Q&A with Pierre Delvaux, CEO of Thanda Safari

Being at the helm of the globally recognized 5-star property Thanda Safari in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province is an all-consuming task. CEO Pierre Delvaux spoke exclusively with Upscale Living Magazine about what it takes to achieve greatness in living his dream each and every day.

Pierre, when did you start/get involved at Thanda Safari?
It all began when I was three years old, and I accompanied my parents, Viv and Margaret, and brother Gerrard on safari to what is now Thanda land. In fact, where we camped is a short distance from where the Royal Residences are being built. I’ve had a long relationship with Thanda having camped on its land annually for a week for 32 years, and in the last 19 years camping at a neighboring farm, which I own with friends. As a child, every camping trip was spent exploring nature and learning about wildlife and conservation. 

I met Thanda owner Dan Olofsson in March 2002. At that stage, I was a Management Consultant and partner at Hills Howard Zululand and had been recommended to him by a client. We spent that first meeting with an English/Zulu dictionary in hand, trying to find a name to replace Nyala Game Reserve – which for Dan was not particularly representative of the project. After much deliberation, Dan decided on Thanda which means love in isiZulu. This was a perfect fit as the Thanda project had started as a safari destination for Olofsson’s family and friends, all with an immense love of nature and wildlife.

Dan chose me to do a feasibility study, economic reports, and business plan. He then gave me the unique opportunity to execute and implement these plans with a team on the ground. A year or so later Dan asked me to be a Director, a rather unique request for a Management Consultant. Without hesitation, I agreed as Dan was a non-resident and needed someone locally that he could trust. I eventually joined Thanda full-time in January 2005 but only sold my partnership interest in Hills Howard Zululand in 2010.

The library at Thanda’s Villa iZulu. Photo courtesy of Thanda
The library at Thanda’s Villa iZulu. Photo courtesy of Thanda

How did Thanda Safari come to be?
Dan had been inspired by reading about Africa in Ernest Hemingway’s books. In fact, the library at Thanda’s Villa iZulu has a very comprehensive collection of Hemingway’s books. Reading about Hemingway’s life coincided with Dan entering his *Third Life phase which focuses on quality of life and lifestyle giving back and making a difference. Dan’s desire was a game farm to spend quality time with his wife Christin, his children, family, and friends, where he could live out his life by giving back and making a difference. He set up Thanda “for the love of nature, wildlife, and dear ones”. The Thanda love story so far has encompassed three generations of Olofssons and three generations of Delvauxs. Many of Thanda’s staff have met and married at Thanda and now continue to work together. 

*First life: first 25 years – educate yourself as best you can; Second life: 25 to 50 years old – accumulate wealth, succeed, build your balance sheet; Third life: 50 to 75 years of age – focus on the quality of life and lifestyle and giving back and making a difference

A lion at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Thanda / by Christian Sperka
A lion at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Thanda / by Christian Sperka

It must be an enormous responsibility to be the CEO of Thanda. What makes this high-stressed job worthwhile?
The Thanda ‘Dream’ is everything and the responsibility to maintain that Dream is enormous. I am the sole South African Director of Thanda and Dan is the sole European Director. I surround myself with very smart people as advisors, who I use as a sounding board to ensure that good judgment and good advice are always in the best interest of Thanda and Dan. The Dream is everything and it is my passion. If you live and work with your passion, with pride and humility, then there’s enormous job satisfaction. My circle of life is that if I am passionate and committed to what I do, then it makes everything worthwhile. I am living my family’s and Dan and Christin’s Dreams. 

My late dad had 4 D’s which I have increased to 5 D’s and these are the abiding principles that I live and work by:

  1. Dream is everything (equate it with Desire)
  2. Dedication
  3. Determination
  4. Achieve your Destiny
  5. Report only to Dan
Cheetah mom and cub. Photo courtesy of Thanda / by Christian Sperka
Cheetah mom and cub. Photo courtesy of Thanda / by Christian Sperka

You have an incredible working relationship and kinship with the owners, Dan and Christin Olofsson. How do you go about executing their wishes?
I helped Dan and Christin create Star for Life in 2005. It is their happy place and is their number one driver to help others and make a difference. Star for Life is a non-profit organization that works with schoolchildren in southern Africa. Through a unique educational program, Star for Life coaches and strengthen students’ self-esteem and motivates them to invest in their education and make wise life decisions. In this way, they can build a better future and as adults, contribute to a more equal, fair, and sustainable society. Star for Life was founded in 2005 and the program is currently available in 120 schools in South Africa, Namibia, and Tanzania. We are also involved in East Jerusalem due to Dan’s late father’s involvement with Israel. 

