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Owner of Liberian hotel chain lends a big hand

Updated: 2015-01-23 08:37
By Li Lianxing (China Daily Africa)

Not even the Ebola epidemic has chased away the Chinese owner of a Monrovia business, who says decades in Africa have taught him many lessons

For Hu Jieguo, who has been doing business in western Africa for more than three decades, 2014 turned out to be an unusual year.

He is the owner of Golden Gate Hotel, located in Monrovia, capital of Liberia, the country hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic.

 Owner of Liberian hotel chain lends a big hand

Golden Gate Hotels, which has a number of hotels across Liberia and Nigeria, generates around 100 million yuan ($16 million) in revenue annually. Provided to China Daily

The city has become a forbidden area for most foreigners since the outbreak of the disease, a factor that might make most hoteliers shut down their business.

However, in October his hotel welcomed 160 medical experts sent by the Chinese government to fight Ebola.

"Apart from the basic accommodation, I also provided local transport, food, telecommunications and even a sports training ground for them, because I know it's very important to let them adapt to the local environment as soon as possible. The disease doesn't wait," Hu says.

"As a hotel owner who wants to contribute my effort to this fight, the only thing I can do is to ensure the logistics from my side."

A base has now been built to house the medical experts 100 meters away contributions would continue.

But while Hu's primary business is hospitality, it is not Liberia but the continental giant Nigeria that has been his main business focus over the years. His long experience in Africa has given him a broad and deep education on how to do business on the continent.

Owner of Liberian hotel chain lends a big hand

"I came to Nigeria from Shanghai in 1978 after the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76). My father had been living in the country for more than two decades. He was a leader in the local Chinese community," he says.

It was a golden time for oil and gas exploration in the country and people from outside were queuing to join the industry. There was a severe shortage of hotel space. Hu's father bought a sightseeing cruise with accommodations in 1975, which is when the family broke into the industry.

Hu says after decades, more than a hundred hotels of different category have been set up in the country's economic hub, Lagos, and capital, Abuja. He has four hotels in Nigeria and Liberia, and another is being constructed in Ghana.

"For me, the hotel industry has a special meaning. That is to enhance mutual understanding between two peoples," he says. "When two cultures are too different from each other, we must talk and communicate with each other to understand each other better. I think a hotel is a very realistic and good place to start."

In 1983, his first related business, a restaurant, opened in Lagos. He says his place was called Shangri-la, located on the top floor of the largest and best hotel of the city, and occupied more than 700 square meters.

"It was a time when Chinese food was so popular overseas and we had the idea of eating Chinese food in a Western style to satisfy our local customers' demand," he says. "We decorated the place in a very European style and provided a sea view location. We proudly served former American president James Carter and former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher."

The restaurant was too popular to accept reservations and people had to tip to get in, he says. The landlord, however, did not renew the lease in the 1990s.

Now his hotels generate around 100 million yuan ($16 million) in revenue every year and the occupancy rate has reached an average of 60 to 70 percent, he says. He says he wants to further boost his Golden Gate brand in the region.

"China is a brand that we are relying on. We are confident of our service and specialty. So we usually organize exhibitions and displays of Chinese brands or conferences in our hotels to further promote this bond," he says.

Hu says in Nigeria, his hotels are still at a serious disadvantage because the market is still dominated by giant international hotel chains like Hilton and Sheraton. So to make his hotel better known and accepted by locals and international guests, he has to pay extra attention to service quality and guest experiences. The Chinese community also provides him with valuable connections.

Owner of Liberian hotel chain lends a big hand

"As more and more Chinese entrepreneurs are coming to this region for business opportunities, our hotels could be a vital hub for their entry into Africa," he says. "We aim to develop a hotel chain in this region to further introduce Chinese business executives to local opportunities, providing organization and a thorough knowledge of local conditions."

He is the special consultant for the Nigerian government on Chinese small and medium-sized businesses, and the local community also granted him a local chieftain's status, he says. That gives him a direct channel to identify local needs and development opportunities, he says.

"I also want to develop my hotel as a communication platform between western Africa and China," he says, adding that he has facilitated or organized many business forums and conferences that have resulted in many large projects and deals.

Hu says shouldering local social responsibility, like in his fight against Ebola, is a must for businesses.

"I know how important a brand is if one wants to develop his business in the long term, so we have to realize how important it is to localize your business. We need to establish a good image by contributing to local society and the community," he says. "We have been donating money and goods to various schools and poverty-stricken children because we see education as the future of this country."

Hu adds that efforts must come from everyone doing business in a place. He says he thinks it is important to influence people around him, and to tell them the significance of social responsibility and localization.

"Long-term dedication is the only way to do business here in Africa," he says.

New Chinese investors are more business oriented, rather than having an ideological connection with African countries, he says. They have higher education degrees and financial support, but their knowledge of local conditions remains inadequate, which may result in investment failures, he says.

"Some of them don't have a proper attitude toward their local operation, so misunderstandings and conflicts may happen. So I have to make the best use of my hotels to establish this connection hub, to facilitate those investments, which may transform the landscape of Nigeria in the future," he adds.


(China Daily Africa Weekly 01/23/2015 page19)

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