Meet Ryk Neethling: Swimming champ who fell for Val de Vie

I first encountered Val de Vie a couple years ago, a fleeting visit as part of a roadshow with the top team at PPS who were launching a new short-term insurance business. Commitments like those are always time constrained, but such was the magnificence of that estate that I make a mental note to return. Getting back there took longer than hoped, but earlier this month I finally got to do the estate justice. Courtesy of a new business partnership between Biznews and Val de Vie, where we get to tell the Biznews community about the place, and are remunerated if and when our community members invest in the projects on offer. This is quite a revolutionary model for a media business. And given the obvious risks of this kind of relationship, its one where one needs a high level of confidence before concluding what in effect is an endorsement. After doing as much homework as possible, the final part of my due diligence was actually visiting the estate and spending a day with the five directors who have transformed a disused old clay quarry with a magnificent view into an estate that now attracted more than a billion dollars of investment. My first point of contact, not surprisingly, was the face of Val de Vie, its marketing director and Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Ryk Neethling, one of the best athletes this country has produced. In stats-mad America, Ryk’s nine time NCAA championships makes him the third best men’s swimmer in almost 100 years. And he is one of only eight in that long history to have won three back-to-back championships. Now 41, and looking just as trim as when at his athletic peak, Ryk has spent the past decade alongside four other directors who together have built South Africa’s premier estate. Click here for more information. – Alec Hogg

I’m here with Ryk Neethling. You’re known as an Olympic gold medalist. Everyone in South Africa knows you and many people around the world as well, but we’ve spent a couple of hours together going around Val de Vie – which we’ll talk more about more in a moment. What fascinates me though is your training. It’s almost like you were trained for business. How did you get into this sport of swimming? Why didn’t you play cricket, rugby, basketball?

I really love basketball… but my swimming career started when I almost drowned as a five year old in Bloemfontein. I was playing in the shallow end then went in a little bit too deep and I couldn’t swim. I ended up at the bottom of the pool and luckily there were some older boys there who jumped in and pulled me out. There was no history of swimming in our family. My father rode a horse to a farm school until he was 16 and then he went to Bloemfontein. I just learned how to swim and I was very competitive. Swimming was the outlet for that competitive spirit. From an early age – I was about 10 years old – I heard about the 1988 Olympics and asked my father what this was. At that time South Africa couldn’t compete, we were still banned, but that’s where my dream of going to the Olympics started. Lots of hard work and eventually I got there in 1996.

From the swimmers I knew from school days, they were the most disciplined kids who had to put in much more work than others. One can just imagine what it required to become a world champion. Where does your discipline come from? You say your family weren’t swimmers, but did they at least have discipline in the genes?

I think it’s in the genes somewhere, but it was installed at an early age by my mum, who taught me that if I was going to do something, I better do it right. So she would watch my swimming practices which I took quite seriously. My father was a great example for me as well, the way he worked as a lawyer. Hard work was the one thing that you can control.

When I stood on the blocks as a swimmer, I knew that there was nobody else who had worked harder than me and that gave me a sense of confidence. This is something I’ve moved over to my business ethics.

Ryk Neethling, Val de Vie

How much training do you have to do to be a world class swimmer?

When I think back to the things that I did as a swimmer, I actually can’t believe what the body is capable of achieving. When I tell people that I swam 20 kilometres a day for months on end, they probably don’t believe me. But that’s what every December holiday was like – 10 kilometres in the morning 10 kilometres at night. As a student in high school, swimming an hour and a half before school, going to school, swimming for another two hours afterwards… I did that all the way through to university.

It is serious discipline…

When I was at university in America, we had to achieve at least a B academic average to be able to keep our scholarships so you couldn’t slack off on anything. Pretty soon it’s part of your life and if it’s not there you don’t feel right. I do wish sometimes I could switch it off, but it is part of who I am now.

When we were talking about your early career – the development of it – the fractions that were involved. In business you better understand the details, otherwise you will go off course. In swimming, you were saying it could be millimeters that make a difference.

Yes. At the Olympics – and I’ve been on both sides of that, winning by a few hundreds of a second and losing by a few one hundredth of a second – it is all about the details, especially as you get closer to the competition. You don’t want to lose and then think of all the little things that you could have worked on or fixed. So yeah absolutely. All those hours that you spend in training for the Olympics – which is once every four years – you focus on those little details. Every stroke has to be perfect or as close to perfect as you can. It’s about the little details – which at the end of the four years – makes a big impact.

I can see from going around Val de Vie that you pay lot of attention to the detail. Your choice of property as a career – where did that come from?

My father is a property lawyer and although he didn’t discuss it much, it was always around us subconsciously. But it really started when I was at university in the United States – at the University of Arizona in Tucson – about half an hour from the Mexican border, in the desert. A great place to swim. 350 days of sunshine a year. Extremely hot. There was a gentleman there who was the head coach who went into commercial real estate development – sales and leasing – and I became friends with him. He taught me everything I know about commercial real estate and specifically in the industrial space, big factories and office buildings and distribution warehouses.

How did he teach you?

