‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same ten questions to business leaders across the continent.
Fred Robertson, executive chairman, Brimstone Investment Corporation (South Africa)
1. What was your first job?
I have always been working, even as a kid in junior school between 10 and 12 years old. I used to sell newspapers and fruit and veg. I worked in the movie houses and sold ice-cream, chips, chocolates and those kinds of things during intervals.
After matric I went to teach as an unqualified teacher. I then went off to teacher training… and I taught for five years after that, and in 1980 I left there to be an insurance representative for Old Mutual. I worked for 10 years both as an insurance salesman and then as a manager of a branch. I then went off to form my own insurance broking house, which I still have. I’m also now a board member of Old Mutual Emerging Markets. I started my own business in 1990, as an insurance brokerage operation and it broadened out into a financial services business.
In 1995 I started Brimstone with Mustaq Brey and we raised money from our community and its now listed on the stock exchange and is a R4 billion company. I am executive chairman of the company and Mustaq is chief executive officer.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I think a number of people have had significant impacts on my life – first of all my teachers. In fact I met one yesterday… and he was my accountancy teacher in high school. He had a phenomenal impact because while he was teaching us accountancy and business, he was also teaching us politics and the social impact a business should have on the communities we live in.
My past chairman of Brimstone, Prof. Jakes Gerwel, has had a huge impact. People that I’ve worked with, my partners Mustaq Brey and Lawrie Brozin – there is a number of people who have had a significant impact on my life. Coming out of prison after so many years, Mandela obviously has had an impact on all South Africans’ lives.
So I’m not sure one can mention just one person. One learns from many, both people older than you and younger than you. I think my kids have had an impact on my life, my family most certainly have. People known to me and unknown to me. I have read a lot and there are many authors, journalists (when they do their research well) and movies, you know, it’s a mixed bag. So where can we learn from, and who can we learn from, and how do we also share with others, is the important thing.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Right now there aren’t very many things. The next challenge obviously. We have just come out, at Brimstone, with significant profits – about 90% plus up on last year. So one wonders where the next [growth] is going to come from. 2013 is going to be a challenging year but there is no one particular thing that keeps me awake. I think that we have managed to build up a good company, believing firmly in profitability, empowerment, and having a positive social impact.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I think that one of the top reasons is that I have worked with very good partners – Mustaq and Lawrie – and we have built a very good support team around ourselves. So I think the partnership approach has been very good for us. It has not always been just about profit, but also a belief that we have to contribute to the betterment of society while doing business. That has been important to us and I think for a long time people didn’t recognise that. You know we aren’t invested in gambling or liquor, and people have asked why, and Mustaq shares my view that we want to invest for good. There is a book I’ve read, Investing for Good which had an impact on my life, and one wants to make sure that when making profit, you’re also doing good. So I think that is important. Also, knowing that business is a long road and overnight success is never overnight. You mustn’t expect immediate gratification if you are going into business, and you have got to go the extra mile.
5. What are the best things about South Africa?
I think we have a wonderful country. We have a world-class constitution. We have open media. We have, physically and geographically, a very beautiful country. We have opportunity, with many good people who have pulled us through a very dark period in our history. The country is well endowed with natural resources and we are a great democracy that actually works. So I think there are many good things about our country, and it’s the land of opportunity. I would agree that there are a lot of things that need to be fixed and that there are a lot of things wrong with our country and our society, but sometimes you have to look at the glass as half full, and not the half empty part of it.
6. And the worst?
The worst? Well that’s obviously the empty half of the glass. We have been left with a very bad heritage. You can never really believe how much the group area removal of people has actually impacted people. So there is a bad history and poor education. I know that after 20-odd years people say that you can’t keep on talking about that but I was forcibly removed out of District 6. I had to go live in Retreat, but some people were removed from Retreat to Gugulethu and Nyanga. And what that actually did was keep people from growing roots… They could never respect their schools, their sports fields. So we have a bad history. But that can’t be an excuse. We need to remember that, and then work double hard to correct that for our youth. I hate the idea of poverty, and the poverty that is around is bad – the poor education that is there; the fact that school books can just not be delivered is wrong.
The issues on the abuse of women, it’s very sick. But it all comes into this poverty cycle that we are also in. So there is a lot wrong with our society. Also the mistrust between white and black can’t be right, but it’s also a lack of understanding… and that is what we have to work towards; correcting those things.
Also, a lot of our graduates are leaving the country. Hopefully they will come back, but they are delivering a service to other societies.
7. Your future career plans?
I think we want to grow Brimstone into a much more significant company and provide opportunities for young people. Having grown up in the Cape Flats, a lot of people have told me it’s a significant achievement, but I try and think that there is still a lot of work to be done. So my future plans are to create more opportunities for the younger generation.
8. How do you relax?
Walking, golf, quite irregularly, and very irregularly going to the gym, reading – sort of normal, lazy stuff.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
I want to say that you have got to have a big dream and be passionate, brave and accept that success often doesn’t come that easily. And if you take a knock, have the courage and strength to get up and learn from why you had to take a knock. Believe in yourself and your dreams. You have to invest in yourself, so you have to be reading, talking to people, keep good company. A team effort is also a good thing; it’s not a one man game, you know, and it’s mostly enjoyable if you are working in a team and succeeding. Do the right thing and – also extremely important – is to contribute to the society from which you came after you have been successful. I think that is key. You have got to give back.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
Concentration on education, building the infrastructure, reduction of HIV and malaria – which also means we have to invest in our healthcare in Africa – and this great heritage that we have and having a huge opportunity in Africa. It’s the new growth area in the world, but we have got to take these [opportunities] in a responsible way for the environment as well. We must not just allow all our minerals to be taken out of the ground, but we also have to concentrate on how we can feed the world. So I think education, infrastructure, good governance, will all bring through an improved society. Already African people are demanding elections. There are fewer wars, less children in armies and that sort of thing. We have got to reduce ammunition and guns and we then will make significant advances.