Koos Bekker: Future perfect

2014-03-02 14:00

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Koos Bekker has led one of SA’s most successful companies for the past 30 years. Bun Booyens spoke to him about his plans for the future

Naspers as a company is a house with many ­mansions. What does it take to lead such a diverse company?

Mainly good judgement – and a bit of human ­insight. Bob van Dijk’s main task will be to manage entrepreneurs. They are a species that tend to be prima donnas. They also come from different cultures. One must allow for cultural differences.

Such as?

In China, you don’t get a contract signed before you’ve had a few good meals together, and Brazilian and Thai managers find it almost impossible to fire anyone.

Some of the pioneers who started with you in the 1980s are beginning to retire now. Are you satisfied that a strong new generation is being deployed in the right places within Naspers?

Yes, it’s a good team. Our entrepreneurs are typically between their late 20s and early 40s; our functional heads are slightly older. They come from various cultures and have different mother tongues.

The role of a chairperson is more ‘subdued’ than that of a CEO. You are usually directly involved in the company’s activities. Would you be comfortable to be a few steps away from the action as a ­chairperson?

We’ll see. We thought it would be a good idea to give Bob a year to bond with his new management team and our board.

Analysts like Naspers’ share, but are still a bit wary of it. The company is, in the words of one market analyst, sometimes ­perhaps ‘a little too adventurous’. Fair comment?

Yes, that’s correct. We take risks – that’s what we’re paid for. ­Without taking a risk, you can’t make big money. We aren’t a share for the actuary sitting quietly behind his desk.

When Naspers’ share price was at around R600 about a year ago, you said you thought it could go up to R1?200. That’s what the price is now. Is that a correct reflection of the company’s value?

You should never ask a manager what his share is worth. He’s biased. It’s the market’s job to put a value on a share. In the short term, the market is often wrong, but in the long term, it gets it right.

Should Tencent, in which Naspers has a 34% interest, be ­concerned about Facebook’s takeover of WhatsApp? Are you concerned about the implications for Tencent’s WeChat?

Yes. Outside China, WeChat is in direct competition with ­WhatsApp, and Facebook has good engineers.

You have no hesitation about experimenting and failing, but it’s not just a question of taking a shot in the dark. What signs does Naspers look out for when it invests in a new industry or young ­company?

In our industry, you soon learn to look for a few traits: a fanatical entrepreneur, a service that is really useful, economies of scale or network effects. What doesn’t count is money.

A good idea always finds funding. Big names also don’t count, nor does early profit. If something is really useful, you can even offer it free in the beginning and then figure out later how people are going to pay.

After the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Naspers’ share price fell from about R90 to R12 – the kind of situation that often demands a CEO’s head. Were you worried at the time, or did you realise that it was just a temporary setback?

I was very lucky not to be fired on two occasions. First, in March 1987 when M-Net lost R3.5?million a month on a turnover of R500?000 and would soon go bankrupt.

And again after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. Investors took off and our share price fell to R12. Fortunately, our board had a strong stomach.

You mention that Naspers stubbed its toes a few times in the past two decades. Are there any transactions or events that you still specifically regret, or does a company simply walk away and get on with it?

We have lost a lot of money through sheer stupidity. If you take big risks, something will often go wrong – a competitor beats you and rolls out his product faster than you do, the consumer rejects your service, your management is not up to it. In our industry, you can’t really avoid a failure. But when it happens, you must swallow your pride, acknowledge your error and start chopping.

You usually give quite a vague answer to this question: Which are a couple of the most important trends you specifically want to keep an eye on in the coming year before you become ­chairperson? From which country or region do you think they will come? In which field?

If I knew that, I wouldn’t need a year to go and find out.

Where are the business opportunities in Africa and how do they differ from elsewhere in the developing world?

The more I see of the world, the more convinced I become that all people on earth actually have the same needs. We are on the same track as Brazil, India, Indonesia – you name it. And the idea of a market called ‘Africa’ is nonsense.

No one who has been there talks of the market in ‘Asia’. Japan and India are two opposing poles. South Africa currently has more trade with China and Germany than with Ghana or Ethiopia, and this won’t change. We are part of the world, rather than part of a continent.

One gets the impression that South Africa is being rapidly ­overtaken by the rest of Africa. Is our environment here still over­regulated?

South Africa is falling behind Nigeria and Kenya. They are growing faster than us, they’ve got less red tape and absurd labour laws, they grant visas to foreign engineers more easily.

I like to talk to young people, and my impression is that their graduates have higher ­ambitions than ours. Why, I don’t know. South Africa is becoming second-rate in Africa.

Is there a single highlight of the past 30 years that stands out above the rest?

To work with nice people every day. I see some of my colleagues for more hours a month than I see my family or friends. Their jokes and achievements give me great pleasure.

What aspect of your job do you enjoy the most? And the least?

The most, probably the fact that this industry is so dangerous and unpredictable. Technology, regulations, competitors, even ­consumer behaviour. You can’t guess what will happen next. Every morning when the emails pour into your inbox, you call out, ‘Oh, bugger!’ [This was apparently newspaperman Pete Cillié’s test for a good ­cover.] I had the best job in the country.

On the negative side, there was very little.

You like literature and journalism. Will you consider writing a book on your experiences of the past 30 years?

Who knows?

We have seen your successor Bob van Dijk’s CV. What other qualities does he have that will help him in his task?

He is one of the sharpest people in e-commerce worldwide. Bob was the head of eBay’s largest operations outside the US and was important at Schibsted Classified Media, the leader in classified ads. That’s exactly the knowledge we need.

Will Van Dijk work from Cape Town?

No. Naspers has two South African units: Media24 under Rachel Jafta as chair and Esmaré Weideman as CEO, and then MultiChoice, with Nolo Letele as chair and Imtiaz Patel as CEO. They live and work in South Africa.

However, our main activities now lie overseas. It doesn’t make much difference where our senior people choose to live. Some like Hong Kong, others prefer Buenos Aires or Poznan in Poland. The most important thing is that they are all connected on the internet and talk to one another day and night.

If we have a physical meeting in, say, Sao Paulo, then we expect everyone to fly in – presto, presto.

» City Press is a Media24 publication.

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