By Philip Watson
(Hurlingham magazine, 2007)
When Geoffrey Kent was 16 years old he did something at once utterly remarkable and wholly characteristic. Armed with no more than a Shell map of Africa, tarpaulin, some biltong and raisons, and a 250cc Daimler Puch motorbike, the world-renowned polo player and future chairman and CEO of leading luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent decided, after just an hour’s consideration, to travel from his home in the highlands of Kenya all the way to Cape Town.
It was a solo journey of 3,000 miles, along mostly unmade roads and dirt tracks. Kent travelled through rough country and war zones; he had no radio or means of communication; and there were almost daily challenges and accidents – at one point his motorbike fell off a ferry crossing the Zambezi. And yet, after three gruelling months, he arrived in Cape Town as was soon lauded as an old-style, all-action hero. Geoffrey Kent was the first person to complete the journey between the two countries in this way.
Kent’s African odyssey was a rite of passage that would establish a pattern for the rest of his life. His epic journey was not just an early indication of his unbridled love of travel and adventure; it became a blueprint for his lifelong sense of discovery and ingenuity, for his ardent competitiveness, and for his determination to succeed.
“The ride to Cape Town was impetuous I know, but I am very impetuous – to this day,” he says. “Yet impetuousness can achieve great things because it means you don’t think too much about something. Today, in business, you often have what’s called ‘paralysis by analysis’. People spend too much time analysing and worrying about what can go wrong. It’s okay to analyse, to get a good adjustment on a situation, but then let’s do it, or not do it. I’m a great believer in doing things.”
It is a pragmatic credo that was evident, often through necessity, from an early age. Born in 1942 while his parents, Valerie and Colonel John Kent, were on safari in what is now Zambia, Geoffrey Kent had an archetypal, Out of Africa, colonial upbringing on a large farm in Kenya. He was riding horses at the age of four; driving his parents’ Land Rover by six, propping himself up on pillows so he could see over the steering wheel; and hunting by 12 – he shot his first elephant when he was 16. His parents were busy running the farm, so Geoffrey and his younger sister Anne became very self-sufficient.
“We had to do everything on our own, and my background taught me to take responsibility for myself,” he says. “It also taught me to go for it, to be bold in my decisions.”
Kent would be is the first to admit, however, that it was the British Army that honed his innate boldness and impetuousness into far more effective skills. Shortly after Geoffrey had returned from Cape Town, his father, worried that his son was by now “fully through the bridle”, decided that he needed to be brought back under control. By his 17th birthday, he was in training as the youngest cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Over the next six years he saw active service in Eden, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman and Malta.
“The Army was the best thing that ever happened to me – it completely changed my life,” he says. “It took all the energy and power that I had and it re-shaped it into a highly focussed and disciplined box.”
It is an experience and legacy that resonates today in his work at Abercrombie & Kent. A firm believer in pragmatic intelligence, logical thinking and conscientious hard work, Geoffrey Kent runs his company with military efficiency.
“The Army taught me logistics, that everything was about detail and delivery,” he explains. “Even today, Abercrombie & Kent is not really a travel company – it’s a logistics company. We have 2,500 employees in 50 offices around the world moving 250,000 clients on an annual basis. Then think of the myriad of movements within all that – planes, Land Rovers, ships, boats, canoes, feluccas, horses, camels – it’s all going on. All of my troops are out there operating flat out minute by minute by minute.”
His short yet distinguished military career also provided valuable lessons on leadership. Geoffrey Kent is the type of boss who does everything himself first, including the reconnaissance. He is a team player who leads by example rather than instruction.
