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Nomura loan chief quits job for lifelong safari dream.

By Katrina Nicholas

SINGAPOREAuA Hong Kong banker is leaving the jungles of finance for the jungles of Africa.

Nomura HoldingsAAE head of Asia-Pacific ex-Japan loan syndication, Jose Cortes, has quit his job to work full-time on taking wealthy, travel-hungry Asians to safari destinations in Africa, such as Rwanda and Gabon.

After starting luxury-tour organizer, Asia to Africa Safaris, with Standard Chartered banker Victor Dizon in late 2002, Cortes, [is moving] to Cape Town in

time for [this] monthAAEs 2010 FIFA World Cup to pursue a personal passion and serve a growing base of customers seeking something different from vacation in Europe or North America.

AoI see guys in banking in their 50s and 60s and I can tell, thereAAEs no passion anymore,Ao Cortes says in a phone interview from Hong Kong, his home for the last 14 years. AoMy boss pointed out the next five years are the best income-generating ones of my life, but at the end of the day, itAAEs not all about money.Ao

Cortes joins an increasing number of banking executives who have quit lucrative careers to start business ventures close to their heart. CitigroupAAEs former head of Indian equities, Nikhil Nagle, left the New York-based bank in March to start a tiger conservation project while UBS AG senior currency strategist Benedikt Germanier ditched his bonus and banker lifestyle to live in Switzerland fashioning custom-made skis.

Cortes, 44, who first holidayed in Africa in the late 1990s, realized there was a gap in the market after safari-camp operators began to comment to him on the small number of Asian visitors.

When much of their business from US tourists fell away after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Cortes quit his job at that time as head of JP Morgan Chase & Co.AAEs Asia loan syndication and distribution team to take a 4-month sabbatical and establish Asia to Africa Safaris with now Singapore-based Dizon.

AoMy father is an entrepreneur and so I suppose you could say itAAEs in my blood,Ao says Manila-born Cortes, who lived in New York before moving to Hong Kong.

After his father died, his brothers took over Pacific Cement Philippines, one of the countryAAEs few remaining independent producers.

AoCement never really excited me,Ao he says. AoAfrica, this is a country that now with the World Cup is dynamic and evolving. ItAAEs also still very poor and so I hope any money we spend will filter down and help conservation efforts as well.Ao

The 2008 credit crisis, which saw more than 330,000 people fired from banks and brokerages globally, has made executives reassess their priorities, says Bill Henderson, a senior partner in Egon Zehnder InternationalAAEs financial-services practice.

AoThe strength of the turbulence has been unprecedented in terms of most individualAAEs career memories,Ao Hong Kong-based Henderson says. AoThereAAEs probably in most executives a long-cherished passion of some sort and if theyAAEve accumulated enough capital to feel relatively comfortable, this sort of upheaval can be a catalyst to go and do something else.Ao

Egon Zehnder is currently seeking candidates for senior positions at two not-for-profit organizations the Hong Kong Ballet and the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, which promotes Chinese arts and culture as well as the practice of Buddhism in everyday life. The latter has chosen to advertise in the Economist in the hope banking executives will express interest.

A job offer from Barclays lured Cortes back to banking in early 2003, and in July 2006 he joined the Hong Kong operations of doomed Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

After Lehman collapsed in September 2008, Cortes joined Nomura. Seven years on, and with Asia to Africa Safaris averaging one safari group a day, he says itAAEs probably time to leave for good.

More staff are being hired in Hong Kong to cope with demandAuclients spend an average of $7,000 to $10,000 per person on a safari, excluding airfaresAuand a third Asian sales office is planned for Japan in early 2011.

Cortes says Asia to Africa Safaris didnAAEt suffer during the global financial crisis because executives, faced with retrenchment packages and rare time totravel, took advantage of the economic slowdown. The number of Asians traveling to Africa will rise steeply in coming years as China and IndiaAAEs burgeoning middle classes grow, he says.

AoLike anyone theyAAEll do Europe and then America and then Australia and then theyAAEll want something else,Ao he says. AoTheyAAEre catching up fast and they have lots of money.Ao

CortesAAE professional challenge now will be scouring Africa tailoring holidays for clients whoAAEve Aoseen the Serengeti migration four timesAo.

AoPeople are after an experience thatAAEs exclusive,Ao he says. AoIt could be mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, or visiting countries like Gabon and Angola. When people compare notes after summer break, a tribal safari in Africa beats Tuscany hands down.Ao

Cortes says one of his Aomany life-altering amazing experiences in AfricaAo happened at a remote camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. His group tracked a pride of 14 lions as they stalked, killed and ate three buffalos.

AoIt was like being part of a National Geographic documentary and all these primal feelings come out,Ao he said. AoThis happened almost 10 years ago now but I can still recall every minute of those three days.Ao

With more time to spend with friends and family and a house in Cape TownAAEs wine country waiting, Cortes, who is married with no children and also a keen amateur photographer, says heAAEs sanguine about leaving banking.

AoFor all bankers itAAEs been a grueling two years with everything thatAAEs happened,Ao he says. AoIAAEll miss the smart people you get to work with and the challenges of banking, but when you convince someone to take the plunge and go to Africa and they come back saying it was the best trip of their life, thatAAEs 100 times better than having a CFO tell you, AaeThanks for doing my deal for meAAE.Ao


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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Jun 21, 2010
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