CHAMPIONING GLOBAL STANDARDS

championing global standards

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Mothobi Seseli is a loud-laughing, fun-loving family man, a former youth tennis star and Latin American and Ballroom dance champion. During the day, he is the CEO of the award-winning Argon Asset Management, a dynamic African investment firm with global standards. Argon’s AUM is currently R32 billion.

It is a beautiful, infectious laugh that echoes from deep within Mothobi Seseli, and his persona is equally infec- tious. He dresses beautifully and, perhaps more important, he wears his clothes well, even though when we met he was itching to slip his tie off to get into the office’s more relaxed Friday dress code. The Argon office is state-of-the-art, with massive plasma screens for international teleconferencing and Star Trek sliding glass doors (sadly sans the ‘whoosh’), and a well-used office toasted sandwich maker which seldom has time to cool down. Their office stands on the former tennis courts of the Vineyard sports grounds, which is ironic as this child prodigy tennis star still hankers after the challenge of competing at the highest level. Mothobi laughs that he has even considered hitting the senior circuit overseas when he takes his sab- batical, and he still plays league tennis, even though he is now frustrated that he lacks that edge of pace he enjoyed in his youth.

Another happy childhood memory was that of being a Latin American and Ballroom champion dancer, and as he shows me around his office I take note that he is extremely light on his feet, although surely it is pure coincidence that he shares a birthday with Michael Jackson.He holds a Masters degree in economics from RAU, successfully completed the Growing Companies Programme at Stanford and recently graduated with a PG Diploma (Global Business) from Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

When it came to choosing a university for your post-grad studies, what made you choose Stanford and Oxford?

Both institutions champion excellence across diversified skills and disciples. For example, Stanford has an interesting stu- dent selection process. When they read through your profile, they are looking for spikes of excellence, not just a ‘high-average overall’ individual.Stanford saw potential in me because I had been a Ballroom and Latin American dance cham- pion, as well as a national junior tennis champion. They believe that success in different fields is a predictor of what hap- pens later on in your life, and I find that very interesting. That is the core of being an entrepreneur and Stanford is renowned for training and developing entrepreneurs, compared to Harvard, for instance, which is better known for producing general man- agers. That alone made it an easy decision for me, as I am in the entrepreneurial space and our clients expect us to have that mindset and vision.Similar to Stanford, Oxford is a school steeped in tradition with a focus on aca- demic excellence. Completing the PG Diploma in Global Business at Oxford was about ensuring that, in terms of strategic thinking, we were positioning Argon for the Global arena. Oxford has a world- leading faculty in business and strategy.

What do you see as the pivotal point in your success leading Argon?

This isn’t my first stab at entrepreneurship, as I spent three-and-a-half years on my own, prior to starting the company. I was doing trustee education and I learned a lot about myself in that period, so when I did go back to formal employment because I was broke I was different, and I mean totally different. My boss at the time was Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita, who was the CEO of ArcelorMittal and who is now the Chairman of the JSE, and she says that she saw a hunger, a freshness and a simplicity in me that she had not seen in anyone before. However, prior to my three-and-a-half years as an entrepreneur, I don’t think anybody who knew me would have described me that way. The experience of being on my own, struggling as I did and, ultimately, failing, helped me to redefine myself and to make me who I am today. Aside from the personal growth and hunger, an additional positive to come out of that experience was the fact that I also built up a lot of strong relationships with trustees.

Relationships are paramount in the FSP industry. How do you set yourself apart from the other players?

A lot of FSPs tend to focus solely on their agreement, but we believe that the space between you and I is very important and what do we infuse that space with? You need to know that, whether I succeed or fail, I will always be honest with you. If we are struggling with something then, yes, I will tell you.That level of transparency is critical. There will also always be integrity in our dealings, thus, talking about that all the time gives people a feeling and an extra layer of security in the relationship.Talking to diversity is also important, as is your social responsibility and sharing your aspirations. The product is important, but that’s not what generates revenue. Our ability to be vulnerable as a firm is critical. 

The industry pitches us as stars, but the market has a way of bringing you back to the centre and it reveals who you are.Things can go wrong, but I pick up the phone and saying, ‘It’s Mothobi, I’ve had this letdown with XY and Z...’, the response is always interesting because of the rela- tionship you’ve built. Our clients will then respond by asking, ‘What are you going to do about it and what do you need me to do to help?’The industry has become an envi- ronment in which we speak at people and the engagement has been different, but we are focussing on speaking to people. It may mean we will never get to R600 billion under management, but that is a risk I am willing to take.

You say money is a global and that clients want you to have your finger on the pulseofinternationalfinance.Your partnership with Schroders must be a great benefit in this respect?

We occupy a very global space and, if you look at the investment consulting industry globally, more often than not, London and New York drive everything that is relevant, and if you are not relevant by London or New York standards, then you are not in the game. Therefore, as opposed to looking at the established firms in South Africa, we have to ask ourselves, “Could we embrace a different benchmark?” Think about a global standard as opposed to an African standardand that is not to say that theSouth African standard is below par—but the mere mention of a global standard gives you a feel for the type of significance we want to have. You look at the role of out- siders and their impact on our markets, and you will know that if you are not plugged into those conversations, you are not in the game. A partnership, such as what we have with Schroders, is very significant for us because that critical, hot-on-the-streets input on a daily basis is crucial.

