Haile Gebreselassie – from a world champion to a business mogul
If you think some things are too high to accomplish and some dreams too wild to come true, Haile is about to prove you wrong. Loline had an enlightening discussion with Haile Gebreselassie.
His name is globally renowned for his many world records in athletics. For years after that, he has surprised us with his business wit. His daring ventures and the speedy expansion of his companies are an inspiration to many. Haile Gebreselassie was kind enough to spare us an hour of his hectic day to share his journey and practical wisdom.
If you think some things are too high to accomplish and some dreams too wild to come true, Haile is about to prove you wrong. In this April’s Edition, which is also Haile’s birthday month, Loline had an enlightening discussion with the man who believes in endless possibilities.
Born in Arsi in 1973 GC, Haile Gebreselassie was the 8th child in a big rural family of 10 children. As children were born in close gaps, at about two years old, he was dispensed from his parents' attentive care. He humorously said to have started working at that age, for he was left to figure out his environment on his own.
As he grew up, he got into a school where he used to run 20 km to and back for ten years. During the rainy seasons, rivers overflowed and the bumpy trail to school got rougher. He views his childhood hardship as lifelong training which rather gave him an advantage in athletics.
How it all began
When Haile Gebreselassie was seven years old, he picked up about Miruts Yifter's double-gold victory at the 1980 Summer Olympics. His childhood brain was captivated. He dreamt about becoming a great victor like the legend he used to hear about.
His first step into professional athletics came when he was in 9th grade. He was not granted the opportunity at first, though. The Sports teacher told him that he was not eligible for the race in which 11th and 12th graders participated. After nagging the teacher for so long, incidents made it possible for him to get in. In his first 1500 km race, he told us, he didn't even know how many laps he had to run. He just stuck to the 'run your fastest when the bell rings' rule and won.
His father's objection to his pursuit of a career in athletics
Although Haile Gebreselassie was passionate about athletics, his father at first viewed it as a "waste of life." His father genuinely wished for his children to earn a decent living by becoming teachers or having office jobs. However, Haile Gebreselassie didn't consider his father ignorant or backward. He kept fighting for his dream and showed his father that one could be a success in athletics too.
Now a father himself, Haile Gebreselassie has a thing to say to those facing family disapproval in what they are doing. He was honest about not liking some things his children do. Once he sees them accomplish it, however, he is in awe. He told us the best way around such situations is for the young to give explanations rather than judging and resenting their family. The rest is up to determination and proofing oneself.
The time he swore he will never run again
Haile Gebreselassie came to Addis Ababa prepared for a 10 km race, and it turned out the only race to happen was a Marathon. He didn't want the money he spent on transportation to go to waste so he decided to run. He has never run Marathon, and it took him 2 hours and 48 minutes to complete being 99th. His injuries were severe that he could barely walk back to the bus home. His feet were blistered and sore. In agony, he told himself that was it. He swore to never run again.
In a week, the soreness was gone. He felt alright and went back to track. "Wounds heal, but the dream was of my childhood." Haile Gebreselassie spoke in weighty expression. "I have been through the ebb and flow of life, but none equaled that suffering." Haile Gebreselassie believes the greatest sacrifice is made at first, and things ease as time goes by.
"The problem is when we do not want to pay the price. We start things, and when it gets hard, we reroute,"
his words echoed. He considers that experience to be a turning point for him.
From racing on track to winning in business
Haile Gebreselassie finds similarities between athletics and the business world. Both require sacrifice. He said it is athletics that developed in him the urge to win. Business challenges, however, are not any close to those in athletics. He said that, back then, he had a few people around, but in business, the partnership is with thousands of people.
Keys to business success
"In business, the more problems you solve, the more business you run and the more money you make."
Time was the first on his list of keys to business success. He sees it to be ridiculous for people to ignore time as their most significant resource when starting a business. He said knowing the value of time is getting today's job done yesterday. This could simply mean you can do tomorrow's job today. He explained that, in business, you won't find tomorrow what you lose today.
"Today's 5 birr is better than tomorrow's 10 birr." Haile started describing. Back in his racing days, he saw this CNN motto - In business, time is money. He took it to heart and began living by it. He also realized a microsecond could mean losing or gaining a million. His understanding of time's value seems to come from his racing days. On the way, he touched on points like how our culture is wasteful of time.
He then said discipline is also among the most critical factors to success. In Haile's understanding, discipline is winning over one's self. He told us it is always about committing to your plans.
