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The man pouring millions into a rich slice of Africa

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Africa

We step off Analjit Singh’s blue Lexus into a picture postcard. Such is the scenic beauty greeting us.

Singh is immaculately dressed in blue – shirt, turban and Nehru jacket – and poses with the panoramic mountains, also blue, in the background.

We are standing under a benevolent April sun in Leeu Estates, Singh’s farm in Franschhoek, a picturesque wine town in South Africa’s Western Cape province.

A few moments earlier, the Indian multimillionaire had driven the car to his farm, pointing to a large white cross perched permanently – like a beacon – on the slopes of the Dassenberg Mountain.

“Everything below that cross is mine,” he said.

We are on 68 hectares of farmland featuring vineyards, pomegranate and plum fields, oaks, olive trees and herb gardens. Men are at work, briskly laying bricks, building and restoring Cape Dutch edifices, putting together the many elements of what will be a boutique winery and 25-room five-star hotel set to open next year as part of the Leeu Collection.

“Leeu is our name [in South Africa]. In Afrikaans, it means lion, just as Singh in Sanskrit means lion,” says Singh. For the record, the number plate on his Lexus SUV is – no surprise – LEEU 1.

Singh cannot conceal his excitement, pointing to the vistas and the valley and everything in between.

We are soon negotiating a plywood plank, connecting precariously two mounds of earth, to the dining room areas of the under-construction manor house. Singh informs the building will also include a library containing both Gandhi and Mandela memorabilia.

The manor house overlooks a manicured garden with art occupying center stage – life-size bronze sculptures by South African artist Deborah Bell hand-picked by Singh.

“I know all the people in the art world in Cape Town; we have been acquiring art and sculptures all of which will be displayed at our estate,” he says.

Singh has 18 sculptures for the farm, he tells us, valued from $50,000 to $200,000.

Leeu Estates is a composite of three adjoining farms – Dieu Donné, Klein Dassenberg and Von Ortloff – that Singh bought in a year. The total investment in the development is $35 million.

The estate will include a gym and spa – “that will be the best anywhere in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl” – and a winery producing the Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, overseen by husband-wife winemaking duo Chris and Andrea Mullineux. Winners of the 2014 Platter’s Winery of the Year Award, the couple will develop a Leeu range of premium wines for release end of 2016.

Singh also has shares in their Riebeek Kasteel winery in Swartland, a wine region 50 kilometers north of Cape Town where he has another farm, only for viticulture. The Swartland winery specializes in Chenin Blanc and Syrah wines, specific to the terroir of the region.

Leeu Estates is but one component of Singh’s interests in Franschhoek. In this charming one-road town, he also acquired Rusthof, a country house now being renovated as Leeu House, a soon-to-open 13-room boutique hotel that will be “very Cape Dutch” with a large garden in the front.

And at the Heritage Square piazza a few meters away, he is set to open the town’s first Indian and Oriental restaurants, which will also include a bar. And alongside Leeu House, again a first for Franschhoek, he will open a microbrewery making craft beer.

“So that’s our story in South Africa,” says Singh.

Ranked by FORBES as one of India’s richest, with a net worth of $975 million, Singh is the Founder and Chairman of Max India Limited, with diverse interests in life insurance, healthcare, health insurance and senior living.

Max India has a successful joint venture with Life Healthcare in South Africa since 2011. André Meyer, Chief Executive Officer of Life Healthcare, calls Singh “a friend”.

“To me, Analjit is best described by the quote ‘the true character of a man is best measured by how he treats those who can do nothing for him’. No matter who they are, Analjit always treats people as his equal, with dignity and respect. To call Analjit a friend is truly an honor and a privilege,”

says Meyer.

A self-made entrepreneur, Singh is highly respected in India’s corridors of power. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honors, in 2011.

The son of Ranbaxy founder Bhai Mohan Singh, he passed out of The Doon School in Dehradun in 1971, and is an MBA from Boston University. He lived in the United States for seven years before founding Max India in 1985. The 61-year-old Singh, who is also the non-executive Chairman of Vodafone India, lives in New Delhi with his wife Neelu and children Veer, Piya and Tara.

His stately bungalow at 15 Aurangzeb Road, in the Indian capital, sits on a three-acre garden estate. It was renovated with a neoclassical look in 2008, and Singh is known to only serve South African wine at home.

“But why am I [in South Africa now]? Was this a part of my plan and vision? Absolutely not,” says Singh.

Singh visited Johannesburg for the first time in 2010 for the FIFA World Cup with his wife and elder daughter Piya, when they also traveled to Cape Town for two nights. There was a reason why he did.

“The year before, my younger daughter Tara had flown to Cape Town for a wedding. [Before her trip], when she asked me if she could go, I said ‘absolutely not’, and I asked her, ‘how the heck do you get there?’ She [finally did], phoned me and said ‘it’s your kind of place and you have got to come’. I came here out of intrigue; I wanted to know if Tara was pulling my leg or if it was for real. So I arrive here, see the airport, see the town and see this is Africa. I never imagined you would have this little European jewel sitting out here and which otherwise was called Africa.”

Singh vividly recalls the following day when the driver took the family to the Cape of Good Hope and to Franschhoek, for the first time. Ironically, they stopped for breakfast at Grande Provence, the farm right next to Singh’s current estate.

“When we arrived there, I got off the car, and said ‘where are we?’ I was like a kid in a toy shop. I looked around and there was such a sense of strong energy, a sense of beauty and a sense of place that I imbibed. It was like this is an unfinished piece of work; I have to come back and explore. Just what is this place on earth?”

