You shall overcome…
The other day someone struggling a bit in their business (and life) asked me how my (and I’m reading between the lines here) ‘privileged upbringing’ and ‘resultant education’ helped me succeed in business.
The story I’m about to tell you here is the beginning of my journey; well, about thirty years of it in any case.
It may surprise many, but it’s not the story you may have expected.
Maybe I will tell the rest of the story later, but hopefully, this will inspire some.
The point is that it is dangerous to assume that you know someone else's back-story and struggles. So don't assume.
My dad died when I was 11, so there was never money to throw around, even when he was alive. Of course, anyone who had teachers for parents knows that being a teacher is a calling; you certainly don’t do it for the money!
After his death, Mon started studying again at a revivalist Baptist Seminary and became one of the first ordained female ministers in South Africa. That being said, Baptists are very conservative, so she was never allowed to lead a congregation. So she pretty much worked as an evangelist and pastoral counselor (getting a stipend, not a minister’s salary), which, in any case, much like that of teachers, is low, to say the least.
Right throughout my life, money was always tight!
I got a bursary to study engineering but lost it when my final math results were a disaster when I finished school; there were many reasons, but it’s on me; I messed it up.
So I went to seminary, and after a break of two years as a conscript in the army, I completed my Diploma in Theology and Ministry.
We could but get degrees because the ‘sects’ could not go to university for religious education in those days.
I worked for three months as a proponent in a small rural congregation but realized that the ministry was not for me; at least it gave me some free (unaccredited) education because mom worked for the church. Not very commercial, but as it turned out, I realized some of the benefits of doing social science subjects at the seminary later in life.
I started working and attending evening classes at the local Technicon (Polytechnic) and completed year one of the three-year National Diploma while working for a boss. I then started my first business with two mates (selling PC clone computers), then I married so that education experiment ended very abruptly.
Still wanting something behind my name, I enrolled for a course at the US-based ICS. It was sanction years, and US companies pulled out of South Africa. I don’t know what the deal was, but I was enrolled in a South African correspondence college called Intec when I wiped out my eyes. Call it vocational education if you want — but once again, in today’s terms — useless because it was unaccredited and already then dated.
Then in my third business — the 1st one a disaster and selling the second one for a pittance — I moved to the Southern Cape after we got a significant contract there.
I enrolled in a correspondence program with Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. They allowed one to get advanced placement in an MBA after completing three subjects (without holding a Bachelors’s degree).
I did two courses, wrote and passed one of the exams, and my first son was born, prompting the end to that attempt.
In the meantime, we sold the business to a national concern (for shares in the bigger company — not cash).
Two years later, we realized that the holding company was in trouble, and we begged and borrowed to find enough money to do an MBO of the branch. Now ladened with tons of debt, we struggled on.
And then the big surprise! A year later, the Sheriff knocked on our door to collect assets because of the debts of the holding company we had just bought ourselves out.
We explained that we are no longer a part of the company, went to an attorney, who informed us that we have a case against the holding company’s directors because they did not disclose that they ceded all group company assets as surety for a loan. However, that did not change the fact that the listed entity could claim our assets.
So we begged some more and made a deal to ‘buy ourselves out” of the liability.
I jokingly say that I’m the only person (obviously with my partner at the time) that I know that bought my own company twice!
I could not bear the debt load, and I gave my shares to one of the people that loaned us money, packed my car, and went to Johannesburg to go and look for work. I was lucky — I found a great job within two weeks!
I worked for a Dimension Data company for nearly two years when a newly founded distribution company asked a mate (also working for DD) and me to start a network distribution business for them. We each had 10% shares and the title of Director on our business cards!
While there, the company sponsored me to do a (post-graduate) diploma in management. The program, touted as a post-graduate diploma at a newly created South African private business school, headed up by a well-known academic, in partnership with a renowned private UK-based business school, surely that is safe, yes?
I say touted, but as it turned out, as I later found out that the program was not an accredited program in South Africa and neither in the UK — so I could not use it for academic purposes at all. But, in all fairness, it was a good program, and I made some amazing contacts, one remaining a close friend to this day!
The company then scaled up for a listing and started ‘cleaning house’ with the help of corporate raiders. I resigned after it just became unbearable to work there. So I sued for constructive dismissal and got a settlement that was far less than the shares would be worth once the company listed, but that was OK — good riddance!
Once again started my own thing in the consulting space. I helped DOT COM companies with strategy and M&As, and soon my partner from the networking company (now also screwed out of his shares) joined me. So the A team was back together, and we complimented each other perfectly — we cooked with gas!
