Jochen Zeitz: the eco-entrepreneur on a mission to change business

Jochen Zeitz, one of the world’s most successful and influential businessmen, talks exclusively to The Wealth Report about his most ambitious challenge to date and why business has a crucial role to play in saving the planet.

Words: Andrew Shirley, Editor, The Wealth Report

When Jochen Zeitz was appointed chief executive of Puma in 1993, the German sportswear manufacturer was going nowhere. Within 13 years he’d boosted the company’s share price by 4,000%, propelled Puma into third place in its sector behind global behemoths Nike and Adidas, and overseen the sale of a majority stake in the business to the Gucci-owning luxury goods giant PPR, now known as Kering.

It was an impressive performance, particularly for somebody aged just 30 at the time, and with no previous track record of running a global business. But persuading customers to splash out on snazzy training shoes has, arguably, been the least of Mr Zeitz’s achievements.

My journey to find out what drives him has taken me across continents, from the cramped basement of a trendy west London music venue – more on that later – to the iconic Victoria & Alfred waterfront district of Cape Town in South Africa, before I eventually get to chat extensively with the man himself on a damp, blustery night in one of London’s leafiest neighbourhoods.

He could settled for successfully rewilding a large chunk of Africa and he could have settled for helping to found an iconic Cape Town art gallery voted one of the world’s best visitor attractions in 2018. But why stop there?

Other interviewers have referred to Mr Zeitz’s athletic marathon-runner’s physique or his penchant for sharp black suits and crisp white shirts (always worn without a tie), but when I walk out of the wintry weather into a cosy pub in Richmond it’s a slightly soggy, windswept man with a small dog by his feet who beckons me over with a friendly wave to join him at a table in the corner of the bar.

Jochen Zeitz could have settled for being the youngest CEO ever of a German listed company, he could settled for successfully rewilding a large chunk of Africa and he could have settled for helping to found an iconic Cape Town art gallery voted one of the world’s best visitor attractions in 2018. But why stop there?

I apologise for dragging him out on such a miserable evening, especially as he’s just back from an extended honeymoon in Africa with his wife, the film producer Kate Garwood, and their two young children, but he says it’s no problem. “I like being outside and Foxy - a dog of indeterminate parentage that the family rescued from “death row” in Los Angeles - needed a walk.”

This love of the great outdoors, nurtured he says during a childhood spent in the German countryside helps to explain why he chose Richmond, with its great expanse of ancient parkland, when setting up home in London three years ago. “I’m not really a city centre kind of guy,” he says.

In fact, it also explains a lot about Mr Zeitz and his intertwined passions and beliefs – including his deep love of Africa and his even deeper commitment to the environment.

The full read

Africa has been a recurring theme throughout his life. As part of his revival of Puma he sponsored some of the continent’s national football teams, cladding them in controversial skin-tight shirts and since 2005 he has owned Segera, a 50,000-acre conservation reserve in northern Kenya with an award-winning eco safari lodge.

He also co-founded the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Zeitz MoCAA) in Cape Town, which was opened by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2017.

I felt that there was an opportunity and a need for a major museum in Africa, and because nobody had done it I just said, well, let me. Art has a huge role to play when it comes to changing people’s perceptions and ideas.

So what drew him to Africa? “I used to travel a lot in Asia and Latin America, but somehow when I came to Africa it just kind of felt like home,” he explains. “To begin with it was the incredible nature that I saw when I travelled through the continent; then seeing more of its creativity and diversity was just something that fascinated me.”

That diversity is on full display at the Zeitz MoCAA, a converted dockside grain silo that houses an eclectic mix of works assembled by Mr Zeitz over the past 11 years. Unusually, but perhaps unsurprisingly given his ethos, the collection was created more to make a statement than for personal pleasure.

“I felt that there was an opportunity and a need for a major museum in Africa, and because nobody had done it I just said, well, let me. Art has a huge role to play when it comes to changing people’s perceptions and ideas. The collection is very much built around the objective of changing people’s minds about the environmental, social, personal, political topics that artists are keen to talk about.”

Having been lucky enough to visit the museum with my son, I put it to Mr Zeitz that many of the works seem, in the words of a 10-year-old boy, quite dark. “It’s challenging, for sure,” he agrees.

“There are a lot of issues in Africa and the world and art is not necessarily there to make you feel comfortable. It’s a great comment for a young person to make. That’s when the dialogue starts. It’s like, why is it what it is? What needs to change in the world to make it better?”

Looking at the world with a different eye is, Mr Zeitz says, something he learned in Africa. “I started looking at time in a different way and the relevance of today versus tomorrow and the past. I felt that I wanted to contribute by doing something meaningful in Africa. A lot of my ideas originated there, and have since turned into the global initiatives that I support and am involved in.”

