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The Man Who Founded One Of Africa’s Luxurious Trains

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The private railway station at Capital Park in Pretoria suddenly turns into a scene from a colonial movie, complete with sound effects.

A locomotive noisily chugs into view on the platform, returning from a three-day journey to Cape Town. Liveried staff formally line up to welcome the arriving guests.

“It’s finally here,” says Rohan Vos, the tall elderly gentleman on the platform.

A hiss and a screech and the locomotive, complete with suites, lounges and dining cars, grinds to a halt. The Rovos Rail train has arrived.

A mobile stairway is set up for guests whilst staff collect luggage. Vos waits to greet the alighting passengers.

“Welcome to Pretoria,” he says cheerfully, shaking hands.

Receiving guests has been a tradition for Vos for 29 years, ever since he started Rovos Rail.

“It started off as a hobby I suppose and at the end of the day, I can only be happy pursuing my hobby as an occupation,” Vos tells FORBES AFRICA of his successful – and growing – railway business.

READ MORE: The $2,000 Train Ticket

An hour before the train’s arrival, we meet Vos in the luxury carriage of another one of his locomotives with red and green velvet upholstery, and featuring classical furniture and glossy wood panels.

Rovos Rail offers five-star services onboard, taking discerning passengers to Cape Town, Durban, Victoria Falls and Namibia, from its hub in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria.

A ride on the luxury train can cost between R18,000 ($1,338) and R40,000 ($2,971) depending on the suite-options. Vos’ clients are from all over the world.

Rohan Vos greets his guests everytime they step off the train. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

“Seventy five percent of our passengers come as a result of our efforts in getting them to South Africa. And that’s a very pleasing thought,” he says, proud of being able to contribute to South Africa’s tourism sector.

“Initially, we were living off tourists already in the country. But after five to seven years of operation, we were creating tourists [for] the country.”

A cross between a luxury hotel and a train tourism service, Vos says it took him a while to get it rolling.

It all started with Vos wanting to save the steam engine locomotives from being phased out and replaced by modern diesel trains. It was a challenge he was willing to take up.

Having been involved in the automotive industry, Vos and his friend at the time would collect old spare parts of trains and refurbish them.

He soon wanted his own locomotives.

He then decided to service the trains and sell tickets for each journey in order for it to become a lucrative business.

But one thing hindered the then 40-something Vos at the time. He had no experience in the railway and locomotive industry, nor in the tourism industry.

Yet, he attempted to sell both the experience of a train journey and inland tours.

He says it took the business five years to break even.

“I was petrified for at least three of the five years. The first two years were fun, settling down and getting to understand the product. But when we were chucking money every day, it becomes a bit boring especially when you run out of it,” Vos says.

It was a complete nightmare for Vos and his family. Luckily, his wife, Anthea, stood by him and raised their four children whilst he tried to keep the business afloat.

In gratitude, Vos decided to name the different locomotives of Rovos Rail after each of his children – Brenda, Bianca, Tiffany and Shaun.

“By then, I had sold my house, my cars and boats and planes…I had sold everything I could possibly sell to rake in cash,” he says.

Despite the losses and lack of sleep, Vos endured. He was determined to make it work.

“I had been my own boss since the age of 20, so to suddenly face the idea of failure was just not acceptable,” Vos said.

It was this tenacity that helped despite the naysayers around him. He didn’t care for them.

“I didn’t think we could compete at all but I was quite happy with that thought because I thought our product is so different to everybody else’s and that we have a niche and we must just polish that niche,” Vos says.

In 1996, the business began to pick up slowly and thereafter, started to attract more customers through word-of-mouth.

Today, Rovos Rail employs 415 staff, up from the 70 he started with. The company now runs six trains at a time; something Vos is proud of.

Next year, Vos and his team celebrate Rovos’ 30th anniversary.

“If you had asked me then did I think if we would be where we are today, I would have laughed, I would have not thought it was possible,” he says now.

Vos is the type of leader who involves himself in every aspect of the business, be it doubling up as an accountant, or even playing electrician and tour guide. His staff attest to it.

With Vos busy in preparations for the train to arrive, Rovos Rail’s sales manager Ian Morrison had taken us for a tour around the facility and the yard.

The teams keep the rolling stock in order, spray-painting the trains’ royal green exteriors, sawing wood for the interiors and also packing food parcels for the next trip.

Everything for the train is created or recycled at the Rovos workshop.

“Vos has been incredible in [creating] luxury in such a small space,” says Morrison, who has been with the company for the last five years.

“Rovos Rail is a first world business in a third world country.”

Gert Van Vuuren at the Rovos museum says steam locomotives have been his passion all his life. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Morrison takes us to a museum where one of Rovos Rail’s first drivers is now turning his love for locomotives into a hobby. The museum has inside it miniature trains, tracks and stations, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.

In 1998, Gert Van Vuuren started his journey as the driver of a steam train.

“My whole life, I have enjoyed steam locomotives. It’s my passion,” he tells us.

Five years ago, he became a pensioner.

“Mr Vos asked me to come back and build this museum for him from scratch, so now I’m back on track,” he says smiling.

A miniature version of the Rovos Rail built by Gert Van Vurren. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Vuuren is one of the many who has seen the business grow to where it is today. In his office are old photos of him, in the driver’s seat of a steam train. He holds these memories very close.

As for Vos, at the age of 72, he still has enough energy to keep the business going. He plans to expand the routes into Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi.

“Wherever there’s a railway line, I am now attracted and I think [the] railways are beginning to gain traction again in Africa,” says Vos, signing off.

