March 2016: The incredible story of Thabo Rafuthu proves that only a passion for your job, a commitment to hard work, and natural talent can propel you to as much success as anyone with university qualifications behind their name.

South Africans tend to believe that a young person must have a university degree to progress in a career – or even to get a job at all. Thabo’s story demonstrates otherwise.

Thabo was denied many opportunities in his youth on account of his parent’s poverty and the impact of apartheid legacy, and the prospects for Thabo from an education perspective were certainly limited. It was thought unlikely that a young black scholar from a small mining town in the North-West Province could secure a gainful job – certainly nothing beyond work as an unskilled labourer, like his father.

And so, as one would perhaps expect, Thabo spent a full year at home after matric, trying unsuccessfully to secure some sort of employment after he had matriculated from a local technical high school. Frustrated by this situation, he hitched a ride with a friend to Johannesburg, hoping that things would look up for him there.

Soon after arriving in the large metropolis, Thabo heard about casual jobs for waiters on offer at the Protea Hotel Midrand. “Getting any sort of job was a coup for me at that stage of my life,” Thabo explains. “Having had absolutely no prospect of any work for a whole year, I was really excited to secure this position.”

Little did Thabo know that this break would shape his life so significantly. The young man with few prospects from an impoverished background in Orkney would rise within a short 10 years to become an executive in South Africa’s hotel industry.

While Thabo’s success has been his own doing – he demonstrated skill, aptitude and a willingness to work really hard – the opportunity created for someone like him to rise through the ranks is due to the Protea Hotels human resource philosophy.  Underpinning recruitment and retention is the core idea that individuals should be identified for their innate talent, and that the employer should nurture and grow the individual’s natural ability.

This is achieved by putting staff through a variety of courses, as well as selecting some staff for the mentorship programme, the latter being something that Thabo has found particularly valuable.  “My mentor allowed me to meet some of the most senior people in the organisation even though I was still relatively junior, and this exposure was crucial because I was recognised by the decision-makers in the business,” he says.

Thabo’s hard work as a waiter at the Midrand hotel, at that stage the only hotel in the area and popular as a conference venue, paid off. He explains: “Within a few months, I was offered a permanent position as a bar waiter. My ambition then was to move into a reception desk position – I think I was attracted to it because the staff always looked so good in their smart uniforms!”

Within a few years, Thabo had been exposed to a range of positions within the hotel environment, excelling in all of them.  His potential already identified within the business, he was part of the team that opened the African Pride Melrose Arch Hotel, and joined the new Protea Hotel Fire & Ice! in Cape Town when it opened in 2006.

“My biggest break was in 2008, when I got a call from the Regional Director of Protea Hotels for Gauteng,” Thabo says. “He offered me the position of General Manager (GM) of the Protea Hotel Transit, a unique hotel inside the International Airport building in Johannesburg which provides services for transit travellers only. Having moved up to GM level, my career was now on an upward trajectory, and I have since headed up the Protea Hotel Roodepoort.”

He’s been GM there for the past 4 years, a period in which the hotel has experienced significant business success, including an improvement in occupancy levels from about 30% to 90%.

Conscious of the enormous value that the company’s training and development can have in growing an individual, Thabo is acutely aware of his role in developing staff.  “I am living proof of what it’s about,” he says proudly, “and that’s why I am big on training.”

And so he is giving back to other South Africans, both through developing his 40 staff members at the hotel, and through the economic impact in the nearby area of Braamfischerville, Soweto, where over 90% of the hotel’s staff reside. He also focuses on initiatives with local schools, providing them with advice about careers in the hospitality industry, and offering job opportunities to local matriculants when possible.

For Thabo, South Africa is full of possibilities – as his life experience has demonstrated -and he is fully committed to the country and to realising his full potential here. This truly reflects Marriott International’s Core Value of Putting People First by opening the doors of opportunity.

Listen to Thabo Rafuthu talking about his career experience with Protea Hotels – click through to this link: