Talking with Haile, you tend to forget that you are in the presence of a living legend. To say he is personable is to repeat what many others have said before. Yet it is probably the most powerful perception of him that you get initially. If you think his smile is infectious, then you’ll have to find another way to describe his personality…
We had our first conversation a few weeks after the intense media coverage of his retirement saga. The second one was a few days after his Johnnie Walker commercial first surfaced and immediately created a mild controversy. Neither the short lived retirement nor the stir about his commercial define the man in any significant way. What has defined him to much of the world is the indomitable spirit he had shown on the track time and time again.
But the track is hardly the only place where this spirit is evident. There is another side to Haile, whom the foreign media fondly calls Gebre, many people are unaware of. He has been in business for almost two decades on which he has put and increased focus now. Although his recent retirement from professional sports was an abortive one, a more permanent one draws closer with every passing day. Even the seemingly ageless Haile knows that. The same indomitable spirit that has propelled him to the pinnacle of his athletic profession is the driving force behind Haile’s success as a business man.
Heading a Conglomerate
Haile’s business interests are mainly housed in the company, Haile & Alem International PLC, which he co-owns with his wife Alem. The firm is primarily engaged in construction, leisure & entertainment. In a rapidly developing economy where access to finance is scarce, most of Ethiopia’s successful athletes engage in a variety of business activities. But Haile’s ventures have scaled up to a new level of breadth and prominence not seen amongst such investors before. It is perhaps because he may be as much of a natural businessman as he is a runner.
As we begin our conversation, a phone call comes in from an employee working at one of Haile’s commercial property developments. . Haile instructs him to look for morales (wooden plank used in buildings) from another supplier because the cost obtained by the employee is too high. It’s one indication that this businessman is no figurehead, possessing a detailed grasp of many operational aspects of his businesses. Further on in the conversation, he dives into the details of logistics for perishable goods, the importance of knowledge transfer for his upcoming auto assembly project and other business matters that seem as routine for him as his daily training regimen.
Horizon Ethiopia asked him how he can do all of this on top of maintaining a tough regimen required of a world class athlete. For him, it’s all about getting an early start and scheduling his day so that he makes sure to hit all the important aspects of his business and personal life. He is up at 5am everyday and works out for over an hour. Energized, he is ready to face business matters for the day. Family time remains important, which is why he is usually home early.
Haile’s office sits at the top of Alem Building, which is owned by his company and is located on Bole Road. The building aside serving as an office space has a gym (Alem Fitness). Across an alley, there is movie theater of the same name in another building they also own. Several other properties throughout Addis round out the company’s commercial real estate holdings. The latest one is on the corner of Bole Road by the Millennium Hall probably one of the fastest rising buildings after the African Union Conference Center. Two schools outside of Addis Ababa make up the educational portion of the company’s portfolio. Efforts to engage in agricultural ventures are currently in the planning stages. Haile also retains a significant ownership in Marathon Motors – the sole authorized importer of Hyundai vehicles. Marathon intends to begin assembly of Hyundai’s in Ethiopia sometime in 2011. It will be the first plant to churn out internationally recognized brand name vehicles.
Despite the impressive roster of business activities Haile and Alem International PLC is into in, all of them put together do not equal the effort and expense of the biggest and highest investment profile they have engaged in to date.
The Hardest Race He Ever Ran
On the shores of beautiful Lake Hawassa, located 275 km south of Addsis, sits the crown jewel of the business empire Haile and his wife have built together. It is the Haile Resort – built on a beautiful site, it has 212 rooms, and provides full hotel service. Haile hopes to turn this resort into an anchor for a strong push into the tourism sector. He has invested a considerable amount and effort on this venture, and seeing it finished considers it to be the toughest race he ever ran. Coming from Haile, this has to mean something.
Haile Resort is not the only thing he’s done for tourism in Ethiopia. He is the primary force behind the annual Great Ethiopian Run, the biggest road race event in Africa that now attracts 35,000 participants a year. Besides other world renowned athletes (such as England’s Paula Radcliffe), the event draws international press coverage and contributes to the ever present effort to recast Ethiopia’s image on the international stage in a more favorable light. Haile hopes to employ the same kind of formula for Hawassa with regular and ad hoc events that will serve to draw ever more tourists to the picturesque town. The long dormant airport can now host smaller aircraft and with a number of other new leisure destinations opening up in town, the stage seems set for bigger things to come for the small but bustling town. He knows it will take time and perseverance but the latter is something that perhaps nobody else knows more about than Haile. A concept that was featured prominently in one of his latest promotional engagements for which he probably paid a bit of a price he did not anticipate.
It was a mini controversy. Haile’s plug for Diageo – makers of Johnny Walker – had tongues wagging from one end of town to the other. Not to mention the Facebook world on which numerous discussions had sprung up well before the giant billboards for the ad campaign started appearing in Addis. The negative reactions from some quarters could not have been entirely unpredictable. The ad’s detractors claimed that as one of the nation’s preeminent role models, he should not do an ad for an alcoholic product regardless of how iconic and well respected the brand is.
But Haile is adamant that he considered the request carefully and remains confident that he made the right decision in lending his image for the ad. Although he was fully aware that the ad would promote Johnny Walker’s Black Label, he says his focus was on the message the brand’s tag line, “Keep Walking,” imparted – a message of perseverance. A long line of prominent personalities including David Beckham and Richard Branson had previously lent their image for the same ad campaign.
“I’m not trying to tell people to drink alcohol. I myself do not take anything more than a few sips myself,” Haile says.
There is much more to Haile’s life beyond his athletic exploits. His recent retirement from competitive sports may have been short-lived, but the final curtain on his storied career will inevitably arrive. But there is every reason to believe that he may yet leave a legacy outside the world of sports that may very well outshine the one he is crafting within it.
He takes his image as a role model seriously. The whole idea excites a passionate soliloquy from him. With reference to national development he says, “We need more than hard work to make quick and lasting change happen in this country! Our mindset need to change. For that to happen, we must have role models in every area of business, education, sports, arts and so on.” The theme he focuses on is empowerment for an entire nation. Nobody is born poor, he stresses.
It’s a fitting lesson from someone who wears the mantle of the ‘Greatest Distance Runner of all Time’. An achievement that could yet be eclipsed by the possibility of the great accomplishments that lie ahead for Haile.