No business like snow business

South Africa’s only ski resort has been snapped up for a bargain R5.5-million. And the man who now owns it has big plans to bring it back to life.

The auction setting, an upmarket conference centre near Sandton, was serene, with a saxophonist filling the air with renditions of popular songs. Piles of finger food, too small to be filling, were the initial attraction, and tiny bowls of bobotie, eaten with wooden forks, took pride of place.

At this point the conversation, conducted by small huddles of people in Paul Smith suits and chunky Cartier watches, was about their own businesses. The 10 items up for auction were an ancillary topic.

Not many were there to bid on the now dormant ski resort. In fact, not many were there to bid on anything at all. And this became clear when a bell called everyone inside. Half sat down, while the rest stood around high tables. Now the conversation became earnest – time for business: who’s going to buy Tiffindell?

Nine lots went before Tiffindell, from a crocodile farm to a business park. The bidding on these was frantic and in total saw R113-million change hands. The auctioneer was quick to point out that the handy wireless network on site would help with electronic funds transfers.

Major selling points
Then the last lot, Tiffindell, arrived. The auctioneer, using his gavel to point for emphasis, gave the major selling points of the resort: “It’s one of South Africa’s most unique destinations, has huge development potential, receives the most natural snowfall in South Africa and, critically, has the country’s highest pub.”

The sale is an unusual one: an absolute auction. This hardly ever happens and he said, “It’s going, whether it’s for R10 or R10-million.” The resort would end up attracting one of the highest amounts ever paid in this kind of all-or-nothing bid.

Bidding started at R1-million, with some murmurs. People didn’t seem that interested and some returned to sipping their coffee. A few more bids nudged the price up to R3-million. Two bidders emerged, coincidentally right next to each other.

When it got to R4-million, the auctioneer asked if the one bidder was a skier. “No,” he replied. “Well, now you can be, sir.”

His competitor called R5-million and the non-skier had to call his banker. The auctioneer prodded him on: “You’re losing a ski resort here.” Everything went quiet again as he worked out how much he could spend – R5.25million. The other man hit back with R5.5-million straight away.

That was too much. And when the gavel crashed down for the final time the winner, Lew Campbell, jumped in the air, doing a fist-pump reminiscent of Jomo Sono when he was Bafana Bafana’s caretaker coach.

A keen skier and native of New Zealand, Campbell has always had a link to Tiffindell: “I used to go to Tiffindell all the time, and I’m part of this special community we have in South Africa of skiers.” He currently runs Ski Deck, a Ferndale-based company that specialises in selling equipment and training people to ski.

And while the resort will take “quite a bit of renovation before it can open,” he wants this to happen as soon as possible. He’s aiming for next winter, but realistically believes it will happen the year thereafter.

Battle of the ski slopes
The five-year saga of Tiffindell’s legal battles finally came to an end with this week’s auction of the Eastern Cape ski resort.

The resort, founded by the Van Eck family in 1993, always struggled to turn a profit. In 2007 two businessmen – David Taylor and André le Roux – stepped on to its snowy slopes and bought its holding company at a rumoured cost of R22million.

But soon after this, the resort ran into trouble and creditors started asking for their money. The two tried to sell the resort and eventually the case was taken to the Supreme Court of Appeal. Four years later the court found the sale to have been invalid, and the door was open for Tiffindell’s liquidation.

While this was happening, the Mail & Guardian reported in 2010 that Taylor was involved in a deal to bring Starbucks to South Africa. The international coffee giant reportedly wanted to distribute its coffee through selected Southern Sun hotels.

This caused alarm, given the unravelling of Taylor’s investment in Tiffindell. He said: “With regard to my personal involvement in the matter, you should note that I was never a director of Tiffindell Limited and I was not personally subjected to litigation.”

The deal never went through.

This week Ivan van Eck said he hoped to work with the buyer to get people flying down its slopes again. “It’s been a nightmare up to now. You build it up over 15 years and it gets destroyed, so now I want to help make it work again.” – Sipho Kings

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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