30 August 2012

Michael Holenstein: Success may mean re-invention

Michael Holenstein,
De Hoek Country House
With years of experience in the food and hospitality industry, it was hardly a surprise when, in 1994, Michael Holenstein was invited to join De Hoek Country House in Magaliesburg with seven staff and seven rooms. Today, thanks to loads of hard work, tenacity and a great reputation, De Hoek has grown to be named one of the best country houses in the world.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I always wanted to have my own business and work for myself

What were you doing before starting your business?
Prior to starting at De Hoek, I owned my own Italian restaurant and before that, I owned a catering company with two partners.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
In the beginning it was really hit and miss, as my very supportive business partner, Johann Redelinghuys, and I had no real experience in the hotel industry, although I had trained as a chef in Switzerland and cut my teeth in the kitchen. My wife and I had the responsibility of running the business; our goal was to become the best country house hotel in South Africa. We had a very informal plan and just worked very hard and long hours to build up a reputation for excellent service, comfortable accommodation and, obviously, very good food.

What was your start up capital and where did you work from?
As you can well imagine, starting a hotel – albeit a small one – is a huge capital investment. I was fortunate to have a partner who is very supportive of our ideas. We started with seven bedrooms – that was it. We’re now up to 20 bedrooms, four conference rooms, a restaurant and beautiful extensive gardens.

What was your big dream for this venture?
Our big dream was to turn De Hoek Country House into the best country hotel in South Africa. We were awarded the accolade for Best Country House in the World, in both 2007 and 2008, from the World Luxury Hotel Awards.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Be sure of what you have to sell to the customer, stay true to your offerings and rather under-sell and over-deliver than over-sell and under-deliver.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
A start would be to do a SWOT analysis: identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then focus on key issues.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
By researching the marketplace. What do my competitors charge? Can I charge more if I provide a better product/service?

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
We had a coal AGA stove in the kitchen – try doing a function for 60 or 70 with one oven and one hot plate; very challenging! We upgraded the kitchen with good industrial equipment.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
I think you must stay focused and keep working towards your goals; and watch your cashflow carefully.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Being in the hospitality industry, I have become accustomed to working hard, missing out on weekends with friends and family, and staying focused on the goal and dream.

Did you have a mentor?
My mentor was my father. He encouraged me to work hard and to keep going even if the going gets tough. My business partner is also someone I look up to for guidance and advice.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
It probably takes a good five years to reach a certain stability. We’ve been going for 18 years. Business is never without its challenges. We continuously have to think how we can “sweat the assets”, re-focus, re-strategise and keep going

In your opinion, is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
Don’t give up the dream; you might have to start another business or re-focus, but never give up. Richard Nixon said: “Defeat does not finish a man – quitting does. A man is not finished when is defeated. He is finished when he quits.”

Do you believe in internships for your business?
I definitely do. I think it is a very good way of addressing our unemployment problems in South Africa. The Swiss have a very good apprenticeship programme, a Private Public partnership that has stood them in good stead for about a century. A similar programme should be instituted in South Africa, companies should be accredited to train people for a certain number of years and, once the “apprentice” has completed their time under the watchful eye of accredited mentors, they will be qualified in their chosen field and employable.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Work smarter.
* Take some time off to re-energise
* Keep staff motivated.
* Be prepared to re-invent yourself.
* Stay in touch with technology.

To get in touch with Michael Holenstein from De Hoek Country House, email: mholenstein@dehoek.com, visit: www.dehoek.com or find him on LinkedIn.

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