Dy­namic dou­ble act

Finweek English Edition - - People -

“PAS­SION IS EV­ERY­THING,” croons Robert Suss­man, one of two joint CEOs at prom­i­nent tech firm In­tegr8 IT. In his opin­ion, half the bat­tle is won if you can find some­thing you’re pas­sion­ate about and turn it into a money spinner. That’s ex­actly what Suss­man and tech­nol­ogy en­tre­pre­neur Lance Fa­naroff set out to achieve when they struck out as a mod­est, vir­tu­ally in­for­mal, start-up in 2001.

Eight years later they’re as pas­sion­ate about the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try as they ever were – and thriv­ing as busi­ness­men. Both Suss­man and Fa­naroff are fi­nal­ists in the South African chap­ter of the Ernst & Young world en­tre­pre­neur awards in the emerg­ing cat­e­gory.

It’s an odd nom­i­na­tion – two CEOs, that is – but the suc­cess of In­tegr8 IT is the re­sult of a gen­uine part­ner­ship of ex­per­tise. And that’s strangely the strength of their busi­ness model: both Fa­naroff and Suss­man

agree the de­ci­sion of the firm to opt for two CEOs has given them an op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus on their re­spec­tive strengths. Fa­naroff han­dles the busi­ness and mar­ket­ing side, al­low­ing Suss­man – a qual­i­fied elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer – to fo­cus on the tech­nol­ogy that un­der­pins the group’s of­fer­ing.

“I don’t think that the joint CEO ti­tle is all that unique any more,” says Suss­man. He says a num­ber of com­pa­nies in both the listed and un­listed sec­tors are putting a lot of fo­cus on man­age­ment at the top end of their busi­ness and he ex­pects it to be a trend likely to con­tinue as CEOs find them­selves un­der pres­sure to de­liver.

But what hap­pens when the two chiefs dis­agree on the com­pany’s di­rec­tion? “I don’t think we’ve ever ar­gued in terms of where we see the busi­ness headed,” says Fa­naroff.

That’s prob­a­bly be­cause the essence of the part­ner­ship is agree­ment on the com­pany’s over­all strate­gic di­rec­tion. “We’ve al­ways been fo­cused on be­ing an an­nu­ity based busi­ness,” says Suss­man, adding that the days of ICT com­pa­nies talk­ing up their in­fi­nite or “blue sky” po­ten­tial have passed. “We agree that we al­ways in­vest back into the busi­nesses and we’re fo­cused on longterm an­nu­ity ICT ser­vices and on build­ing scal­a­bil­ity and ca­pac­ity for the fu­ture.”

The de­tails are, in the scheme of things, a mat­ter of ex­e­cu­tion. Cer­tainly, the lead­er­ship struc­ture seems to be pay­ing off. Suss­man and Fa­naroff have grown In­tegr8 IT from a start-up in 2001 to a heavy-hit­ter in the ICT sec­tor. So much so it’s cur­rently one of the fastest grow­ing non-listed ICT firms on the African con­ti­nent and pro­vid­ing in­no­va­tive ser­vices and so­lu­tions for many lead­ing cor­po­ra­tions in this coun­try.

In the true sense of South African en­trepreneurs, Suss­man and Fa­naroff ini­tially launched from a flat in Cape Town. Now the com­pany has offices through­out SA and Africa – plus a pres­ence in Bri­tain and the United States – and em­ploys around 500 peo­ple.

As Suss­man casts his mind back to the early days of the start-up, he re­calls the big­gest chal­lenge of get­ting the In­tegr8 IT brand off the ground was build­ing a client base – quickly. “When we started out we had no clients. The hard­est part of our jour­ney was build­ing a com­pany that’s rep­utable and can de­liver the so­lu­tions the client asks for.” Fa­naroff adds: “It’s easy to start a busi­ness: the trick is hav­ing the en­thu­si­asm to keep it go­ing.”

Again, the un­der­ly­ing theme of pas­sion emerges as ref­er­ence point for the two – which is prob­a­bly why ex­e­cu­tion is sel­dom a headache. About that the two are unan­i­mous. Whereas some peo­ple talk about what they’re go­ing to achieve, we ac­tu­ally go out and do it,” says Suss­man. Fa­naroff nods in agree­ment.

And that’s one of the rea­sons the In­tegr8 IT story is syn­ony­mous with suc­cess. “This is prob­a­bly one of the most ex­cit­ing times in the ICT in­dus­try since the Dot­com bust – ex­cept this time there’s un­der­ly­ing value in the sec­tor,” says Fa­naroff. He points to var­i­ous ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing the roll­out of the fi­bre op­tic net­work and the land­ing of un­der­sea ca­bles, which will in­crease con­nec­tiv­ity through­out Africa. Other im­por­tant de­vel­op­ments are the in­flux of Chi­nese and In­dian in­ter­est in the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try on the con­ti­nent and the po­ten­tial to ex­port South African in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty to other coun­tries while keep­ing the skills in Africa.

Says Suss­man: “From an ICT stand­point SA has some of the best skills in the world. Un­for­tu­nately, we’ve seen a lot of tal­ent leave our shores in at­tempts to seek hard cur­rency. How­ever, we’re start­ing to see an in­flux of those same skills back into SA.” The point, he adds, is to seize emerg­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s a get-up-and-go at­ti­tude Suss­man and Fa­naroff be­lieve other young en­trepreneurs should strive to fol­low.

To il­lus­trate the point, Suss­man re­calls a re­cent busi­ness event he was asked to speak at, where big busi­ness was com­ing in for a ham­mer­ing about forced job cuts and re­trench­ments. De­spite the air of neg­a­tiv­ity at the event, Suss­man made the point that more young peo­ple should be de­fy­ing the odds and start­ing up busi­nesses.

“The mind­set has to change and peo­ple need to be en­cour­aged to start their own busi­nesses.” he says.

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