Iqbal Survé has quit as Sekunjalo Investments chairman after 14 years, leaving some to wonder whether his departure was linked to the bad press about Sekunjalo Investment Holdings’ swoop on the Independent Media group. Giulietta Talevi asks the questions.
Why step down now?
I’ve been CEO and chairman together for 14 years. We’ve made some really good strategic investments, with British Telecom, Pioneer Foods, Saab and others, and the management team that has overseen that has proved itself and developed a very good track record. It was just the right time.
They say one of the most difficult things as chairman or CEO is that you never know when to leave. The company’s in a super position: it’s got a strong balance sheet, good investments, strong cash flows and the management team is now seasoned and ready to take it on.
Do you feel frustrated that the market has ignored Sekunjalo? The stock hit a high of 230c in 1999 but has languished for a decade and only really moved recently?
Not at all. My advice, if I can say that to the management team, has always been focus on the business. Get the fundamentals right. It doesn’t matter what happens out there, what matters is what you do. Once you create value, people will recognise the value over time, and if you look at the fact that the underlying asset base has exceeded R1-billion, operating cash flows are almost close to R100-million… We were not at all concerned about whether the share price was high or low.
Sure, but shareholders want a return.
Yes, sure, and we’ve given them enough of a return in terms of the asset value. If you go back to 1999, the underlying value of the business was about R200m and today it’s sitting at R1-billion… plus. The question is what is the type of model that you want to have in business? Do you want to have a short-term model, which is what a lot of fund managers ask for, or do you want to have a long-term model that builds the business and the country?
Will you sell your shares in Sekunjalo Investments?
No, because I believe that the current management team will build this up, hopefully, to another R2-billion in the next five years or so. So I’m a long-term investor.
There have been some murmurings that you stepped down to deflect a bit of the flak taken over the Independent purchase.
It’s the first time, to be perfectly frank, that I’ve heard that.
Is that a fair implication?
No, it’s absolute nonsense. It’s the kind of fiction that people keep on writing. They should be in a Harry Potter book, not in financial publications.
It’s very simple. It’s 14 years I’ve been at the helm, it’s time to hand over the baton, and time to give the rest of the management team and the board the opportunity to grow the business … I don’t pay any attention to gossip — it’s been my strength. And thirdly, I implement a strategy which is good for the businesses and I keep to that.
But there are increased commitments that I do have — I was appointed by the president to the Brics council. I’ve got two really important appointments globally; I’m on the advisory board of the Global Growth Companies of the World Economic Forum. And recently I was appointed vice-chairman of the Global Agenda Council for emerging multinationals. And then I’m chairman of the South Africa-Saudi Arabia Business Council. I’m chairman of the Graduate School of Business of UCT. But I’m also someone who reads a lot, I do yoga, I love to exercise, enjoy good dinners, people. So my life is busy. It’s been busy since I was a teenager.
And the Independent?
The Independent is the only company in the media space that has had net employment in the past year. Do you know how many retrenchments there’ve been at Independent? Take a guess. First, let me tell you how many editorial people I’ve employed — just under 40, okay. How many people have I retrenched? Nine — isn’t that amazing in this economic environment for a media company?
Do you regret buying into media, with declining newspaper revenues?
I don’t know where it’s declining, certainly not at the Independent. I don’t know what’s happening to our competitors, but we’re having a marvellous time.
Really? Are you?
We sorted out the circulation, revenues are coming in, content solutions — you’ve got to watch this space. Giulietta, you’ve got to come and work for me one of these days, not that rag!
I don’t think Business Day’s going to survive, it can’t survive; Financial Mail can’t survive because they’ve not put in place the technologies and innovative solutions that the team that I’ve appointed at Independent has put in place.
I don’t run Independent: I’ve appointed 20 people, of which 14 are veterans of the industry. I’ve recruited people from overseas to join us; I’ve brought back expatriates, people from India. I can sit back today at Independent and just allow the management team to run [it] because I’ve appointed superb people.
Things couldn’t be better. We’ve launched a new title, Northern News; we’re launching a Sunday paper to compete with your Sunday Times, which we don’t think has a future. You know, we think Business Day will not exist in two year’s time, with the revamped Business Report.
So, you don’t regret it?
Look, this is a fantastic investment. It’s got great people. The transformation of Independent into a media house that is reporting fairly, objectively, is what the country needs…
As with the listed Sekunjalo, my approach is not to try to build Rome in one day, right? My net employment this year is 69 people. What media company has done that? And by the way, I’m going to employ probably another 50 people in six months. From Times Media, on my desk, I’m sitting with about 14 CVs.
But your newspapers’ circulation is dropping?
We took a lot of free copies out as we wanted a baseline for real numbers. In some titles there has been a drop. In other titles, there has been an increase. We’ve also taken out the cost associated with the free copies, and we’ve been able to show a net increase in profitability in [some] titles.
Do you feel the media are too harsh on the government?
I don’t particularly worry myself about the issue of the government, or this or that. For me, the issue is that my editors must operate on the following principles: non-racialism, social cohesion, balance, fairness.
I think the Sunday Times has lost its soul. It’s not good for our country; it’s a terrible publication. It doesn’t understand that we have to build our democracy.
Sure, but you must expose corruption.
A 100% and I couldn’t agree with you more, and our papers have been consistently doing that — but at the same time, we’re inviting comment, a diversity of viewpoints.
We should get all the media owners together and talk about the future of media.
What about those who buy media for political influence?
I think anybody that buys the media for influence is smoking something. [However], I can understand why maybe Koos Bekker thought he could do that, or the Afrikaners who thought they could influence the media, or Oppenheimer.
I’m a global businessman; I understand what’s happening in the media globally.
You could argue that a paper like The New Age exists to exert influence.
I don’t know what my competitors try. I know the Sunday Times tries to exert influence; they try to take a particular point of view, that’s what the editor wants. For the first time, a South African media house is saying, ‘Hey guys, let’s create the future together, let’s have balance in our society, let’s be critical and supportive’. Our competitors are stuck in the paradigm of the past.
I’m a doctor, that’s why I understand the future of this country.
Would you say then that you’ve been unfairly pilloried by your competitors?
I don’t pay attention to the noise, I’ve told you that.
I’m a scientist, I’ve got multiple degrees and I’ve learnt one thing in life: you understand the facts; you don’t listen to nonsense.
Some people paint you as someone with an ego who throws his weight around. Do you think that’s unfair?
I don’t know which people you talk about. I’m a scientist; you’ve got to speak to the facts. Everyone in life has an ego. I think those people [who say that], whoever they may be, need some psychoanalysis.
You know, when I did my American fellowship, what I loved about Americans [was] the confidence and the belief Americans have in what they do. And that’s why Elon Musk has become such a huge success.
I think, as South Africans, we must understand that, when we have people in business or civil society or academia that have the confidence and belief to do things, we must support them.
Giulietta Talevi is companies and markets editor at Business Day TV.
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