Tadiwos G. Belete

“You Won’t Change Anything if You Devote Your Life to What You Don’t Love.”

Boston Partners, the parent company of Kuriftu Resort & Spa, was founded by Tadiwos G. Belete, who currently serves as its CEO. Tadiwos was born in 1957, in the southeastern Ethiopian State of Oromia. At the age of 16, Tadiwos moved to Sudan in search of stability, security, and a better life for himself and his eight younger siblings. This was six years after the coup that resulted in the establishment of the Derg communist government, which caused severe economic and social upheaval in the country. Tadiwos has endured a great deal of adversity throughout his life, particularly during his time in Sudan, including health issues that nearly claimed his life. He often thinks back to his first job, scaring birds away on a small, privately owned farm. In 1983, he flew to the United States of America and was granted refugee asylum.

Tadiwos’s journey in the U.S. started with enrolling in a hairdressing school and working nights as a parking lot attendant. He also tried his hand in the restaurant business, promoting Ethiopian artists. He then decided to pursue his education and attended Roxbury Community College, attaining an associate degree in accounting, and Suffolk University in Boston, with a specialization in the same field. At the same time, he opened a salon on Newbury Street with seven other business owners.

Tadiwos spent 19 years working as a hairstylist in Boston, where he gained expertise and firsthand knowledge of what actually works and what doesn’t, as well as how to really run a successful business. In order to bring the Western spa experience and beauty culture to Ethiopia, Tadiwos, a happily married father of three who led a prosperous life in the US, bought a plot of land along Africa Avenue and started building the eight-story Boston Partners building in Addis Ababa. He established a salon, which he dubbed Boston Day Spa, after the renowned city of Boston, which had acted as a stepping stone to his great accomplishments.

Since the debut of Boston Day Spa, Tadiwos has expanded and opened the now well-renowned Kuriftu Resort in Bishoftu Town, in the State of Oromia, and Bahir Dar, in the State of Amhara. He also launched the Kuriftu resort in Awash. And notably, the Kuriftu Water Park is the first of its kind in Ethiopia. Tadiwos also proudly promises further mega projects in the State of Afar and the town of Arba Minch. The pan-African businessman is also building The African Village, due in September, which aims to serve as a melting pot for African culture and the hospitality industry,  offering visitors a unique experience. In this interview with EBR’s Addisu Deresse, Tadiwos talks passionately about the need to tap into Africa’s potential and boost local tourism, among other matters.

My research shows you are a husband with three children. Tell us about them.

I have three children. The oldest, Yonaiel, graduated from Boston University when he was 30 years old. When we returned to Ethiopia, he was 8 or 9 years old. He started working from the bottom up, from carrying luggage to working in construction. Now he is the operations manager of our company. He is also studying operations management. He studied at a good school. My second daughter is Mahlet. She studied hospitality and tourism management in New York. She worked at a hotel in America for four and a half years. She rose through the ranks and was eventually a manager, after which she returned to her country. She is now starting her second year as head of sales. The youngest’s name is Abbner, and he graduated from Pace University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He is now working for a finance company in America. After gaining some experience, I think he will come back to work on our projects.

If you had to hand over your role to one of your children, which one would it be?

They are all very ambitious. They serve the organization with great effort in their respective departments. So our work is not the result of one person’s work, but that of a group. An organization should not rely solely on the family, it needs enough staff. We have thousands of employees, and we believe that the company treats everyone as its child, who works effectively at both the team and management levels. I think that any of the children can replace me at the desired time.

What does a man with so many resorts enjoy? What do you enjoy the most when you are not working?

We used to work 20 or 18 hours a day. Now that I have come to Ethiopia, I work almost 16 to 17 hours a day. My children are also growing, and the company is in its 20th year. We have a very strong management team and mature employees who have been with us since our inception. Apart from bringing new business ideas, the management team controls the operations. Other than that, my personal hobbies are doing sports with friends and swimming 3 or 4 days a week. I’m not a person who reads a lot of books.

What is the one principle you cannot live without as a businessman?

Both passion and discipline are essential traits. I think they are the most important keys to saving yourself from burning out. You won’t change anything if you devote your whole life to what you don’t love.

How do you describe the role that Boston has played in your entrepreneurial life?