Mr Zeitz’s underlying philosophy, developed during the rehabilitation and rewilding of Segera, a former cattle farm which at the time of his purchase was over-grazed, heavily poached and not working in harmony with the local community, is that of the 4Cs – balancing conservation, community, culture and commerce. These are the principles which, he believes, should drive all businesses.

He first started trying to use his 4C approach to influence the wider world with the launch in 2008 of the Zeitz Foundation of Intercultural Ecosphere Safety. This was quickly followed a year later by the Long Run initiative, which Mr Zeitz created to bring together ecologically minded tourism businesses like Segera and establish best practice in line with the 4Cs.

Today, Long Run members manage over 14 million acres of land across the globe, but it was his ground-breaking decision in 2011 to develop and publish full environmental profit and loss accounts for Puma and its supply chain that really put him in the limelight as somebody campaigning to change the way the world does business.

Putting a value on Puma’s use of resources, water consumption and carbon emissions was the most efficient way, Mr Zeitz believes, to mitigate the firm’s impact on the environment and its use of raw materials.

“Businesses rely on natural resources and if we do not stop working against nature we will run into severe shortages in the future. If we want to be commercially sustainable, we also have to be ecologically sustainable.”

So, has this bold move had as much impact as he hoped? Have environmental profit and loss balance sheets gone mainstream now? “I wish this could one day become a standard, but that’s something that can only be brought about by governments,” he says.

“As a tool, though, more and more companies are using it and that’s great progress. Businesses are realising that they need to understand where their environmental footprint is.”

Mr Zeitz’s most recent, and arguably most ambitious, push to bring more businesses on board with his vision is the B Team, a global venture co-founded with the serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Richard Branson (see panel opposite), to encourage more sustainable ways of doing business for the wellbeing of people and the planet – literally to create a plan B.

“Plan A, where business has been primarily motivated by profit, is no longer an option,” he says. “If you consider that globally 60% of environmental impacts are generated by the 1,000 biggest companies in the world, you know that to solve problems you need to get businesses involved. The B Team aims to show leadership that promotes a different way of thinking.

A magic touch

One area where the B Team has played a key role was helping to push through the Paris Climate Change accord in 2016. Laid back throughout our conversation, Mr Zeitz becomes more animated when I ask how he feels about the decision of the US to withdraw from the agreement.

“If anything, it has united the world even more when it comes to having clear climate goals and sticking to the climate agreement. Nobody will stop that, in my opinion.” His Instagram feed makes it clear he has no time for climate change deniers.

He’s also scathing about Brexit, hinting that he might not have bought his Richmond home if he’d known what was coming. “I understand the fears that have been created, but if you look at the pure economics and where the world needs to be, it just makes absolutely no sense.

Ultimately you have to have the end goal in mind, and thinking that you can do this on your own is just wishful thinking. As a German who grew up in the wake of World War Two, I believe the only thing that can save us is unity.”

If you consider that globally 60% of environmental impacts are generated by the 1,000 biggest companies in the world, you know that to solve problems you need to get businesses involved.

When it comes to bringing people together and getting them to buy into his vision, whether it’s persuading Usain Bolt to wear Puma shoes or bringing business leaders like Sir Richard Branson on board with his initiatives, Mr Zeitz seems to have a magic touch.

What’s his secret? What does he think makes him so persuasive? “I have no idea. It’s a very good question. I just don’t give up.” So, tenacious rather than persuasive, I venture? “Yes, probably.”

This brings me back to the aforementioned evening spent in the basement of the Notting Hill Arts Club in west London. After finding out I was keen to interview him, Mr Zeitz invited me to a fundraising concert for an all-female anti-poaching team at Segera. He mentioned he would be playing a “few tunes” with some of his friends.

Those few tunes turned out to be a virtuoso guitar performance using a complex-looking percussive technique that involves tapping and banging various parts of the instrument as well as playing it conventionally. The friends were two of the world’s best acoustic guitarists, Mike Dawes and Justin Sandercoe.

When we meet later I ask how on earth, given his punishing schedule, he has found time to learn to play the guitar like a professional, and how long it took to reach that point.

“Five years,” he replies. I look stunned. “But I practise every day. I take my guitar everywhere,” he adds. “It’s a complicated way of playing, but I like a challenge. I don’t like doing things halfway. When I want to do something, I try to do it well.”

That’s a pretty neat way of summing up Jochen Zeitz. He could have settled for being the youngest CEO ever of a German listed company, he could settled for successfully rewilding a large chunk of Africa and he could have settled for helping to found an iconic Cape Town art gallery voted one of the world’s best visitor attractions in 2018. But why stop there?

Why do things halfway when there’s a whole world out there to be saved? When our fascinating time together in the pub draws to a close he says goodbye and without further ado strides out into the rain, Foxy trotting alongside, to get on with the job.