‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Karl Westvig, CEO, AFB
1. What was your first job?
I did five months in market research. I’ve got a statistics background. On my first job I learnt they charged too much for my services and thought I could do it myself. So I left and started my own business where I learnt about branding. I realised that as an individual you don’t get the same leverage as a brand.
2. Who had the biggest impact on your career and why?
There is no single person that stands out. I surround myself with lots of wise people. I have many friends that are late in their careers, or retired, and have many years of experience. I use them as sounding boards and mentors.
3. The parts of your job keeping you awake at night?
It’s always people stuff. I do my job through people so I need them to deliver certain things. If I am sleeping well at night it means the people I employ are doing their jobs. When I feel they aren’t delivering, it takes a toll and keeps me up at night.
4. The main reasons why you have been successful?
I trust myself. It is important to have trust that if you attempt something, you will try to be successful. I think I also trust others. You can’t build a big business without trusting people. Without that trust you will always be a small business, doing everything yourself.
5. The best things about South Africa?
The natural beauty of South Africa: It must be one of the most spectacular places in the world, particularly Cape Town.
6. And the worst?
I am very positive about my country. But what I’d like to see change is the politics. It is not unique to South Africa but I certainly think if there were less focus on corruption, and more focus on delivery for the people, we would be better off.
7. Your future career plans?
At the moment my future is building AFB. I don’t plan to go anywhere. I think AFB can have a major impact in Africa. Many reports show Africa will have a large consumer sector in the near future. There will be demographic growth, and people moving into a middle-class environment will need access to consumer goods. We can play a big role there, providing funding for consumers to acquire goods, and SMEs to build their businesses across the continent.
8. How do you relax?
I am fairly active sport wise. I run. I play squash. And spend time with my family.
9. What’s your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
I think they should start with a career in the corporate world to understand how finance, systems, human resources and marketing work on a large scale. I spent some time in a corporate environment and what I learnt there is structure and scale. The learning curve is vital, but if you stay too long in the corporate environment you may get complacent and accept it as growth, and that works against an entrepreneurial mindset. On the other side of the coin, if you don’t get that exposure you may struggle because you don’t understand how structure, systems and people work. You need a bit of both worlds.
You also have to trust yourself and test your idea in the market. A lot of wannabe entrepreneurs spend too much time analysing and worrying about what can go wrong. You should be thinking about what will go right, and where things go wrong you fix it. I believe in the survival instinct. Once you put your own money at risk you will make it work. It is called survival.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
It will come down to education. It is not just junior, senior and tertiary level education but also corporates being involved in job training and talent development.
We work in a number of different countries and there are contrasts when it comes to talent. In some, staff are fairly highly educated but don’t adapt very well to their work environment, so need a lot of training to be productive. In other countries you have incredibly well-educated people that learn skills very quickly and become productive even during basic training. We need not just education, but functional education.
Also companies want certainty in the environment they operate in. They want to know their licence won’t be cancelled at short notice or that excessive, prohibitive taxes are introduced. So Africa should also ensure stability to attract the big companies which, in turn, will invest in communities and in the people.
Karl Westvig is CEO of financial services firm AFB, which is operational in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and soon Zambia. Westvig has a long history in finance and entrepreneurship. In 1999 he co-founded South African consumer finance business RCS Group .