A Google search for Koos Bekker’s name produces 33,000 hits, which might be expected of the CEO of Africa’s biggest media company. The word “entrepreneur” pops up many times in a web search on his name. Recent news reports announce his return to office after a year-long sabbatical where he, among other things, learnt about robotics in Japan and fast broadband in Korea. Lesser known, perhaps, is that he also travelled to Mongolia (“because no-one I know had ever been there”), visited the Amish in Pennsylvania, USA, and spent some time at a naval base in Kaliningrad, Russia. These were just a few stops on his 22-country tour.
“For our group, the most exciting countries are India, China, Brazil, Russia and Poland, because they are fastgrowing and ambitious. Education there emphasises engineering,” he says.
“For many years China and India saw their brightest engineers and scientists emigrating… but that flow has now reversed. These days one can hardly persuade a bright Chinese or Indian engineer to work abroad because those countries are sizzling. With the net flow back of expertise from the US and Europe also comes millions of new jobs created by returning entrepreneurs.”
Bekker wishes the situation was similar in South Africa. “That is one of Naspers’s biggest problems at the moment. Bright, younger people are emigrating at an unprecedented pace. It is a brain drain that’s costing the country dearly.”
What makes one country grow rapidly and another stagnate?
“During my travels over the past year I’ve seen successful economies and failing societies. It’s not about mineral wealth or race or location. An important ingredient seems to be self-confidence. Some communities believe in themselves and others not.
“Perhaps it’s like a sports team on a winning streak. The team wins today because it won last week; the previous victory built self-confidence. But if the team starts losing, that very fact already undermines its confidence for the game to come. At the moment South Africans seem to lack, the confidence to back themselves.”
What would you want to change in South Africa?
“For example, the broadband mess. Today South Africa has the lowest penetration of broadband relative to cell phone usage in the entire world. This is a result of policy failures keeping the private sector paralysed.
“In a country like Korea, almost every single home has broadband. This allows kids to download video clips for their school projects, doctors to study video of operations done in the US, miners to pull down complex geological data. Some poorer countries have outdone us. China’s per capital income is lower than ours, yet the average internet user there has upgraded to broadband.
“Lack of broadband due to misguided policies is hurting every sector of our society.”
How did it all start?
Koos Bekker completed a BA degree in law and an honours degree in literature at the University of Stellenbosch, where he was the editor of the student newspaper Die Matie. An LLB at Wits followed. But soon after starting work in the legal profession, he resigned – to the dismay of his family – and joined an advertising agency to learn about market research.
In 1982, he enrolled at Colombia University in New York for a Master’s degree in business administration. The first pay-TV channels had recently started in the US and Bekker chose the subject for a thesis. Two years later, with colleagues Cobus Stofberg and Jac van der Merwe, he approached then Naspers MD, Ton Vosloo, with the idea for a pay-TV venture in South Africa. Together with Canal Plus of France, these were the first pay-TV ventures anywhere in the world outside the US.
All the local publishers of daily newspapers formed a consortium to finance the project. After half a year on air, they were losing R3.5-million a month on a turnover of barely R0.5-million. But when the first decoders for private houses rolled off the production lines, the concept took off. M-Net led to the formation of several companies like MTN and the technology company Irdeto. MultiChoice was born in 1990, which today offers pay-TV channels in multiple languages to more than 50 countries in Africa.
Koos Bekker’s favourites:
TV shows – “I watch television for work, not for fun. Though I do enjoy The History Channel.”
Newspapers – “I devour the Financial Times weekend edition and The New York Times Sunday edition, in particular. But the standard of our South African newspapers is quite good for an economy our size.”
Magazines – “Mostly business rags like Forbes, Fortune and Finance Week. Also book reviews, gardening and literature mags.”
Books – “Biographies, technology and the odd novel. I read three books at once, browsing a bit here and a bit there. In our trade things move so quickly, every week something new pops (up).”
Radio shows – “In the car I need to think and radio intrudes on that. Except if my daughter is the DJ on MFM Stellenbosch: I like her voice.”
Naspers started investing in new technology years ago. As early as May 2001, it bought into Tencent, which operates an instant messaging platform in China. Over the past two years, it has also bought a 30% minority stake in the leading Russian internet company Mail.ru. Last December it acquired the internet auctioneer Tradus, which operates in Poland, Hungary, the Ukraine and other East European countries. Naspers also holds an interest in Grupo Abril, Brazil’s second-biggest media company, plus the local messaging service MXit Lifestyle.
What proportion of Naspers’s revenue is now being generated offshore?
“If you look at value, somewhat less than half lies in South Africa, somewhat more than half offshore. Today, Naspers’s main foreign asset bases are in Brazil, China, India, Russia and Poland, plus most of the sub-Saharan African continent. South Africa is still our most important single market and our home base, but I just don’t see a spate of new launches here in the year ahead.”
What factors does the company consider when choosing a country to invest in?
“One looks for a few factors: Is it a welcoming environment in terms of regulation? How much corruption, what growth rate? We specifically scan for engineering and software skills, which the internet needs.”
Would foreigners today invest in South Africa?
“If you were sitting in Singapore and had a kitty to invest, you could pick one of many countries. South Africa has distinct positives – a fair-sized country, it’s extraordinarily beautiful and its skills base outside of engineering isn’t bad. Clearly the negatives of corruption, crime and the current political impasse could cause the investor to hesitate. Our job as citizens is to fix those uncertainties.
“But it seems to me that South Africa’s problems are less intractable than those of some other countries. For example, how could Iraq stitch together its religious divide? Our issues can be solved. With good management, there’s no reason we can’t be a success story.”
Would you ever leave?
“No. I find that the reds are redder and the blues are bluer here; it’s too interesting.”
How do you balance work and your personal life?
Bekker, who has two children in their early 20s, is married to Karen Roos, the editor of Elle DÃƒÂ©cor in the Avusa stable. He says she prefers not to work for Media24 – “because if our magazine chief fires her, I’ll have hell to pay”. “We don’t talk business at home. It’s important to have some balance in your life and not to take your title too seriously. People who can’t disconnect, sooner or later mess up.”
Who is your natural successor?
“There are lots of competent people in our group. Several are more able and polished than I am.
“I have a five-year appointment now. The first requirement is to survive – globally, this is a dangerous occupation. At the end of each year, my secretary scratches out the names of those in my phonebook who have been fired. Virtually no media CEO’s are left from ten years ago. Some made mistakes; some companies collapsed; some were overtaken by better technologies. This industry is tough.”
Bekker was instrumental in bringing pay-TV to South Africa. Now, for the first time, MultiChoice is facing new competition, although it is clear that the new pay- TV channels will struggle to give it a run for its money.
Does Bekker believe there is room for more than one pay-TV channel in the South African market?
“Yes, easily. But the way to succeed is to be original and do something new. There are enormous possibilities. So far Telkom has wasted money on copycat ideas. One only requires massive capital for a new venture if you are duplicating an existing service and the consumer can’t see a difference. The intelligent way to compete is to ask what you can provide the consumer that others do not already offer.”
That is the principle that Naspers applied with its international internet offerings. “No player can fully satisfy all the consumer’s needs. When we launched our internet offerings, we did not try to compete with Yahoo, for instance – in each country we looked at what was not adequately provided.
“Real progress doesn’t come from boardrooms where money is thrown at PowerPoint presentations. One needs young people sitting around in a garage thinking originally. I fundamentally believe in young people; they experiment more. In our business most new things come from bright sparks under 35.”
Ã¢Â–Â This article first appeared in The Media magazine.