Dan permits me to tell him what he needs to hear and not necessarily what he wants to hear. This can lead to a difference of views, but he allows me to passionately argue points that feel right to me. When we have heated differences, we always agree that our differences are misunderstandings between each other due to miscommunication or language issues. We have never had a fallout although Dan’s decision is final, and I abide by it. 

Dan is a maverick of an entrepreneur. My greatest privilege has been to have worked with him and to have had him as a mentor for 21 years. He has allowed me to execute his wishes and programs and that’s why loyalty is everything. 

I don’t have a signed contract with Dan. My binding, verbal contract with Dan is five words – You Are Responsible For Everything. No item has ever been too big or small for me to be involved with. Dan relies on me to solve every challenge that we encounter and to provide solutions by using good judgment and to act in the best interest of Thanda and Dan at all times. 

Thanda is set amongst stunning mountainous scenery. Photo courtesy of Thanda
Thanda is set amongst stunning mountainous scenery. Photo courtesy of Thanda

Apart from the incredible 5-star experience at Thanda Safari, its focus is also largely on conservation and community. How do you merge the principles, ensuring they are all successful?
Prior to the Thanda project, I was involved with community development and upliftment programs as a management consultant in Zululand for 13 years. As a Zulu linguist, I am familiar with the Zulu nation and area, and I have also been raised in a family where conservation, nature, and wildlife are part of my DNA. The Thanda Foundation Trust was formed in 2005 and as the Chairperson I oversee all community and conservation projects. I am also the Chairperson of Star For Life and oversee all education and health projects in South Africa and Tanzania. 93% of Thanda Safari’s staff are Zulus, many coming from adjacent communities and the region, from the top Reserve GM, Truman Ndlovu to the most junior member of staff. Thanda is also very focused on employment equity for empowering women. We are also committed to career advancement and promotion of opportunities which is evidenced by Truman who started as a guide in 2004 and has worked his way up to the most senior person on the reserve. 

Thanda is a success story as it is unashamedly Zulu. We use community-based natural resource management principles. A nature reserve is not sustainable long term without active neighboring community participation and support. This is evidenced by the APUs (anti-poaching unit) success where adjoining communities support and help us protect our nature and endangered species. Conservation and community go hand in hand in a harmonious and mutually beneficial manner. One cannot be pursued, to the detriment of the other. This is the key to the success of Thanda. 

Thanda is family-owned and family-managed, and that combined with effective communication and active community engagement, will ensure the long-term sustainability and success of Thanda. 

Many other reasons also contribute to its success – exclusive use, access control, no day visitors, and no self-drive vehicles. Unlike other corporate competitors, Thanda has one decision-maker and one management team responsible for everything. We also have our own in-house security company which provides high levels of security to ensure that our guests, wildlife, celebrities, VIPs, and heads of state will be safe within our Game Reserve. 

Thanda encompasses luxury, conservation, community, and wildlife. Photo courtesy of Thanda
Thanda encompasses luxury, conservation, community, and wildlife. Photo courtesy of Thanda

Your favorite part of Thanda Safari and why?
I am living my Dream! 

It has taken 21 years to develop a mutual trust and respect for the habituated wildlife at Thanda. This has been developed through strict management control and by sensitizing the guides and trackers who are respectful of the animals – we don’t tolerate cowboys. We watch the animals, and by learning from their behavior and respecting their safe distance, we have gained their mutual respect and trust. Guides don’t need to take rifles on vehicles – there is no need to. As a result of this mutual trust, we are able to have phenomenal game viewing – we can sit in the vehicle amongst a pride of lions and can observe them comfortably and safely for hours. 

I also love to watch “Zulu TV Channel 1” – sitting around the fire and reconnecting with nature, the wildlife, and my surroundings. The Zulus say they connect with their ancestors through fire as nothing has changed for thousands of years. 

Luxury

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