Next Life

A Banker's African Adventure


Unlike many bankers, when Jose Cortes craved blood he wasn't plotting how to poach a deal. Instead, he was watching a lion stalk a buffalo. Beginning in the mid-'90s, the Hong Kong-based JPMorgan Chase (JPM) investment banker, now 45, visited Africa yearly. On one memorable trip, in 1997, he was transfixed by the sight of 14 lions hunting three buffalo in Botswana—and realized there was a business opportunity in introducing more Asian travelers to African safaris.

In late 2002, Cortes and a friend, Victor Dizon, began laying groundwork for their new business. Working out of their apartments in off hours—Cortes in Hong Kong, Dizon in Manila—the bankers contacted African tourism boards in Asia, negotiated rates with safari lodges, began hiring staff, and pitched colleagues on custom safaris. Cortes took a four-month sabbatical to scout camps and reserves.

A year later Asia to Africa Safaris was launched, but Cortes returned to Hong Kong and the financial-services industry. All the while he was working with Dizon to design more safaris, fielding calls from potential partners, and wooing clients on weekends. From 2003 to 2006, the company went from working with 30 safari camps to more than 120. By late 2006 it was arranging more than 200 trips per year. Clients spend, on average, between $7,000 and $10,000 per 7- to 10-day trip (excluding airfare). Luxurious family safaris can run up to $300,000.

Last spring, Cortes decided to leave corporate life altogether and move his family to Cape Town. "My boss pointed out the next five years would be the best income-generating ones of my life," he says. "But it's not all about money. When you convince someone to go to Africa and they come back saying it was the best trip of their life, that's 100 times better than hearing a CFO say, 'Thanks for doing my deal.' "

The company now has offices in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore, and a staff of 20. Meanwhile, Cortes remains busy scouting more exotic destinations. "People are after an experience that's exclusive," he says. "It could be mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda. When people compare notes after summer break, a tribal safari in Africa beats Tuscany, hands down."

CORTES ARRIVES IN AFRICA

A generous estimate of safari locations with mobile phone coverage: 30%

Number of people who have gone on trips designed by Asia to Africa Safaris: 4,000+

Miles covered on a four-day canoe journey along the Zambezi River: 31

What Asia to Africa charges for a night of lodging at a top accommodation, per person: $2,000

Data: Asia to Africa Safaris

Nicholas is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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