We drove around. He taught me the difference between the loading docks, electricity requirements, height of the doors and the different sizes. He really went into the detail. So that was my first job. A company called Bourne Properties and I started right at the bottom. I was cold calling on the phone asking companies if they had any real estate needs, if their lease was running out or if they needed more or less space. I would also just knock on doors in business parks in the Arizona summer. It’s not something that is enjoyable but I wouldn’t change it for the world. That’s where I also learnt how to work hard and work on sales. I really loved the business and it played a big part in my eventual business future life here at Val de Vie.

Ryk, I think people would be a little bit surprised hearing this story because you are a gold medal winner at the Olympics, the world’s at your feet, you could live anywhere. You studied in the United States as you’ve told us – a degree in industrial psychology – so you could pretty much shape your future anyway, yet you chose property. How did this actually come together? With the whole world available to you, you ended up coming here to this incredible estate.

I was approached to come to Val de Vie in late 2008. It was just a few months after my last Olympics in Beijing the 2008 Olympics and I had decided that I’m finally done with swimming. I was just going to come down for a photo shoot and an interview for the Val de Vie magazine and I thought it was a free trip to Cape Town, a nice weekend – I was living in Pretoria at the time – and when I flew down and I drove through the gates, I just fell in love with the place. Val de Vie was very young, maybe a year or two with less than 30 homes built on the 220 hectares. Even at that point there was something to it. I couldn’t put my finger on it and I had to make sense of this feeling. I thought that maybe this is where I was gonna get married one day because it’s beautiful, with the polo fields, the vineyards, it was hot, it was quiet. There was a lot of space and I had a really magical feeling. I really connected with Martin Venter – the founder of Val de Vie – he started his career at Atterbury, so we had the connection with the commercial real estate. When I saw the indoor swimming pool – I had just opened a swim school in Pretoria – and I thought this is a perfect place to open my second school and one thing just led to the other. I became a big ambassador – an unofficial ambassador for Val de Vie – unpaid. I had a lot of other sponsors that I was getting paid a lot of money for, but I had a real love for Val de Vie. In early 2010 I told Martin that I’m coming to Val de Vie to join the team full time – midst the crisis where we were hardly selling anything – and most of the states were folding at that point. When I told people I was moving down to the Cape Winelands and Val de Vie, the majority said I was making a mistake. I really believed in Martin’s vision and I really enjoyed the team that he had assembled here and I felt like this was home. I obviously had a passion for property and I moved down.

Have you invested yourself in the estate?

Absolutely. I believe in the vision. The impact that we have made – not just in the beautiful buildings that we create – but also the difference that we make in the community and in people’s lives. It may sound a little bit airy fairy sometimes, but if you drive around and if you talk to people you’ll see the impact. To me, one of the beauties of properties is the legacy that you leave.

You guys have come a long way since you arrived here. It’s spectacular. There isn’t a blade of grass out of place. There’s a huge investment that is being put in here – not just by yourselves – but by others, the question has to be when you started here in 2010 could you have imagined that this was going to happen? Are you one of those guys who writes an affirmation and says we are going to have the top estate in South Africa and it comes to pass?

The short answer is no I didn’t imagine this, but what I did do was – I learned from my swimming days – is to focus on the everyday processes. That was what my focus was – to be the best that I could be every day – and to improve and assemble a team that could improve every day. We just kept our heads down and when things began to change, sales started to pick up – in 2011 and 2012 – we didn’t pay too much attention to it. We didn’t have any marketing budget. I was doing a trade exchanges with wine, showing up to places and in return getting advertising opportunities, just focusing on the daily stuff. It was almost like the Olympics, one day I drowned, the next thing I ended up at the Olympics. Looking back, that’s how it felt – every day just training to get there – and the next thing we knew we had bought Pearl Valley phase too. We had this combined estate and started winning awards internationally. The trick is now not to relax and sit back and think that we’ve achieved everything. The team is very focused on keeping the mindset of improving every single day and focusing on the process.

How important is that in the property business? You travel a lot, you look at the great global competitors…

Without that mindset of constantly improving, we definitely wouldn’t be where we are today and the trends change, people’s needs change. Technology has enabled people to move away from the centres. Skype calls enable them to live remotely in the countryside and still work for big corporates. So we’ve moved with those changes. We didn’t say no, we are a wine and polo estate and we’re going to stick with it. We’ve moved with the changes and the trends, that’s a core value of Val de Vie. When we travel, we see developments that are very one dimensional and don’t embrace change, so it’s very important for us.

With those trends, who are the people who make a home for themselves here? You explained to me that 75% of the people who own property here, physically live here. Who are these people? Do they still have an active business life?

Absolutely. I think they are the leaders in their fields. One kind of buyer is in the mid 40s, mid 50s with a young family – they are interested in the good schools – and the quality of life where safety and security is our number one priority. They travel a lot. They commute up to Gauteng even to London. You’ve got older people, you’ve got swallows coming from Europe and then you’ve got young professionals who’ve maybe just qualified and are interested in the entry level properties. The beauty is that we’ve got a whole range of products so people can start with entry level and they upgrade or they start with a big house with a full family become an empty nester and they downscale to a lock up and go.

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