he has helped to lobby Afrikaans institutions to change the name “witdoodhaai” (literally “white death shark”) to “grootwithaai” (great white shark).
Every now and then a controversy threatens the industry, such as environmentalists who worry about the effect of boats on the whales or people who speculate that the use of bait to attract sharks leads to attacks on humans.
Wilfred tackles these issues with openness and the sharing of knowledge, inviting anyone from journalists to parliamentarians to come and experience his operations directly.
The fact that he is a passionate conservationist and a champion of research helps a lot.
He now wants to develop the research facilitation side of his operations into a business in its own right, which will support volunteers, interns and researchers world-wide to work on marine-conservation projects in the area.
Asked about his management style, he laughs in his typical self-deprecating way: “Disorderly, and with a lot of shouting,” but adds that he is working on building an effective management team for his growing staff complement of more than 40.
The failure of his previous businesses has taught him the importance of credit control. “The client swipes his card, and by the time he goes on board, the money is in my pocket.”
This time, credit limits will not be allowed to creep up. He is also wary of growing too fast and starting lines of businesses that become “monsters that need to be fed all the time”.
The really dangerous kind of shark, he has learned, lives on the land.