After spending time in a refugee camp in Sudan and living in exile in the United States for 20 years, Tadiwos Belete, the founder of Boston Partners Plc, a company which owns a chain of hotels and spas, has become an unusual success story.
Recognition is the greatest reward. In early May, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister of Ethiopia and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Abiy Ahmed hosted his “new friend” – and former sworn enemy – President of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki, during an official visit. To seal this newfound friendship, Ahmed picked a restaurant at the Kuriftu Resort & Spa, some 40 kilometres south of Addis Ababa. This luxury tourist resort is the work of 62-year-old Tadiwos Belete. By dint of his selflessness and incredible vision, in 20 years he has managed to make a name for himself as a beauty and wellness industry trailblazer in his native country. Today at the helm of several spas and hotels, the entrepreneur who leads nearly 2,500 employees now dreams of perpetuating his success by passing the company down to his children.
The early life of this business leader from south-eastern Ethiopia was far from easy. When the Derg regime began its reign of terror after overthrowing the Ethiopian monarchy in 1974 to establish a brutal dictatorship, Tadiwos, the eldest of a family of nine children, decided to flee on his own to Sudan. He was just 15 years old at the time. After a stay in a refugee camp, he survived by providing improbable services – he was even paid by farmers to scare off birds feeding on crops. But, the young man had hidden talents, so there was no way he was going to spend his career working as a scarecrow. After a few years of roaming about, he was granted, with the help of the US Catholic Church, refugee status from the United States. Then, he began a new chapter of his life in Boston, the city he would later name his family company after: Boston Partners Plc.
Across the pond, Tadiwos accumulated odd jobs in restaurants and worked as a valet. At the end of the 1980s, he decided to train as a hairstylist. As soon as he finished cosmetology school, he wanted to open his own salon – but not just any salon. Right from the outset, he sought to target a high-end clientele and take a chance on the luxury segment. It was easier said than done. When choosing the location of his salon, he opted for the city’s poshest spot, Newbury Street. The problem was that no one was willing to rent out a shop to this young, newly graduated Ethiopian hairstylist. After numerous fruitless attempts and efforts, he invited the owner of a ground-floor Newbury Street property to have dinner with him at an Ethiopian restaurant to get acquainted – a decision he would never regret. Once the dinner was over, the owner agreed to rent him the space. This was in 1998 and Tadiwos opened Konjo (“beautiful” in Amharic), his first hair salon, in Boston. Despite charging an average price of $400 for a haircut, the salon was an instant hit.
In 2001, Tadiwos had the opportunity to return to his home country. He went on holiday there with his wife and three children. Once back in Boston, an idea took root in his mind: why not create a place in Ethiopia combining a spa, hair salon and hairdresser training school? He told one of his customers, a Taiwanese woman, about his idea and she thought the project had great potential. After having a few discussions and hammering out a business plan, they formed a partnership together and Boston Partners Plc was born. To finance his dream, the CEO sold everything, including his house and business assets. In 2003, he returned to the land of his ancestors for good. And, in 2004, the Boston Day Spa opened its doors. Yonaiel, his oldest son, recounts: “I was 11 years old at the time. It did well really quickly. People were enticed by this hairstylist from abroad. Customers were streaming in, even though the construction work wasn’t done yet.” One year later, as Yonaiel was taking a stroll on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, he stumbled upon Kuriftu Lake, which reminded him of New Hampshire. He had just found the ideal location for building a tourist resort. “But the Ethiopian government was reluctant because they didn’t understand the point of such an initiative,” Yonaiel says. His father was not discouraged and visited other tourist resorts in the sub-region, including in Seychelles and Tanzania, and got government officials involved. After an effective lobbying campaign, he got them on board and began the construction of the Kuriftu Resort Spa Debre Zeyit, which was completed in January 2007. This 18-room hotel offering world-class service became popular in no time. Ever since, the former human scarecrow has been unstoppable. In 2008, he opened a 28-room tourist resort in Bahir Dar, at the source of the Blue Nile river. That same year, he became the sole owner of Boston Partners.
The family business began to diversify and take its operations abroad. Boston Partners opened a restaurant in Djibouti, and then another, the Diplomat Restaurant, in Addis Ababa, in what had been Boston Spa’s building on Bole Road. This was a particularly clever decision since the Ethiopian capital is home to the African Union headquarters, which means that many diplomats stay there. The venture proved to be a success and the empire continued to grow. In 2010, the number of rooms at Kuriftu Resort increased from 18 to 36, and then to 89 in 2014. Tadiwos has not forgotten to involve his children in the business and it is his hope that they will succeed him. Yonaiel, 28, has assisted his father for almost five years now and currently works as the company’s operations manager. Alongside his father, he headed up a first of its kind water park project in East Africa located on the outskirts of Lake Kuriftu, which opened in 2019.
After completing his studies in business administration, technology management and operations at Boston University, Tadiwos’s Boston-born son “took the time to consider” what he could bring to the family business and then tried out various areas of the family enterprise, spending one year with the marketing team and another with the food and beverage department. His brother and sister “also want to be involved in the family business”, but they are currently still in New York finishing their education. Abbner is studying finance, while Mahlet, who graduated with a degree in hospitality, is working for the company WeWork. Who will succeed the patriarch? It is not on the agenda just yet, but Yonaiel is sure that within the next 10 years he “will be leading the company alongside Abbner and Mahlet”. In the meantime, Tadiwos runs a tight ship and is the sole decision-maker, although his senior managers and Yonaiel have an advisory role to play. Boston Partners does not have a board of directors at this stage, but given the company’s growth, one will be set up sooner or later.
Today, Kuriftu Resort alone accounts for close to 40% of the company’s revenue. A popular conference venue, it also hosts an average of 15,000 visitors per month at its water park. Tadiwos’s ambition going forward is to generate more revenue from the tourism and leisure side of the business since this area attracts more customers and for a longer period of time. In keeping with this plan, Yonaiel is driving the offensive to advertise the company’s facilities to customers from the Ethiopian diaspora and foreign tour operators. Boston Partners has thus become a tireless promoter of Ethiopia abroad. Their biggest current project is to create the country’s largest tourist resort at Entoto Natural Park, just outside of Addis Ababa, working in partnership with the government and private sector stakeholders. As part of the project, the Belete clan wants to build an arts centre, a spa with sauna facilities, Ethiopia’s first zipline, a paintball park and an equestrian centre. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of summer 2020. Looking ahead, Boston Partners has its sights set on building tourist resorts in other East African countries, including Djibouti and Eritrea. The company is determined to make Ethiopia a must-see tourist destination for both foreigners and Ethiopians. Yonaiel is even hard at work on campsite development projects.
Of course, the coronavirus crisis and current political turmoil in Ethiopia have delayed these plans. “The coronavirus crisis has hampered business at our hotels and resorts, as well as the progress of our projects under construction. But we hope to be able to get everything fully up and running again by September,” Yonaiel says.
Through its strategy of providing high-quality service backed by Ethiopian values, Boston Partners has positioned itself as a leading force in reviving Ethiopia’s tourism sector at the sub-regional and continental level. “We want to be the first Ethiopian hospitality brand to take our operations abroad,” Yonaiel says enthusiastically. Why not, for instance, make his father’s dream of opening a spa in Washington, DC, a city with a large Ethiopian community, come true? Opening a subsidiary in the United States would certainly bring the entrepreneur’s unusual journey full circle.