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Thursday, November 10, 2011

It’s all about guts


In the “haven of peace” that is Dar es Salaam, is the Benjamin William Mkapa Pension Tower, the tallest skyscraper in this commercial capital of Tanzania that houses the famous Paradise City Hotel. The hotel is owned by a Ugandan entrepreneur, Justus Baguma, who at the height of the East African community talk in 2003, stepped on Tanzanian soil, and two years later, established the four-star hotel after leasing the multi-million US dollar complex from Tanzania’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

Hotel magnate Mr. Justus Baguma in his office in Dar
“I love to serve and I love good things,” Mr Baguma reveals the drive behind his hotel business. “I have lived in most expensive hotels and I always wanted to own mine, and today, I employ about 200 people in this country.”

Chanced meet
On a business trip to Tanzania early this year, I booked into the 72-suite hotel, clueless it’s owned by a Ugandan. On the third day of my stay, I jumped into the lift to go to my room on the sixth floor, and therein met a man who greeted me politely and asked how I was finding it at the hotel. With the ergonomic facilities I had enjoyed from day one, and the fantastic continental breakfast I had just consumed and the sweet smile of waitress that served me still etched on my mind, I found myself saying: “This place’s sure a paradise away from home!”

Turns out, I was speaking to the managing director of the hotel himself! And when he learned I’m Ugandan, he shook my hand excitedly, and invited me to his office where we spoke, like long-lost-finally-reunited-buddies, on life back home.

Ingredients to success
From his unassuming and friendly disposition, it was easy to figure out why it’s difficult for such a man to fail. Baguma is a “man of the people” who prefers “dealing with ordinary people because they can be trained and trusted to do a better job than professional managers that always walk out on you.”

The husky-voiced hotelier was born in Mbarara, 62 years ago, and studied business at Kyambogo. In 1986, he went to the United Kingdom for a Masters degree in Business Studies.

“A rocky road to success, rags to riches –that’s me,” he says quietly. “I’m a self-made man. I believe in hard work. I believe in comparing notes and I believe in challenges.”

The greatest ingredient to success, he said, is guts. The guts to take tough decisions, the guts not to quit when the going gets rough. Blunders characterised his early business days. “I used to get excited,” he confesses, “I would involve people in all sorts of business ventures without doing thorough research. We would lose all our money and they would blame me. That was my major challenge until I decided to do it alone.”

In 2001, Baguma attempted to bring McDonalds, the American fast food chain to Uganda, but it didn’t work. He retreated to the drawing board and made another strategy that birthed Paradise City Hotel. He uses the metaphor of death to describe the investment mistakes from which the real business men rise to make it.

Experience has also taught him that generosity is invaluable. “Someone comes and says ‘I want to stay here, but I don’t have that kind of money.’ What do you do? You have workers to pay, and rent, but you look at the empty room and give him accommodation.”

And when he begins to talk about God, in the success equation, you might mistake him for a pastor as this paragraph demonstrates. “God is one and we are all his children and when we seek Him diligently, He’ll be able to answer our prayers. I’ve tried to do things my way, depending on myself, and it doesn’t work. But when I’ve tried Him, I’ve seen doors open. I see His hand of protection and mercy doing things for me.”

With oil on home soil, Baguma plans to spreads his investment wings to Uganda. “Tanzania is governed without tribal differences and I pray Uganda forgets about ethnic boundaries and unites toward the development of this country. What should unite us is one thing; one God. God is love. Bring love closer, you can even invest in Russia or anywhere in the world. You give love you’ll be given love. Instability is a setback to development.”

Outside business and playing golf, the hotel magnate tries to find time to bond with his wife, Eulogia, a fashion designer. “She has been an inspiration in bringing our six children in a manner that’s expected and admirable. That in itself has been a big support on my side because if I had worries here and there, worries at home, I would not be here. I thank God because He has been able to protect us, guide and increase us in wisdom.”

The interview ends with his word to fellow businessmen. “If you know you’ve made yourself a successful entrepreneur, you need to fight day and night not to lose it. Once you lose it, it’s over.”

---Sunday Monitor, October 23, 2011