Kent’s Army years were truncated after he damaged his hearing during his years spent in heavy tanks – and by his inherently enterprising and entrepreneurial nature. As a teenager he had sold crocodile skins and elephant hair bracelets, and by 1962, while still in the forces, he had started Abercrombie & Kent with his parents. The pioneering idea of a modern luxury safari operation had been born, in part, out of his military experience – he had noted and admired the way many of his senior officers were not prepared to compromise on comfort and luxury even in the most inhospitable of places. He returned to Kenya in 1965, bought a second Land Rover with his compensation money from the Army, and took over the running of the business a year later. In 1966 the company’s annual gross income was $24,000; today it is $433 million.
As well as his enduring commitment to Abercrombie and Kent over the past 40 years – “I regularly work 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week; I’m just crazy about the company” – there has been another abiding and all-consuming love in his life: polo. Kent was captain of the polo team at Sandhurst and later, after committing himself to a becoming a high-gold player, became captain of the Windsor Park team. In the 1970s, he developed and captained the celebrated Abercrombie & Kent team that went on, against the odds, to win the US Open twice, as well as triumphing in the US Gold Cup and World Cup.
“You have to understand that polo is really my only love,” he says, unapologetically. “Abercrombie & Kent was there to support my drug, which was polo. Any money I made would go to horses and the game. Polo was my complete fixation and total passion.”
His extraordinary winning record on the polo ground was due largely to many of the skills he had developed both in the Army and business: Geoffrey Kent is the energetic embodiment of the power of commitment, self-belief and perseverance.
“The secret of my success in business and in polo is that I never give up,” he says. “I also love the tactical nature of the sport, the fact that all polo games are won long before the team sets foot on the ground.
“I demonstrated that in 1978 when I won the US Open for the first time. My team had come last in the previous two years, and people were saying that I couldn’t do it, it was impossible. But I was determined, and that year I’d worked it all out beforehand. I chose my star players very carefully – people like Antonio Herrera from Mexico and Stuart Mackenzie from New Zealand, who were cheap players; they were underrated, yet I knew they could play well above their handicaps. I was only a two-gold player, but I realised that, if I got up early every morning and worked and worked and worked and worked and worked, I could play four golds on the day. I then gave that team the organisation, belief and passion to succeed. I knew we would win even before the first match, and we were never beaten all season.”
A horrific accident in 1996, however, violently interrupted his polo career. He was following a very high ball at full speed during a practice match at the Palm Beach Polo Club in the US, when he was crossed by an inexperienced player, hitting him at 30 mph or more and crashing heavily to the ground. So massive was the impact that his third vertebra almost severed his spinal cord and he was in a coma for three hours. It took Geoffrey Kent four months to recover after which, on the advice of his medical team, he decided never to play or watch the game again (it’s a resolution he has just about stuck to in the intervening years). Horses were sold, he retired from the game, and he threw all his energies and adrenalin into Abercrombie & Kent.
Since then, his worldwide operation has expanded to more than 350 tours in 100 countries on every continent, including innovative expeditions to Antarctica. He and his former wife, Jorie Butler Kent, developed an early commitment to wildlife preservation and responsible tourism; they are founders of Friends of Conservation and the campaigning ecological Abercrombie & Kent Global Foundation.
Geoffrey Kent will soon announce the launch of Abercrombie & Kent Space, an ambitious programme he has been working on for the past 10 years that will offer sub-orbital travel by 2011. Passengers will shoot to a height of 55,000 feet or more in a rocket plane that is currently in development. “Tourists will see the curvature of the Earth and the deep purple sky above them,” he says. “The next frontier of travel is definitely space.”
Last October, he was elected chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council, a body that promotes he interests of a global travel industry that employs 230 million people and generates 10 per cent of world GDP.
All this has been achieved, as many of his friends and colleagues often observe, with an inspirational verve and elan. There remains, at the age of 64, something of the dashing adventurer and urbane, youthful charmer about Geoffrey Kent.
“The secret of success, in business, in polo, or in anything, is to be terribly well organised, to work as hard as you can, and to have a complete desire to win,” he says, his gentle and amiable voice rising a little. “Above all else, I’ve always known one thing: that I love and am absolutely passionate about winning.”