Rumble of the Jungle in Business


There is nothing like the story of a bloody giraffe to catch the attention of 200 Mercedes-Benz service managers after their morning coffee.

Not just any giraffe tale will do. It must come from the lips of Quinton Coetzee, South Africa's swashbuckling survival specialist who uses lessons from the bush to warn desk-bound workers to compete, or die. The Indiana Jones look-alike is among a small corps of back-to-nature gurus transforming the way South African companies think about the bottom line.

Coetzee's trademark khaki trousers conceal a bandaged leg that was mauled by a lion. He boasts a recipe for roasted scorpions that, aficionados say, is to die for. He is even known to quench his thirst with the stomach contents of animals.

"We've never seen anything like him," said Mark Diab, the Mercedes-Benz executive who invited Coetzee to a corporate weekend at a game lodge here. "It was great. Everybody was getting the message in a way that they didn't really know they were getting it."

The conference room is dark. Coetzee flashes a slide on the screen. A half-naked San bushman poses clutching a giraffe's stomach, dripping in blood.

"It is his wife's favorite meal," Coetzee says. "With respect to vegetarians, we didn't claw our way to the top of the food chain to eat plants."

Dead quarry. Ripped-out organs. No apologies. Is this business at the turn of the millennium?

"If you are not hunting, you are being hunted," Coetzee taunts his audience.

Survival of the fittest. African solutions to African problems. Those are the messages that Coetzee and other self-help specialists are taking into top boardrooms, management seminars and union halls across South Africa--and now across the world.

One former park ranger has been booked in a South African gold mine to lecture about the teamwork of a lion pride.

"With the gold price dropping, they are trying to increase productivity," said Ian Thomas, who tracked lions for safari-goers before joining the lecture circuit.

Mostly rugged men and women with little formal business training, the South Africans combine a knack for the theatrical with a common-sense understanding of corporate needs. Experience in the bush, whether hunting animals or documenting age-old customs, is their most salable credential.

Though their stories and approaches vary, the basic message is similar: Look no further than the great African plain--to its peoples and its wildlife--for the secrets to commercial success.

"In the natural system, if the lion breaks its foot, there is not another lion that will bring it food," Coetzee said in an interview. "If bushmen have a baby in a drought, they bury it alive. If they have twins, they keep only one. When food is short, men eat first, then women and then kids. All of this has been turned around in modern society. One begins to wonder if this in fact is beneficial or detrimental."

His presentation is popular but not for everyone. The hunted giraffe, for instance, dies an agonizing death that drags on for three days. Coetzee also shows the picture of an elderly man, no longer strong enough to join the hunt, whom everyone agrees to let starve.

Deadwood kills the team, he lectures. There are no free meals.

Survival of the fittest is at the core of the South Africans' message, but the "life-as-a-jungle" lesson extends to many business essentials. Teamwork, training, nurturing, conservation, vision, innovation, empowerment, strategy and flexibility have time-tested roots in the African outback, according to Coetzee and the others.

"I haven't said one thing you don't already know," Coetzee told the Mercedes-Benz group. "I have just put them in a different perspective--as the things responsible for survival."

Admirers of the approach say the presentations inspire employees in ways that gray-suited managers and professional trainers can only dream of duplicating. Standing ovations are routine. And as in the case of Coetzee's talk here, lessons from the wild can have an extraordinary shelf life, resurfacing during lunchtime conversations, discussion groups and in question-and-answer sessions.

"A lot of people even called me afterward trying to get ahold of him," said Diab, the Mercedes-Benz executive. "He opened people's eyes up about business."

The authenticity of bona-fide African speakers is what makes people listen, corporate clients say.

Coetzee is a trained soldier and survivalist who once protected VIPs for the South African military. He has worked as a professional hunter and grew up on the edge of the Namib Desert, where he learned the customs of the San, one of Africa's oldest cultures. His one-hour talk follows the trials and tribulations of several San as they track an elusive giraffe.

Thomas, the former ranger, speaks about a lion pride on the hunt. Gcina Mhlope-Becker, a professional storyteller, relates the tale of a crocodile spirit and its wisdom from the past, one of many lessons adapted from traditional African legends she heard growing up in rural South Africa.

