Nomura Loan Chief Quits Job for Lifelong Safari Dream
May 20 (Bloomberg) -- Nomura Holdings
Inc.’s head of Asia- Pacific ex-Japan loan syndication, Jose Cortes, has quit his job to work full-time
on taking wealthy, travel-hungry Asians to safari destinations in Africa, such as Rwanda and Gabon.
After starting luxury-tour organizer, Asia to Africa Safaris, with Standard Chartered Plc banker
Victor Dizon in late 2002, Cortes, will move to Cape Town in time for next month’s 2010 FIFA World Cup to
pursue a personal passion and serve a growing base of customers seeking something different to another
vacation in Europe or North America.
“I see guys in banking in their 50s and 60s and I can
tell, there’s no passion anymore,” Cortes says in a phone interview from Hong Kong, his home for the last
14 years. “My boss pointed out the next five years are the best income-generating ones of my life, but at
the end of the day, it’s not all about money.”
Cortes joins an increasing number of banking
executives who have quit lucrative careers to start business ventures close to their heart. Citigroup
Inc.’s former head of Indian equities, Nikhil Nagle, left the New York-based bank in March to start a
tiger conservation project while UBS AG senior currency strategist Benedikt Germanier ditched his bonus
and banker lifestyle to live in Switzerland fashioning custom-made skis.
Cortes, 44, who first
holidayed in Africa in the late 1990s, realized there was a gap in the market after safari-camp operators
began to comment to him on the small number of Asian visitors.
When much of their business from U.S. tourists fell away after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,
Cortes quit his job at that time as head of JP Morgan Chase & Co.’s Asia loan syndication and
distribution team to take a four-month sabbatical and establish Asia to Africa Safaris with now
“My father is an entrepreneur and so I suppose you could say it’s in my
blood,” says Manila-born Cortes, who lived in New York before moving to Hong Kong.
father died, his brothers took over Pacific Cement Philippines Inc., one of the country’s few remaining
“Cement never really excited me,” he says. “Africa, this is a country
that now with the World Cup is dynamic and evolving. It’s also still very poor and so I hope any money we
spend will filter down and help conservation efforts as well.”
The 2008 credit crisis, which
saw more than 330,000 people fired from banks and brokerages globally, has made executives reassess their
priorities, says Bill Henderson, a senior partner in Egon Zehnder International’s financial-services
“The strength of the turbulence has been unprecedented
in terms of most individual’s career memories,” Hong Kong-based Henderson says. “There’s probably in most
executives a long- cherished passion of some sort and if they’ve accumulated enough capital to feel
relatively comfortable, this sort of upheaval can be a catalyst to go and do something else.”
Egon Zehnder is currently seeking candidates for senior positions at two not-for-profit organizations
-- the Hong Kong Ballet and the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, which promotes Chinese arts and culture
as well as the practice of Buddhism in everyday life. The latter has chosen to advertise in the Economist
in the hope banking executives will express interest.
A job offer from Barclays Plc lured
Cortes back to banking in early 2003, and in July 2006 -- having spent two out of his three months’
gardening leave following the migration in the Serengeti -- he joined the Hong Kong operations of doomed
Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
After Lehman collapsed in September 2008, Cortes joined Nomura.
Seven years on, and with Asia to Africa Safaris averaging one safari group a day, he says it’s probably
time to leave for good.
More staff are being hired in Hong Kong to
cope with demand -- clients spend an average of $7,000 to $10,000 per person on a safari, excluding
airfares -- and a third Asian sales office is planned for Japan in early 2011.
Asia to Africa Safaris didn’t suffer during the global financial crisis because executives, faced with
retrenchment packages and rare time to travel, took advantage of the economic slowdown. The number of
Asians traveling to Africa will rise steeply in coming years as China and India’s burgeoning middle
classes grow, he says.
“Like anyone they’ll do Europe and then America and then Australia and
then they’ll want something else,” he says. “They’re catching up fast and they have lots of money.”
Cortes’s professional challenge now will be scouring Africa tailoring holidays for clients who’ve
“seen the Serengeti migration four times.”
“People are after an
experience that’s exclusive,” he says. “It could be mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, or visiting
countries like Gabon and Angola. When people compare notes after summer break, a tribal safari in Africa
beats Tuscany hands down.”
Cortes says one of his “many life-altering amazing experiences in
Africa” happened at a remote camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. His group tracked a pride of 14
lions as they stalked, killed and ate three buffalos.
“It was like being part of a National
Geographic documentary and all these primal feelings come out,” he said. “This happened almost 10 years
ago now but I can still recall every minute of those three days.”
With more time to spend with
friends and family and a house in Cape Town’s wine country waiting, Cortes, who is married with no
children and also a keen amateur photographer, says he’s sanguine about leaving banking.
all bankers it’s been a grueling two years with everything that’s happened,” he says. “I’ll miss the
smart people you get to work with and the challenges of banking but when you convince someone to take the
plunge and go to Africa and they come back saying it was the best trip of their life, that’s 100 times
better than having a CFO tell you, ‘Thanks for doing my deal for me.’”
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