“I think I later realized [why I took to the place]. As a Delhi family – until all the problems in Kashmir – for about 17 years, we were [regular visitors] to Gulmarg, [a hill station] in Kashmir. And ever since childhood, and probably because of the Kashmir experience, my preference became hills, mountains, fog, clouds, rain and snow and that carried into [my years at] The Doon School, where the topography was much the same. And then I went to [study in] Boston, also a very pretty city. So my whole leaning and preference became that way. And when I saw nature here in winter, I saw the hills and greenery. What is unusual is many places have hills and similar topography, but not at this proximity. Here, you feel like you can walk to them, and that’s a very powerful, energetic feeling.”

After that first inspiring visit, Singh returned to Cape Town, not once, but twice over the next six months, for what was a personal quest.

“I was entering a phase in my life where I was looking for some stillness. I was looking for places to be in that are tranquil, that encourage inner peace; I was looking for settings that are meditative in nature. I then realized this is the place for me. And so the idea was to get a small manor house as a form of retreat, and come here for a few weeks and escape Delhi’s summer. That’s how the story started,” says Singh.

After a fairly exhaustive search, Singh decided on his first property, Klein Dassenberg in Franschhoek, which – “look at the serendipity of the whole thing” – abutted Grande Provence.

“There’s another reason why we ended up there. It’s Vastu-compliant,” says Singh, an ardent believer of Vastu Shastra, an ancient Indian science of construction and architecture.

“The property is high on the south west, low on the north east. The directions are all correct but it had two problems: it had the kitchen in the west when it should have been in the east, and the living quarters were in the east which should be in the west.”

Renovations are on so they now conform to Vastu Shastra. When Singh bought the farm, it had a manor house, guest cottage, and a slave cottage, now renamed The Pomegranate House.

“We got going, until somebody suggested the farm next to us was on sale. Then there was an expansion opportunity on an adjoining farm with a winery on it. So I showed up, liked the site and we acquired that farm too, all in less than a year. And then the farm at the other end was also on sale. So we acquired that as well. And then, we had enough hectares to farm on our own, so we hired a farm manager.”

Luckily for Singh, he got top talent. He was introduced to acclaimed South African viticulturist Rosa Kruger.

“I was lucky to find the right people without looking for them. I told Rosa, ‘I don’t know the first thing about winemaking, would you mind taking my farm on contract?’, and she said, ‘I like you, so I will help you, but I can’t take on the responsibility’. Rosa told me about a boutique wine company called Mullineux, they had two angel investors, and were looking to exit. She said ‘if you acquire, you get an ongoing successful wine company’.”

In October 2013, Singh flew in from London to sign the deal. As with every aspect of his journey into South Africa, this too had a story.

“On the British Airways plane, the stewardess handed out the menu cards and what do I see on the wine list? Mullineux Wine! Again, I felt like a kid in a toy shop.”

Singh says his new venture has made him appreciate wine more. Every year, he visits a new wine-growing area. Last year, he was at Napa Valley in California, and is now a member of The Napa Valley Reserve, one of the world’s biggest wine clubs.

“I have started the whole journey of appreciating wine and the world of lifestyle around wine, which has to do with food and so on. Frankly, now it does not seem so much of an accident as it did before, as actually, it is all the things that I like as a person, and not as a businessman. We give too much emphasis on the aspect of a business person, and too little emphasis on the person. I don’t believe, now at least, that the sole purpose of my life is business,” says Singh.

“Business is one part of my life but the person is more permanent and more holistic in a manner of speaking. So when I think of myself as a person and my likes and dislikes, and I don’t have many dislikes, what I like most are all the things this life embodies. This place gives me greenery, nature, mountains, fog, and science and technology, as wine-making is all about technology [with regard to] the maturation process, and the way the fruit is extracted. These are the things I like. I don’t like sitting in front of a computer screen trying to trade off the New York Stock Exchange. It’s not my cup of tea. I have therefore really begun to think of this lifestyle, even though my days are busy when I come here. But whilst you may call it work, for me, it’s the most pleasurable thing to do… I am in the moment when I am here. It’s the most restful state for the mind. I feed off natural energy.”

For the moment, until his wine farm and hotels come online, Singh can be found at the Le Quartier Français, where he stays each time he is in Franschhoek. He has blended in well, and earned the town’s respect.

“I am like a local here, everyone is so nice to me,” he says.

“Analjit Singh is a part of the family,” agrees Susan Huxter, the owner of Le Quartier Français. “He is a truly perceptive, inspirational and intriguing individual. We feel [in him] an aura of tranquillity and spirituality that intrigues us and puzzles us at the same time. His journey in Franschhoek will be eventful, exciting and bring a whole new vibrancy to the village, as he is sensitive to his surroundings and the people, and soon – I believe – we will be able to converse with him in Afrikaans.”

Singh’s neighbor at Leeu Estates is Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, whose property Mont Rochelle, is a luxury hotel and vineyard next door.

Singh says it’s a good thing.

“There is an element of novel excitement in the way Mr Branson lives his life and I hope that zeitgeist of Franschhoek in general and our neighborhood in particular, would benefit from his legendary joie

de vivre.”

Clearly, Singh’s is a story that will keep evolving. The South Africa sojourn is perhaps only the beginning of his journey into Africa.

“The show must go on,” says Singh, even as he is mobbed by locals, admirers and colleagues from India in the little South African wine town he now calls home.

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Related Topics: #Analjit Singh, #Farmland, #Fields, #Herb Gardens, #Indian, #June 2015, #Lexus, #Multimillionaire, #Oaks, #Olive.