Dynamic double act
“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.