I think that my life changed during my exile in Sudan, where I decided to change my life, thinking that I had no one. That created a drive in me that has been vital through the years. Boston is a comfortable country. I can’t say that it has inspired me to create a business because it is a country where the government is fighting for you even if you don’t have a job. My efforts while I was in Sudan, struggling to get myself out, and developing business ideas, have contributed a lot. It has been 20 years since we returned to Ethiopia. Since 2002, the organization has been growing and becoming more successful every year, contributing many ideas to the Ethiopian ecosystem. I think that the organization was the result of many experiences, not just one. My experiences in Boston, Sudan, and here in Ethiopia have contributed their fair share to get us where we are today.

Marc Cuban, an American billionaire, argues one needs an accounting background to become successful in business. Even if one can hire, the founder needs to understand what his accountants do. How much help has your accounting background been?

My accounting education should not be overstated; it was just two years of training. The college I went to in America is a school where refugees and disadvantaged people go. So I do not believe that my understanding is the result of education. I don’t focus on the financial aspect of what I do. I never go around cashiers. I have never counted the money. I have never even signed a check. So, my accounting background has not helped at all. As I told you before, I think it’s the result of bringing out what’s in you and working day and night with passion. I have never thought about money. I don’t want to. I have never done feasibility studies. I discuss and debate business ideas with my team, and we do what is approved after those debates. That is how we operate.

I think it was in 2014 when you opened Kuriftu Resort in the middle of the Red Sea. Tell us about the two projects you have outside of Ethiopia.

By the way, the Djibouti project has been suspended. The foreign currency exchange problem in our country did not allow us to run the project as planned. I sold it to my partner. Now we are focusing more on our local projects.  But because Ethiopian tourism always wants blue water, white sand, and seafood, we are doing promotions with our partners there. We are working in collaboration with businesses in the region to boost local tourism.

Tell us about the African Village project you are working on.

The African Village Initiative is a first-of-its-kind effort for both Ethiopia and us. We are quite enthusiastic about the initiative. We plan to launch within the following six months,  in September. We constructed 54 villas after the rain stopped. Each of the 54 villas has its own upstairs. Each African country receives a villa. We will make each country feel at home in each villa. The furnishings and decor are all done in such a way that the entire building represents their country, their books, their flags, and their feelings. Because Ethiopia is Africa’s political capital, we believe it is our job to promote intracontinental tourism. We intend to provide each African ambassador with one month of time. They are welcome to bring their own chefs. The business community will collaborate with embassies on a variety of initiatives. We shall seek to expand continental tourism by enlisting the active participation of all countries. This is a billion-person continent. African countries can greatly benefit from increasing the flow of tourism among themselves.

What is pan-Africanism to you as a businessman?

Pan-Africanism, to me, is creating a movement that highlights Ethiopia on the African continent. A business that was created, born, and raised in Ethiopia should spread throughout Africa, bringing our food, flag, and language with it. This is true not only for tourism but also for manufacturing and other investments. We should not only visit other African countries; they should also visit us. Having many investment shows means that they come here and we go there. Consider this: in the past, all of the country’s wealthy citizens traveled to other parts of the world to invest. It means turning that around and finding a way to benefit Africa. It means helping our unemployed brothers and sisters. Its purpose is to encourage youth who are hungry to earn and live. So we have a lot of ground to cover. Governments in every African country should support and promote indigenous businesses. They are beneficial! They create job opportunities for workers, improve technology, and share their knowledge.

How do you hear about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) or the news about Ethiopia softening its borders with Kenya to allow trade?

It is a huge development. African countries need a softer border between them. You can visit all of Europe and return with one visa. We don’t have that here. There is no paradise like Africa. People from Africa go to Dubai for vacation. People still don’t consider it a vacation unless it is in Dubai. People don’t think it’s an investment unless they cross the ocean. So we must come up with an idea that will change that.

Some of your projects are new. What is the process by which you develop those business ideas?

As you know, Boston Day Spa was launched when there was no spa in Ethiopia. Now there are several. We offer a premier service. As you know, we were the first to introduce a Water Park. What we have done at Entoto includes a children’s recreation area. Everything we do is new. What we are doing now in the African Village Initiative is something no one has dared to do before. Our unique selling point is our ability to develop new services and products. It is always our wish to develop Ethiopia with these unique ideas. I think we are very lucky. New ideas are written down and presented during meetings here in this very office. Before we begin the groundwork, we vigorously debate and strengthen the idea. There will be product ideas that get rejected, of course. There are three or four unique upcoming projects that you can see in the near future. These new projects will also show Ethiopia something new and help change the country’s image.

The hospitality sector was one of the worst hit by the pandemic. How did you survive it?

