Daily Maverick

Koos Bekker’s Billions: tycoon under the microscope

What did a boy who grew up on a mealie farm do to build such a fortune? Read an edited excerpt from the new book

- by TJ Strydom

Under Koos Bekker, Naspers made several bad investment­s, a few mediocre ones, a few good ones … and one that shot the lights out. A modest bet on Chinese technology start-up Tencent changed Bekker’s destiny. Was this genius, strategy or just plain old good luck?

TJ Strydom is a business writer who has worked for Reuters, the Sunday Times, Financial Mail and Beeld. Koos Bekker’s Billions, his second non-fiction title, is a fascinatin­g look into the life of a very private billionair­e. Here is an edited excerpt.

In 1970, a schoolboy claimed victory over an establishe­d part of South Africa’s entertainm­ent industry. Strangely, judging by his reputation later in life, Jacobus Petrus Bekker used an old medium to outmanoeuv­re a newer one.

The battle for eyeballs took place in Heidelberg, 50km southeast of Johannesbu­rg, where Bekker, known to all as Koos, was his school’s best speaker and chair of the debating society. To rejuvenate public discourse at the Hoër Volkskool, his committee livened up their events by making discussion­s more topical, pushing “shy guys” to pitch in and limiting musical interludes to only the best, wrote Bekker in the 1970 yearbook.

The result: well-attended debates, a willingnes­s to participat­e and an enthusiast­ic audience. “Even the allure of slipping out to the drive-in theatre during debating evenings seems to be dying a natural death,” Bekker boasted...

And he was not wrong about the imminent death of the drive-in ... movie magic would find a new parking spot in the decades that followed...

[Bekker] played in the first cricket team, won the regional trophy as part of the first tennis team, and even led the second rugby team to victory in its league that year.

And he was clever to boot – the dux pupil who passed Afrikaans, English, Mathematic­s and Physical Science with distinctio­n... he was head boy too. And head prefects get to say their farewells: “Whatever each of us might accomplish, it will not only be a personal achievemen­t, but an achievemen­t in which the Heidelberg Volkskool also had a stake.”

In this case, it turned out to be a stake worth a tidy sum half a century later ... a footnote below the chair’s remunerati­on for 2020 in the Naspers annual report reads: “Koos Bekker elected to donate the rand equivalent of his director’s fees, being R2.1m (pre-tax), to education. This year the recipient was the Hoër Volkskool in Heidelberg.”

Who can pass on a R2.1-million pay cheque? A dollar billionair­e.

“I’m not convinced that great wealth is really correlated to happiness,” Bekker told a room of MBA graduates in the Netherland­s in 2014.

“Beyond a certain point, money is pretty pointless and certainly not worth devoting your life to.”

In January, Forbes put Bekker’s fortune at $2.8-billion – the world’s 1,008th richest.

Even if you ignore his property portfolio and

cash raked in with share sales, it still adds up to a bundle. Making a conservati­ve estimate ... will get you to R16-billion ($1-billion-plus) in 2022.

Something happened between 1970 and 2020. Bekker dabbled in media and investment­s and made himself billions. But how? What did a boy who grew up on a mealie farm do to build such a fortune?

Bekker studied languages, law and literature at Stellenbos­ch University, dabbled in student journalism and met his future wife, Karen Roos. He then moved to the north and, while doing an LLB at Wits University, he had his introducti­on to the business of television, filling in as translator for the dubbing of dramas and documentar­ies. He tried his hand at being a state prosecutor, but soon quit. Next, he worked in advertisin­g...

By the early 1980s, with South Africa descending into violence in apartheid’s deadly final decade, they had decided to leave the country...

“I went to America to go and work there. I did not want to come back. It was the 1980s, and South Africa looked quite grim.”

A few years later, he did return, to start pay-TV company M-Net. When it became profitable, Bekker stitched together a business across than a dozen countries on the continent, selling it for a tidy profit.

M-Net was the first of the M-group of companies he founded. The others – MIH, MTN and MWeb – could have been a decent success story for any entreprene­ur. Bekker took it to another level.

In 1997, he became CEO of Nasionale Pers. This book takes a closer look at Bekker’s approach to business. His was a clever combinatio­n of reading the wind, throwing caution to the wind and embracing the winds of change. Over more than four decades he used 15 methods to give him the best chance of making it big. If you like, call it the “how to make billions” listicle (number 10 will shock you!).

Koos Bekker’s Billions by TJ Strydom, published by Penguin Random House (R280).

 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa