UCT GSB alumnus Grant Horsfield has built a rapidly expanding business in China that aims to provide a better lived environment - both at work and at play — and deliver a more balanced, sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle.
When Grant Horsfield moved to Shanghai, shortly after completing his MBA at the GSB in 2004, he wanted to find a product to sell to China, when the rest of the world was focused on buying from China. “I had a clear purpose,” he says, “I wanted to import something from Africa and bring it to China - I just didn’t know what it was.”
Horsfield had completed the Doing Business in China elective on the MBA programme, taught by Professor Kobus Van der Wath, which led to him accepting a job in China with Van der Wath’s consulting firm — The Beijing Axis. He also completed an exchange programme at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. During this time, although he found China to be exciting and full of opportunity, Horsfield missed the Capetonian lifestyle — particularly the outdoor life and the interaction with nature. He says, “that was when I realised that the product China needed was the lifestyle that we have in South Africa. I was sure that if the Chinese knew what they didn’t know, they would be living a more balanced life and be able to appreciate and relax in nature — so that was what I really wanted to import to China, the Cape Town lifestyle.
“At that point there was no concept of a weekend getaway spent relaxing in nature that we are so used to in South Africa,” Horsfield explains. This realisation kickstarted his vision for Naked — a chain of boutique eco-resorts set in natural landscapes across China.
The naked Group, which Horsfield founded in 2007, has built and now operates four luxury resorts with a further six under development. The first boutique resort, naked Home opened in Zhejiang Province in 2007, followed by naked Stables — an award-winning resort in Moganshan which offers horse riding to guests. Naked Stables is an industry pioneer in that it was the first resort in China to receive the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification — an American certification system encouraging the design of energy and resource-efficient buildings that are healthy to live in. Horsfield extended the concept of a luxurious retreat with the addition of naked Castle, a 95-room castle with two restaurants and a spa surrounded by lush forest, and naked Sail which offers a unique travel experience on a 70-foot catamaran in the Andaman Sea.
In 2015, the naked Group expanded into the co-working office space industry through naked Hub. Horsfield sees the move into office space as a natural extension of the naked brand.
“Essentially we had been inviting people to have a better lifestyle outside of work and we realised that we could do that in the work experience too,” he says. “When you build a resort, you build a space that allows people to experience a certain level of comfort and enjoy themselves, so why not do that in an office?” The naked team’s skillset in designing and building sustainable comfy resorts was easily transferred to building office spaces that people enjoy working in.
Naked Hub has seen rapid expansion, opening 50 hubs across China, Vietnam, Australia and the UK in just two and a half years. Initially based on smaller start-ups or freelancers in the gig economy, Naked Hub now caters to larger firms. “The idea of co-working space was born out of trying to make a more efficient smarter space for smaller companies but today more that 50% of our companies are multinationals,” says Horsfield.
The principles of a more balanced lifestyle and a cleaner more sustainable environment are present in all naked projects. For Horsfield, it’s all about trying to make the world a better place. “No matter what kind of entrepreneur you are, you have to have some values that are important to you. For me, trying to change things for the better has been paramount in everything we’ve designed, and we probably have more sustainability experts on our payroll than most companies. What we do is not just about building, it’s about people, communities and how people interact in their environment.”
Commenting on what it takes to start a successful business in China, and then follow through with rapid global expansion, Horsfield says perseverance, a belief in what you want to achieve, and above all — courage — all play a role. “You’ve got to have courage to do what looks very scary. If you don’t have a sound belief that it will work, then you just can’t do it.” He adds, laughing, “or as my mom says - I’m just too stupid to see the potential problems! But seriously, courage is what separates businesspeople from entrepreneurs — and that’s something that can’t be taught.”
Horsfield also believes strongly in what he terms AQ, or adversity quotient. “This is the mentality that allows me to overcome obstacles, the ability to hit a wall 20 times but pick myself up and keep on trying.”
Looking back on his experience of the MBA, he believes the programme’s value lies in promoting self-knowledge and reflection. He says, “each project I did allowed me to examine what I had done before and to consider how I could have done things differently. Examining my strengths and weaknesses was a huge benefit. Today I don’t hire people who have low self-awareness.”
“The other wonderful thing about the MBA was the diversity of students. We had a mixed group internationally, with people from many different cultural and work backgrounds, that was really enlightening. It also gave me a strong network of likeminded people.”
Horsfield believes his South African upbringing and his education at the UCT GSB certainly helped him on his entrepreneurial path. He says, “wanting to do some good in the world, wanting to change things for the better, is a uniquely South African strength.”