Mathematically gifted alumnus Russell Loubser was fortunate to study “almost exactly” the disciplines that he both enjoyed and needed in his career… and to this day still enjoys. This, in no small measure, contributed to the business success of the former JSE CEO and former council member of the University of Pretoria, who also served as a valuable EMS Faculty Advisory Board member for more than 10 years. Join him on his journey from his student days to the present day where he plays a valuable role in a non-executive capacity at the First Rand Group.
Q: Following your retirement as CEO of the JSE, what were/are your main business/other commitments?
A: I’m very and solely involved with the First Rand Group on a non-executive basis, so I spend much of my free time at the Group. During my 15 years at the JSE, I’ve seen and learnt too often that people accept multiple board positions without adding value. They do not understand the business nor do they attempt to get to know it. Furthermore, they don’t even know whether they can trust the executives, as a result they find themselves in all kinds of trouble.
Primarily, you must be able to trust the executives at a company one hundred percent, not 99 percent. Secondly, you must either already understand the business or be in a position to get to understand it very quickly; otherwise accepting a directorship of a particular company simply does not make sense.
The First Rand Group is massive and complex, but I’m familiar with the group and know that I can trust the executives.
For many years, I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed serving on the council of the University of Pretoria; however I left for a very specific reason.
I also love spending time with my four gorgeous grandchildren, the oldest of whom is only 6, and to keep fit physically by cycling as often as possible. Hitting the road with your bicycle is very good for the legs and heart, in fact for your whole body! The only disadvantage of cycling is when you fall… which invariably happens. I also enjoy playing golf and snow-skiing.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: When you have to decide what you should study and when and whom you should marry, you are actually at your dumbest. The latter is borne out by South Africa’s high divorce rate. And in terms of work, so many people end up doing something completely different from what they studied at university.
I just happened, quite by chance, to study exactly what I really liked. It wasn’t planned. At school I was good at mathematics, that’s why I did a master’s degree in statistics. Though I didn’t really know what the work of an actuary entails, I dearly wanted to become one. I just knew that if you wanted to be an actuary, you needed to be good at mathematics.
While I was busy with my master’s degree, I played a lot of sport with many CAs. Curious why I had opted for a master’s degree in statistics and wanted to become an actuary (who, in their opinion, sits in a back room and does sums all day long), they instead suggested that I also become a Chartered Accountant (CA) to enjoy a much broader work experience.
Therefore, after completing my master’s, I started articles and became a CA after which I went straight into investment banking where I needed both skills sets. Just like there are many CAs who are not mathematically strong, there are mathematicians who are not strong from an accounting point of view, therefore in business it helps to have both qualifications. So, purely by chance, I was lucky to study almost exactly the disciplines that I both enjoyed and needed, and that I to this day still enjoy. This, in no small measure, contributed to my career success.
Q: Given your academic experience at UP, what advice can you pass on to current students?
A: To be pragmatic: you must study what you really like. There is no point in studying something that you don’t enjoy, perhaps even hate. I know dentists, doctors and lawyers who in fact admit to hating their jobs.
Secondly, if you’re not a ‘trust baby’ and you need to earn a living, it’s better to have a qualification that not many other people have. It stands to reason that if something is easy to study, more people will choose this than something more difficult. Therefore, if you opt for a more difficult degree course, your chances of earning a living will be better.
So, besides encouraging youngsters to study something that they really like and enjoy, I would advise them that they should also do the difficult stuff. Sure, it’s human nature to tackle something easier, but then you need to remember lots of people will follow suit, making competition in the workplace considerably fiercer.
Lastly: for heaven’s sake, don’t quit studying! The better qualified you are, the better it will be for you. Also, the best time to study is when you’re young when you don’t have too many other commitments. So, do as much as possible, as hard as possible, when you’re as young as possible.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the foundation of a successful business/company/consultancy/organisation?
A: This is a topic on its own, but to keep it simple, I’d say whatever you are going to work on or at, first and foremost bear in mind the client. There’s no point in first developing a product/service and then, come hell or high water, try to sell it to the client. Rather the starting point should be the prospective client and the product or service he/she needs/wants.
Normally, you would also need colleagues – and the choice of one’s colleagues is vital. It’s all too easy to make a bad decision where the people around you give you the wrong advice or have their own hidden agendas. There are so many examples across the world where generally good people ended up in a bad situation because, in terms of colleagues, they just took the wrong turn. While it’s also important to ensure diversity on all levels, there should be only one agenda, namely to develop the product or service that the client will want and to deliver the goods accordingly, thus ensuring a solid, successful business.
Q: Which business/trade-related publications (magazines/newspapers/blogs, etc) do you enjoy reading?
A: I read extensively. Unlike in my younger years when I enjoyed reading fiction, it’s been years since I last read a novel. Because of my commitment to the First Rand Group, these days I focus solely on business news and topics, and I try to read The Economist as often as possible. Indulging in world, as well as South African history (which I hated at school!) is another favourite pastime. For example, besides having read the English version of the Koran, I’ve also read a lot about Islam in general. While I’m not religious at all, I do read a lot about religion because I’ve come to the conclusion that religion can sometimes cause more problems than what it can solve. And then I also spend a lot of time reading about all the infamous politicians that the world has had to endure. It would seem that every country has an abundance of useless and crooked politicians.
Q: What really inspires and motivates you personally?
A: Making, or having money doesn’t motivate me in the least. For me it is important to be physically fit and healthy. In fact, in my 70 years I cannot recall any stage where I was unfit. Likewise, for me it’s very important to be mentally stimulated, consistently.
Nowadays, it’s also very important to spend time with my grandchildren. By the same token, to have many friends is not remotely important; instead the few that I do have, are genuine friends with whom I can enjoy a nice meal and a bottle of wine… just the simple things in life.
On the other hand, the level of corruption and incompetence that is evident all over the world, irritates and demotivates me immensely.
Q: If you could have a face-to-face meeting with either an inspiring person or a controversial leader – in any domain – who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
A: To have the opportunity to sit opposite Donald Trump and properly interrogate him for at least 45 minutes, will be a wonderful highlight for me. While he won’t like my questions, he will simply be forced to answer them so that I can hopefully determine how it is possible that out of 330 million people in the US, a majority of voters are prepared to be led by this complete idiot.
Q: Going forward, what would you still like to achieve?
A: I would still like to breathe for quite a while… not just breathe, but breathe from a healthy body.
Sometimes I also really wouldn’t mind to have a platform from which to voice either my delight or, most of the time, my utter disgust at what is going on all around us where incompetence, corruption and plain stupidity abound. But maybe it’s better that I don’t.
Q: COVID-19 has dealt the South African economy a devastating blow. Are you optimistic that we will be able to rise from the proverbial ‘ashes’?
A: I believe we will overcome this setback, but unfortunately it will take time. The pandemic has put the world and South Africa back by years. Moreover, this virus is not going to be here today and gone tomorrow, it does not have a sell-by date, so what the world now desperately needs is an effective vaccine that will prove to be a real game-changer. However, when you’ve damaged the economy so badly and have borrowed money that you can ill afford to pay back, the economy will take a long, long time to recover. My children have time, my grandchildren have time… but, sadly, many of us don’t have the luxury of time.