It is better to say that God covered us. We were out of business for almost two years. We have thousands of employees, and even during that time, we did not fire a single employee. We have been paying full salaries. It was a very tough time, but luckily, as a company, we don’t have a lot of debt. I believe God helped us. To tell you the truth, it was a difficult time. But now, thank God, things are improving. It had been 3-4 years since we had seen an international tourist. But you know the best part of it is that promoting local tourism can be the basis of a country’s development, and we have learned a great lesson from the locals. I would also like to thank our guests for helping us get to this point.

Even worse, hospitality in Ethiopia was challenged by security issues. What was the implication for your business?

We don’t work for money! That’s why we said we work with passion and discipline. We were working during the various riots and the pandemic in Ethiopia. We were working through all the challenges. We always work, and we will continue to work. We don’t get involved in anything that gets in the way of our work. Business is our priority, and the pandemic made us focus on domestic tourism. If you have the ability to bring new ideas to local tourism, you can do it even in difficult situations.

It is fair to say that new business ideas should be backed by robust marketing. What is your strategy for marketing these tourism products?

We usually go for a marketing strategy that is a natural fit for the product. About 4 million Ethiopians live in different countries. We try to identify what they want and categorize them by age. What do the children want? What do middle-aged people want? What do the elderly want? When they come to the water park, they will find 2-3 business sections. Parents come with their children, and grandparents entertain their children with them. The work we’ve done at Entoto has captured the interest of all those groups of people. What we did at Awash is beyond the standards of any country. Therefore, it is designed to satisfy local consumers as well. When our brothers and sisters who come from abroad bring their children, we will combine business ideas and marketing strategies that can be used to tell a unique story about Ethiopia.

How do you evaluate the government’s support for and view of the sector and its potential?

I think that the view towards tourism and the support of the government has changed more than I ever thought it would. There has never been a time when the government paid attention and made tourism the first of the three pillars of its new economic reform. New projects are being developed everywhere under the prime minister’s initiatives. So, I see the possibility of our tourism development continuing for many years to come. Every business owner is doing their work better than they used to. So I think the tourism sector seems to be running on its own now. The future is also very promising. I can say, without a doubt, that Ethiopia will find its ideal position in tourism in the next four to five years.

Historical and religious attractions have been the main products of tourism for so long. What is your experience with product diversification?

Our experience with product diversification is improving, but we have a long way to go. As you said, our historical sites have been the main tourism products we’ve had for a long time. When we introduced Kuriftu, it became a tourist site in and of itself. People come to Kuriftu to have fun at the site, making it a tourism product in and of itself. The number of tourists that visit Bishoftu is unmatched, making it the first tourist destination in Ethiopia. You can also consider the Water Park, the Awash Project, or the one in Afar, which are all diverse tourism products.

We can’t have business as usual. We can’t just keep opening hotels near historic attractions. We need to develop new ideas and new products if we are going to tap the full potential of Ethiopia and Africa at large.

For as long as you have been in business, the industry has been characterized by a severe lack of trained professionals. What is your philosophy on human resource management?

Yes, the industry has been characterized by a lack of trained professionals. Since we started 20 years ago, our company’s core belief has been to train our staff. We don’t poach staff from any other hotel. We are strict with our training program. There are a dozen employees here who have gone through years of training and promoted themselves from the position of a guard to leading major departments. We are so proud of that. Of course, many of the people we trained have left us for other hotels, which we don’t complain much about. We are also proud of the fact that about 83 Pct of our employees are women.

What factors do you consider when you prepare to develop a new product?

A number of factors go into our decisions when we develop new products. We always try to consider places outside of Addis Ababa. The second issue has to do with landscaping, the view, and the greenery, and all those factors go into our decision of where we can do what. This doesn’t mean we go out and look for the perfect place to set up a business. Sometimes the location is good, but you don’t have the landscape. So, you have to create the landscape or the view yourself. We take care about what we try before we do it. That is why people talk about Kuriftu, whether it is in Djibouti, Eritrea, or Sudan.

What is your view of the future for both the industry and the country at large?

I think the future will be great. I think Ethiopian tourism will be better than ever. I believe that Ethiopia will be a country that is promoted and sold worldwide. Therefore, I think the future will be bright for Ethiopian tourism. If I tell you in numbers, I think Ethiopia will rank from 1 to 3 in the next 5 years. Most of the properties we have produced belong to Ethiopians, other countries are not like that. The things that we are building, even for a small profit now, show that we are prepared and waiting for the promising times to come.”


11th Year • May 2023 • No. 117 EBR

 

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