Where there is a will, there is a way. Esteemed alumnus, Russell du Preez (52), founder and chairman of investment house RussellStone Group and owner of the popular Pretoria eatery, Varsity Bakery, clearly demonstrated this when he recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Agricultural Economics during the University of Pretoria’s (UP) autumn 2021 graduation session. Despite being dyslectic, he not only persevered with his studies; he also achieved remarkable success as an entrepreneur. Read more about his inspiring life’s journey and future goals below.
Q: Briefly summarise your studies and your professional career, with special mention of specific highlights/milestones.
A: I studied from 1987-1991 for a BCom in Economics, followed by a full-time Honours in Economics. I barely managed to obtain university admission as I had four Es and 2 Ds in matric (grade 12). The reason for my low grades is my reading problem – I am dyslectic – and to this day I struggle with reading and spelling.
My dream was to be a stock exchange trader and I tried to get onto the JSE floor. That did not happen, so I started my first business shortly after completing my university studies. By chance I ended up in the agricultural field and developed a career /business in that field.
Today we employ over 1000 people and this would undoubtedly be the greatest highlight. Other highlights were to attract international investors to learn this side of investing. My most recent highlight was receiving my master’s degree.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: I always believed that I was academically not quite ‘up there’; studying never came easy and I just, just made it. Economics, without the stats side, came easier and I could clearly see the macro side. Yet I always thought that I would have to keep on learning to catch up to the rest, but I managed to complete my degree in three years. As a result, my studies gave me confidence and I realised that I was in fact not all that stupid. My studies opened an understanding of the world and I appreciate the positive role academics played in broadening my vision of the world.
Q: Can you single out a special mentor/trusted advisor who played an indispensable role in your life/studies/career?
A: My parents believed in me; that I could do anything. I had many mentors, but what changed my view on business were the Pro Munere Gratis lectures by honorary professor, Dr Anton Rupert, at UP’s Department of Industrial Economics.
These guided and inspired me to do what I currently do. I believe that by being ‘conscious’ during every meeting with any person, you in fact have lots of mentors. From some, you learn how you would like to be, from others how you do not want to be. These days, I have more ‘intentional’ mentors: from spiritual messages and quotes by Jean Symons to business guru Pieter van Niekerk, and many others.
Q: Given your academic experience at UP, what advice can you pass on to current students?
A: Learning is a way to wisdom and this process never ends. Academics will be just one of the roads to get you there. Strive to be a lifelong learner and be conscious about it!
Q: What really inspires and motivates you personally?
To create real jobs and start businesses.
To see new opportunities and bring them to fruition.
To build companies that last.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the foundation of a successful business/company/consultancy/organisation?
A: Sound principles, a proven moral code and providing solutions to people’s problems. You have no relevancy if you are not solving problems. People development and purposefulness greatly assist with this process.
Q: Which business/trade-related publications (magazines/newspapers/blogs, etc) do you enjoy reading?
A: Currently I prefer listening to audio books and cover at least 2-3 books a month. I also enjoy reading general Google articles on specific topics.
Q: If you could have a face-to-face meeting with an inspiring person – in any domain – who sets an example in transforming the world and inspiring others to do the same, who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
A: I would like to meet Ray Dalio from Bridgewater Associates and discuss with him how market fundamentals work and which principles he considers fundamental to achieve success in life.
Q: Going forward, what are your professional/business/personal goals?
A: To build a company that lasts at least 100 years, employing some 5000 people. This, in my book, is the best way to serve society. You also need to be an international player to hedge your risks.
Q: Since late 2019, COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What is the biggest ‘lesson’ you’ve learnt from this pandemic and to what extent did it change your mindset?
A: To have a business model that delivers…in any circumstances. We had one of our best years ever in a volatile environment. We need to be more flexible with our approach to business and macroeconomics. I am more inclined to build a ‘robust’ business.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for South Africa and its people for the rest of this decade...and beyond?
A: I sincerely hope that Government becomes more accountable and not only encourages a productive economy, but in fact creates the necessary structures that would enable it. The only way to create wealth is through production; and entrepreneurs are the only way to distribute wealth and improve living standards. The more jobs, the better quality of life, for all.
We also need to look at property rights and the question that comes to mind, is what was the fertile ground that started the Industrial Revolution? It was the introduction of individual property rights and the right to ‘own’ your own thinking through intellectual property.
This is what started the system to develop new ideas and profit from it. The South African Constitution is the corner stone for all, and I hope that it will stay intact.
The process or time it takes to get to a resolution is also of utmost importance. We will have to examine the real problems in this country – and address them! We need, for example, to look at solid nutrition for small children and pregnant women, for this will ensure a good foundation for development. Ultimately, a sound nurturing process will secure fertile soil to develop people.
My master’s topic, in essence, was that if you do not acknowledge property rights, food security will suffer. There is a clear correlation between food security and property rights.