Musician Derek Jooste uses the rhythms and tones of African percussion instruments to demonstrate harmony in the workplace. Scottish immigrant David Crawford, short on African experience himself, displays injured eagles from a Johannesburg-area animal rehabilitation center to show nature's approach to leadership and vision.

"Some of it can sound very contrived," said Thomas, who gained much of his business smarts listening for eight years to corporate safari-goers talk shop around the campfire. "But over time, we have been able to put something together that . . . is meaningful to companies."

The back-to-Africa message has been around for several years, but it is playing particularly well now because South Africans are searching for an identity. The end of apartheid has left many ordinary people confused about where they fit in and how South Africa relates to the rest of the continent.

The social upheaval has extended to the business world. Long-established white companies are under attack for doing too little to reach out to blacks. New black companies feel insecure about a market still captive to the economic powers of the past.

In all the confusion, basic principles of good business are easily forgotten.

"City people are beginning to understand what we country people knew all along: You have to do things for yourself," said Mhlope-Becker, a popular South African television personality whose clients have included American Express and Eskom, South Africa's mammoth state-owned utility. "It doesn't matter whether you are black or white, young or old, man or woman. Take responsibility for yourself."

The African fixes are beginning to sell beyond the continent. Coetzee has played to 1,400 telecommunications workers in Orlando, Fla. He has worked audiences in Napa Valley and Dallas, and he returns to Florida next month. Mhlope-Becker just finished a tour of Europe. Thomas spoke last month to a British pharmaceutical company on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

"The message is very timely for organizations that are in change and flux, as most are these days," said Richard Fulk, director of marketing events for Nortel Networks, a Toronto-based telecommunications giant that has featured Coetzee at conferences in the United States. "It keeps pointing to things that are timeless and remain true regardless of the organization or its purpose. The principles remain the same."

Almost everyone agrees that Coetzee is in a class by himself, probably the most sought-after South African speaker.

"In the hands of someone else, it might not work," Fulk said of the San presentation. "He has a marvelous sense of humor and timing. He makes the connection happen."

Coetzee says the material speaks for itself; all he has to do is promise a good show.

"People love storytelling," he explained over a pot of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. "That is why they sit in front of 'Santa Barbara' and buy Hollywood tickets. This is a performance, not a lecture."

Speaker Has Survived Attacks by Lions and Snakes

Likened to Tarzan, Crocodile Dundee and the Marlboro man, Coetzee has been attacked by snakes and lions. His leg wound came during a rescue operation at the Johannesburg zoo. He has lived among a remote Indian tribe in the Amazon and has worked as a hunter in the sub-Antarctic. Until recently, he hosted a back-to-nature South African television show, which featured such things as how to prepare mamba stew for dinner.

Coetzee looks at home in a faded khaki shirt, though perhaps even more so when he rips it off midway through his San presentation, stretching it above his head to demonstrate how frightened animals enlarge their profiles. He also has a five o'clock shadow that won't go away and an equally persistent--and slightly mischievous--grin.

Hidden beneath the rugged outdoorsman, Coetzee, 40, is a bit of a Renaissance man. He trained as a concert pianist, performing in public as a child. He still favors Mozart. Both charming and disarming, ladies gush at him. Men are only slightly less adoring.

"I wish I had 15 people like him," said Marie Grey, a transplanted Texan whose Johannesburg professional speakers' agency represents Coetzee and several others on the back-to-nature circuit. "He is not a fireside specialist. He is the real thing."

It is so real that Coetzee wondered how his uncensored message--from the bloodied giraffe to the abandoned San elder--would go over outside South Africa when he began venturing overseas last year. He had already experienced a few knocks on a different matter. When a South African employee of Microsoft complained about Coetzee's apartheid-era military background, Grey said, references to his clandestine survival work "behind enemy lines" were removed from his official biography.

"It was shortly after Nelson Mandela [and the African National Congress] took over," she said. "There was a perception that Quinton was one of the people shooting at these guys."

So far, Coetzee's anxiety about international audiences has been unfounded. Businesspeople around the world, including the United States, have not openly challenged his Darwinistic premise. In fact, Coetzee says with his characteristic grin, they have embraced it instinctively.

"There isn't one person who goes on safari at Kruger and isn't disappointed at not seeing a kill," he said of animals hunting animals in South Africa's biggest national park. "This is the reality of life. You cannot shy away from it."

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