What are the benefits for them of part- nering with Argon?

It’s definitely a two-way relationship. They are significant players, they have been around for over 200 years and are in 28 countries, but they don’t have a physical presence on the continent of Africa and, if you think about the future, Africa is impor- tant. People are also very careful about how they enter Africa, so the key aspect is to have an understanding and appreciation of the local nuances to operating here, as well as an appreciation for the local population. Yes, we are seeing a lot of harmonisation from the regulation point of view, but there are still small facets that are really unique to South Africa that’s our value-add to them. From an invest- ment product point of view, our stance is that you cannot do justice to investing offshore if you are not physically set up in those geographical locations where you are deploying client capital. I think we are very similar in terms of how we think about client investing and relationships with cli- ents. We talk about our values all the time, as do they at the Schroders head office, so it is almost like a meeting of minds.

In terms of Argon’s achievements, what has given you the greatest personal satisfaction?

The success of our Graduate Development Programme has been very satisfying. The asset management space is, generally, a closed sector and it is very difficult for people to get in. I believe it needs to be more of an inclusive space and inclusive means that you need to be transforming the sector. You need to introduce people that you would not otherwise have employed it’s black people, it’s women, it’s creating a more diverse industry... and when you have diverse input, it makes things more interesting. Our partnership with Schroders has also given us a global freedom in terms of our Graduate Development Programme. we have already sent six kids from here to participate in the Schroders Global Graduate Trainee Programme in London. The beauty of that, for me, is that those kids are really smart and they have the opportunity to learn about investing alongside other grad- uates from countries all over the world, who are also starting their investment manage- ment careers. This means that these grad- uates have no disadvantage to their peers: the benchmark is global as their peers are young graduates from Singapore, Brazil, New York, London and Melbourne. When they come back to us, we initially panic when we see what happens to the phone bill, but you have to remind yourself that this is their new world—they are plugged into the globe and that’s powerful.

What are the challenges for you in the financial services market?

We travel to Johannesburg every week because that’s where the majority of our clients are located. Johannesburg is honest with respect to one thing economics. Everybody is in balance sheet building mode and wealth building mode, so it’s transactional and commercial people don’t waste time.“Can you deliver or not? Otherwise, we move on to the next one?” Cape Town has a lot of people who are in balance sheet preservation mode because the wealth is there already it has been built. Then there are people in Cape Town who hang around the people who have the wealth. The money conversation is an uncomfortable conversation, because the very rich don’t want to talk about it, but it’s not just money that they don’t want to talk about, it’s also the privilege. In Johannesburg, it’s about survival and that’s structural. We can talk about it. I need to close this deal. This needs to happen, otherwise, I can’t pay myself, the workers and so forth. For me, it’s two different societies. If you need to get stuff done then you must be in Johannesburg. If you want to relax, then you are in Cape Town. Therefore, I fly to Joburg to get things done.

What worries you on a global scale?

I would say it’s the issue of inclusivity, and this isn’t unique to South Africa. What the world economic system has created is unfortunate as a lot of people are excluded and, when you look at all of the protes- tations across the globe, it’s really about resources and the fight to survive. Surely there is a way we can engineer things so that we have better stability and less income inequality? What Trump represents is an issue, as the idea of a free world really rests on trade, but if we are going to start isolating spaces from one another to protect markets then access becomes an issue and you start to move towards really dark days.

Your awards cabinet is brimming with awards that recognise what Argon has become and what you have achieved. What are the challenges of growing as a company?

Getting too big can have its drawbacks, but I do want to be one of the big players. However, for me, the issue has always been, “How do we build a different South Africa, number one?” And a different South Africa means institutions, such as ours, growing into significance. Psychologically, it’s the role model space we occupy that is important. From the get-go, I have always said that how we will define our success is to watch what happens in the industry to see how many people and how many more black people enter the industry, and how many more black firms have been set up. You ascertain how buoyant the space is and there are many, many blacks firms setting up. That is part of our success as a firm, having people believe it can be done. We can’t stay small, we need to become really big, and really big means really communicating that anything is possible. It’s important that the system validates a firm such as ours, because if it doesn’t, what will it validate?

Argon has championed social media in driving the growth of your retail prod- ucts. How did this come about?

Ever since the push for retail became a pri- ority for us, we had to face the reality that we couldn’t do what Coronation or an Allan Gray do and buy up advertising space at the airport or on TV. We couldn’t compete with their budgets, therefore, we needed to be smarter with our marketing budget. Digital allows us to do that for a more moderate investment, it allows us to make the most of our investment and get the type of reach we want, fast.

My nephew, Neo Matsau, is the CEO of Bamboo Network, which does digital work for some of South Africa’s biggest companies. He is one of the brightest people I know and his company is amazing in their innovative thinking and digital activa- tions. We partnered with them in terms of building our social network and they have worked wonders for us. Social media gives us access to the young people who are the big savers and big investors of the future, and that access is immediate. That’s what Bamboo drives for us, and we have become one of the top-rated companies in our sector in terms of social media presence.

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