The other key he added is hard work. "There is no shortcut to success," Haile asserted. He went further by describing the development of a living cell. There are natural stages a healthy growth follows. In Haile's judgment, success has its process of formation too. However, he did not want us to confuse hard work with workaholism.
The exceptionally speedy construction of Haile Gebreselassie's projects
One of the fastest humans on earth has taken this character off track as well. We were curious to know what was behind his project's unusually short completion time. He told us that he believed a business should be readied for income generation in the shortest period possible.
Haile talked about this one hotel which took about five years to construct. Haile was quite frustrated, but people told him to take it easy as others were 11 and 12 years in the process. He responded that he was rather in competition with China and others who astounded the world in getting things done quickly.
On the way, he mentioned the problem in the delayed construction is partly because of things that are not under his company's control. Nevertheless, he reminded us it is not of much use to point at the government or others. He has this rule that any problem concerning one is a problem one needs to solve. His success formula goes like this - being part of the solution for any challenge.
His business role models
Haile Gebreselassie said he is astounded by the late Bekele Molla. This business role model of Haile had created hotel chains back when Sheraton and Hilton were unknown in Ethiopia. This idea was at work by building hotels from Addis Ababa to Moyale some 80 years before. The daring businessman has inspired Haile to advance homegrown brands.
"We have to believe it is possible."
It is about valuing our creations and developing them. Haile mentioned South Korea and how we had to help them fight their wars a few years back. He then reminded us of the giant economy they now have. Haile strongly believes we, too, can use our brains and accomplish extraordinary things on our own.
Managing his many companies
Being in the hospitality sector, agriculture, real estate, manufacturing, and more, we can all guess Haile Gebreselassie's job is not easy. He told us all the businesses he runs are different in their ways. His chief responsibility is facilitating. He admitted to not knowing the technical detail of each sector but making sure the details are done smoothly.
He chooses his business ventures by considering several factors. Reviewing his resources and the country's economic, political, and social stand, he sorts priorities. Once he gives direction, personnel at a position handles the rest of the job.
"A leader has to make sure who he appoints for a task,"
Haile emphasized the need for acumen in choosing people to work with. "You will lose your friend and ruin your business," he opposed favoring people based on affiliation and not merit.
More business adventures on the way
We knew Haile was unstoppable, so we asked him where he planned to stretch next. He went no further than the auto assembly he was already working on. In an optimistic tone, he explained the industry is yet to develop. He is eying production opportunities and not just the assembly of parts. Confident in the workforce potential, Haile is up for a larger plant. He believes Ethiopian engineers and other professionals are quick learners with huge capacities.
He was excitedly telling us about innovative undertakings he is involved in. One of which is the technology of processing coffee chaff. Haile is now working on producing exportable products from what used to go to waste. He is open to other revolutionary ideas that could help his businesses.
Back in business after ruins
"Problems awaken your creativity."
Haile's businesses, particularly those in hospitality, were among those severely hit by the pandemic and the country's instability. We couldn't help but wonder how he came out stronger. His response was somewhat confounding. "Problems awaken your creativity," Haile said.
He explained how hardships made them consider businesses they had never thought of before. During the lockdown that followed the pandemic, getting employee salaries became a headache. This brought the idea of growing food in the hotel areas. Even if the land has always been there, it was not put to use. This helped them cover a deficit in salary. Looking back, Haile said that the biggest innovations came from problems.
A word to the media
"I was inspired hearing about athlete Miruts Yifter; we all need role models."
Haile spoke about the gap he sees in Ethiopian media not doing enough to bring out entrepreneurs and business people. He said the best way to go about enabling our youth is by first showing them something to aspire to. It is like the old saying: do not give a man fish but teach him to fish. The media has to step up its game in providing outstanding people exposure.
"Our community takes being rich as sinful,"
he said regretfully. We need to change such distorted attitudes. The media and others with voices should lead the change we want to see. Prosperity is realized, as Haile asserted, through work and sacrifice but not wishful thinking. He concluded that we have to instill this in people's minds.
Anyone can be an entrepreneur. Everyone can succeed in what they do. Success is determined by how much one is willing to pay for it. Time management, commitment, and discipline are what put people apart. It is rolling in time, consistently working for what you want, and living up to the life your dream requires.
We asked the legendary athlete and businessman if he has plans to write a book about his business life. He was optimistic that it would happen sometime in the future. He said it was not in saying so much but in doing much. "Let your actions speak," was Haile's final remark.