His train chugs out of the station, whistling and fading away into the horizon and the sunset to yet another dreamy journey and destination.

Entrepreneurs

From The Arab World To Africa

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Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi; image supplied

In this exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, successful Dubai-based Emirati businesswoman, author and artist, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, shares some interesting insights on fashion, the future, and feminism in a shared world.

Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi wears many hats, as an artist, architect, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently serves as the CEO of Paris London New York Events & Publishing (PLNY), that includes a magazine and a fashion house.

She runs Velvet Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication in the Gulf founded in 2010 that showcases the diversity of the region home to several nationalities from around the world.

In this recent FORBES AFRICA interview, Hend, as she would want us to call her, speaks about the future of publishing, investing in intelligent content, and learning to be a part of the disruption around you.

As an entrepreneur too and the designer behind House of Hend, a luxury ready-to-wear line that showcases exquisite abayas, evening gowns and contemporary wear, her designs have been showcased in fashion shows across the world.

The Middle East is known for retail, but not typically, as a fashion hub in the same league as Paris, New York or Milan. Yet, she has changed the narrative of fashion in the region. “I have approached the world of fashion with what the customer wants,” says Hend. In this interview, she also extols African fashion talent and dwells on her own sartorial plans for the African continent.

In September, in Downtown Dubai, she is scheduled to open The Flower Café. Also an artist using creative expression meaningfully, she says it’s important to be “a role model of realism”.

She is also the author of The Black Book of Arabia, described as a collection of true stories from the Arab community offering a real glimpse into the lives of men and women across the Gulf Cooperation Council region.

In this interview, she also expounds on her home, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE and the region’s educational hub. “A number of successful entrepreneurs have started in this culturally-rich emirate that’s home to 30 museums,” she concludes. 

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Kim Kardashian West Is Worth $900 Million After Agreeing To Sell A Stake In Her Cosmetics Firm To Coty

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In what will be the second major Kardashian cashout in a year, Kim Kardashian West is selling a 20% stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty COTY for $200 million. The deal—announced today—values KKW Beauty at $1 billion, making Kardashian West worth about $900 million, according to Forbes’estimates.

The acquisition, which is set to close in early 2021, will leave Kardashian West the majority owner of KKW Beauty, with an estimated 72% stake in the company, which is known for its color cosmetics like contouring creams and highlighters. Forbes estimates that her mother, Kris Jenner, owns 8% of the business. (Neither Kardashian West nor Kris Jenner have responded to a request for comment about their stakes.) According to Coty, she’ll remain responsible for creative efforts while Coty will focus on expanding product development outside the realm of color cosmetics.

Earlier this year, Kardashian West’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, also inked a big deal with Coty, when she sold it 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal left Jenner with a net worth of just under $900 million. Both Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty are among a number of brands, including Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty and Glossier, that have received sky-high valuations thanks to their social-media-friendly marketing. 

“Kim is a true modern-day global icon,” said Coty chairman and CEO Peter Harf in a statement. “This influence, combined with Coty’s leadership and deep expertise in prestige beauty will allow us to achieve the full potential of her brands.”

The deal comes just days after Seed Beauty, which develops, manufactures and ships both KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, won a temporary injunction against KKW Beauty, hoping to prevent it from sharing trade secrets with Coty, which also owns brands like CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Rimmel. On June 19, Seed filed a lawsuit against KKW Beauty seeking protection of its trade secrets ahead of an expected deal between Coty and KKW Beauty. The temporary order, granted on June 26, lasts until August 21 and forbids KKW Beauty from disclosing details related to the Seed-KKW relationship, including “the terms of those agreements, information about license use, marketing obligations, product launch and distribution, revenue sharing, intellectual property ownership, specifications, ingredients, formulas, plans and other information about Seed products.”

Coty has struggled in recent years, with Wall Street insisting it routinely overpays for acquisitions and has failed to keep up with contemporary beauty trends. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the 116-year-old company hard. Since the beginning of the year, Coty’s stock price has fallen nearly 60%. The company, which had $8.6 billion in revenues in the year through June 2019, now sports a $3.3 billion market capitalization. By striking deals with companies like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, Coty is hoping to refresh its image and appeal to younger consumers.

Kardashian West founded KKW Beauty in 2017, after successfully collaborating with Kylie Cosmetics on a set of lip kits. Like her half-sister, Kardashian West first launched online only, but later moved into Ulta stores in October 2019, helping her generate estimated revenues of $100 million last year. KKW Beauty is one of several business ventures for Kardashian West: She continues to appear on her family’s reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sells her own line of shapewear called Skims and promotes her mobile game, Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Her husband, Kanye West, recently announced a deal to sell a line of his Yeezy apparel in Gap stores.

“This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas,” Kardashian West told Forbesof her various business ventures in 2016. “I don’t see myself stopping.”

Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff, Hollywood & Entertainment

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Entrepreneurs

Covid-19: Restaurants, Beauty Salons, Cinemas Among Businesses That Will Operate Again In South Africa As Ramaphosa Announces Eased Lockdown Restrictions

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South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation announcing that the government will further ease the country’s lockdown restrictions.

Restaurants, beauty salons, cinemas are among the businesses that will be allowed to operate again in South Africa.

The country is still on lockdown ‘Level 3’ of the government’s “risk adjusted strategy”.

President Ramaphosa also spoke on the gender based violence in the country.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and the girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country. The killing of women and children by the men of our country. As a man, as a husband, and as a father to daughters, I am appalled at what is no less than a war that is being waged against the women and the children of our country,” says Ramaphosa.

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