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Acing the business world

Altron's Robbie Venter believes the things he learned playing professional tennis helped him make a success of his business career.

Read time 9min 10sec

It must be a traumatic moment to acknowledge you will never be the top contender in your chosen career, and take the decision to do something else instead. To decide that being very good isn't enough, if you can't be excellent.

It's surprisingly moving to hear Altron's CEO, Robbie Venter, describe that moment when he realised his dream career as an international tennis player wasn't feasible.

Venter had excelled in tennis at Boxburg High School and represented SA at Wimbledon and the French Open on the junior international circuit. He won a tennis scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and took a degree in economics, then played professionally from 1982 to 1985.

“It was a great experience. I travelled the world and got exposed to people and things I'd never have experienced if it wasn't for tennis,” he says. “But there was a point when I realised I wasn't going to be in the top 10. I wasn't going to make a career out of tennis. So after three years on the tour and a few injuries, I just looked in the mirror one morning and said, 'It's not going to happen - you're not going to get there'.”

Even now, almost 30 years later, he still looks a little melancholic when he tells the tale. His life had revolved around tennis from the age of seven through to his mid-20s, demanding four or five hours of practice every day.

“It's a very competitive environment and there's not a lot that separates number 100 from number 10 in the world, but there's something that unites them. A lot of players fall into the trap of thinking 'next year', but the next thing you know, you're in your 30s and the only qualification you have is tennis, so you become a tennis teacher. I really didn't want to do that.”

The decision hardly left Venter floundering to find an alternative career, however, since his father, Bill, was the founder and CEO of the Altron group. It was always assumed that his sons, Robbie and Craig, would join him when they were ready.

Venter returned to UCLA to take an MBA, then joined the now-defunct Bears Stern investment bankers. “If I wasn't going to be a successful tennis player, I definitely wanted to be successful in the business environment,” he says. In 1990, when SA's politics were loosening, he decided to return. “I always knew I'd migrate back at some point, but I wanted to do my own thing first,” he says. “I felt I had enough experience outside the group in the fast-moving investment banking environment, and I felt I was ready to take on some responsibility in the family business.”

No silver spoon

Venter will never forget what his father said when he phoned to announce his return. “He said, 'that's fine, but there's no silver spoon in your mouth. You are going to have to start at the bottom and get a job like anybody else'. At the time, that was harsh medicine, but looking back, it was the best thing.” He left a swanky office overlooking the ocean in California to work in a windowless office near Soweto as a salesman for light fittings. The division was a perennial under-performer, so Venter really had to earn his stripes. “I'll give myself a B+ as a salesman,” he grins.

He had been with the group for 11 years when he succeeded his father as Altron CEO in 2011. Having worked his way up through the ranks made him widely accepted by the staff and the investment community. “There are always people who say you got the position because of your surname, but our board went through a very thorough process. There were a few sceptics, but the best way to turn those sceptics around is by your performance.”

Initially he feared that the ever-present Bill Venter would not let go of the company he had created. “He has such a strong hands-on reputation that my worry was that I wouldn't be given the space to do what I needed to do to fulfil my job. Initially, he played an active role, but he's now stepped back to a non-executive role and doesn't interfere with the day-to-day operations. He likes to be kept informed and consulted on major decisions that affect the company and he's a great sounding board.”

Venter says his management style is quite different, although he hastily points out that doesn't mean one style is right and one is wrong.

“When a business earns R23 billion in revenue, you have to be able to delegate to a team that can help you manage the business. I wouldn't say I'm a hands-off manager, but we run a very decentralised model where people are given responsibilities, which I think people like to have. If things aren't going right, you become a lot more focused on those areas. If people are performing and the business is successful, our approach is very much towards a decentralised business model.”

His first task as CEO was to streamline the unwieldy group structure, which housed about 10 listed entities. Altron is now the holding company for Altech, Powertech and Bytes.

Then came a period of growth, followed by cost-cutting when the recession hit. Venter now sees a brighter economic outlook and plans to grow again by finding new markets, selling more products to existing customers and through acquisitions.

He's still grateful for his prowess in tennis, which paved the way for his business career by allowing him to tour the world, meet influential people, study in America and learn discipline and perseverance.

“A lot of lessons from tennis apply in day-to-day business activities, like the hard work ethic, integrity, determination and the competitive spirit. A lot of top leaders have been successful athletes and the discipline and competitiveness stand you in good stead in the business environment.”

If I wasn't going to be a successful tennis player, I definitely wanted to be successful in the business environment.

Robbie Venter, Altron

He's still trim, athletic and ageing well, although he no longer plays tennis. His exercise regime often starts at 5:30am, with running, boxing, weightlifting and a general workout.

It's not only in management style that Venter differs from his father. Bill's notorious love life now sees him in, what, his fifth marriage? Venter shrugs and says he's lost count, then looks sheepish, as if he's already anticipating trouble for that wisecrack. Robbie has been with the same woman for 26 years. “I was very careful around that,” he says. “I lived with my wife for eight or nine years before we got married so we've been together for 26 years now. I was fortunate enough to find the right one the first time around.”

Sara is now a housewife, but was previously successful in public relations and worked on the Miss Universe pageant. I ask whether she is a former Miss Universe herself and Venter says no, although she could have been. Because Sara is American and because Venter so enjoyed studying in California, they want their daughters of 17 and 15 to take their degrees in the US as well. The girls are currently at an American school in England. Wanting an American education isn't a negative reflection on SA, he says. “I'm more positive now than I have ever been in terms of the future here. But American university was such a great experience that we think it would be good for our children.”

Venter is optimistic about SA's prospects, however, both for its business and political climate. Although businesses are frequently criticised for failing to speak out against potentially harmful or disruptive policies, Altron participates in various forums that engage with the government. “We have a big role to play and a responsibility to do that, but I think it's best done in those forums rather than by creating headlines,” he says.

His brother, Craig, the CEO of Altech, seems far more confrontational, and famously took the Department of Communications to court in a battle over telecoms licences. Altech won, gaining the company and many others the right to develop their own telecoms networks in competition to Telkom.

“We as Altech's shareholder were intimately involved in that decision and believed in the strength of that case,” Venter says. “We eventually exhausted all avenues until court was the only one left. We did the industry a great favour and it helped to liberate our telecoms industry.” But legal action really is the last resort, he stresses, in a statement that emphasises a placid nature that would rather persuade than picket or protest.

Goals

Venter says he's happy with the double pleasures of running a successful business and having two children who make him proud. He would like to spend more time with them, but business responsibilities don't always allow that. “That's one of the things that would make me happier, but I'm pleased to be in the position I'm in. If I look back, I've had a number of goals. The first goal was to be successful as a tennis player and get a good university degree, and I got that. To have the opportunity to run a business and impact on 13 500 people's lives who work in the structure is a great honour. And to have decent kids who make you proud with their achievements is very good.”

Venter may retire to America's west coast at some stage, but at 52, he has no short-term plans to change anything. “As is often the case with family businesses, once you get into them, it's a lifetime commitment,” he says. “I don't have any dreams to start my own business or go into different fields or buy a wine farm. My family does own a game farm and I spend a lot of time enjoying that. I find it very therapeutic and a great environment to think and make some strategic decisions.”

First published in the August 2012 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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