It was great fun, lots of freedom, and great money. Nearly everything we made we used to play stocks, and then some (as explained in the next paragraph.)
We each had three brokerage accounts with separate brokers where we played/speculated for a week before we had to settle a cent of what we owed on Fridays. The pattern was that we bought on Mondays and Tuesdays and sold Thursdays or Friday before noon, kept the profit, and never spent a cent!
The money we made from the business was used for shares that we wanted to hold a bit longer.
Six months away from ‘retirement’ at aged 34, I played hard on the stock exchange to make the goal of financial freedom before age 40 a reality.
I took my wife on her first international holiday; life was good!
I was sitting on the hill outside Barcelona, overlooking the harbor and the city, early one evening, when my cellular phone rang.
My partner was in a panic; earlier that day, the news broke of the Asian financial crisis, and the market was in freefall. And here I was on holiday and oblivious!
Luckily our house was in my wife’s name because I lost EVERYTHING as the market crashed!
Many people asked why I lost everything when it took less than a year to recover. Well, it was those accounts where we played on credit and took big chances! When you buy a stock for ZAR5.50, and you can only sell for 48c — that’s how you lose everything!
The only option now was looking for a job.
This time around, it took longer, but I eventually landed one with an OK salary and the promise of shared based on performance.
Lovely people, and I loved working with them.
In the meantime, I convinced a UK University (Brookes) that I had enough experience to be accepted in their mature candidate MBA; this time, though, I had to pay for myself.
That was March 1999, with five years to complete a blended program; partially distance learning (eLearning did not exist then) and partially blocks of physical classes organized in South Africa.
In the meantime, the owners of the company I worked for sold the company to a listed group. No worries, the buyer promised that all parts of our deal would still stand.
In the meantime group also bought other companies like us. The problem was that they were struggling — of the three, we were the only one making a profit. So the group Managing Director then decided to merge the three entities, with my MD at the new company’s head.
Feeling concerned about the other two companies’ MDs, he decided to stand back magnanimously. Instead, we would employ a new (professional) MD that everyone was happy with, so none of the other guys would look bad publicly or feel bad about their lot.
The new MD virtually immediately started employing his cronies — I suppose you can see where this is heading.
As I walked into my office, a year later, back from December leave, the new managing director was waiting for me and handed me a letter.
He made me redundant.
Previously, one of the other directors was fired for ‘misconduct,’ making me the second one of the directors to go, and not by any stretch of the imagination the last!
Remembering how terrible the fight was the last time, I was just not up for another fight, lawyers and courts.
I fell into a deep depression!
There was such an air of negativity that no one wanted to employ me; they started running when they saw the dark cloud.
I have written off the MBA. Even though I completed all the academic work in the first two years, the dissertation was a mountain in front of me, and quite honestly, not important when I could not even face the world!
Then an ex-customer, Mark van der Linde saved my life!
He offered me a project management job for a project in Botswana, he could not afford to pay a lot, but it was something to do.
Little did I know that Mark’s true gift was the six and a half hours we spent traveling by car between Joburg and Gaborone every week for nearly a year!
Mark helped me deal with my struggles, and helped me to lift my head again.
Because the cloud lifted (with Mark’s help), and I could see the sun again. I could thankfully start working on the dissertation. And start looking for opportunities again.
The Ex MD that employed me in the previous company then introduced me to a Microsoft partner involved in the biggest MS project in South Africa. The guys needed people with service management, IT management, and tech skills, a rare combination at the time. So I started working as a contractor for Microsoft contractor, to build the GSSC (Gauteng Province Shared Services Centre).
Just before that contract came to an end, I was able to hand in my dissertation — passed with flying colors, and now for the first time, had an academic qualification — I had an MBA!
I signed up and worked for the government for a year and a bit as Chief Director Shared IT Services for the GSSC, but the politics killed me.
Then jumped between two different consulting companies, each teaching me some incredible skills and life lessons. I traveled all over Africa and the Middle East, doing interesting projects, and as I went along gained more and more industry certifications.
In 2008 I went solo again and started getITright.
So a long answer to a short question, but I know that someone will find value in the long version!
Today, in addition to the MBA, I hold more than 30 industry certifications, some tech, some IT management, and others like for instance, risk management, Agile and Lean. I also have professional accreditations and credentials.
I have become a lifelong learner because being a lifelong learner, buildings skills and capabilities, and having a positive mental attitude is all anyone needs to survive in the toughest environments!
When everything looks dark and gloomy, dig deep, speak up, ask for help, and know that you are greater than the circumstances.
Be the best version of who you can possibly be!
And know — You are not alone.