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September 2019 Spotlight

Bennie van Rooy – CEO at Grobank

Bennie van Rooy’s association with Bravura began nineteen years ago when he joined the Corporate Finance team directly after completing his articles. For Bennie, working at Bravura was … “a revelation. There was an absolute determination [of the team] to go above and beyond the call of duty.” Today Bennie is the Chief Executive Officer at Grobank, a leading business and niche alliance banking service focusing on the food and agricultural value chain, prior to which he was both the CFO and later Acting CEO at the Land Bank. Bennie has also been the Group Financial Director and CEO of Consumer Finance at the JD Group, and Head of Capital Management in Group Treasury at Absa Bank. He shares his insights with us below.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Usually, it is the children and the dogs, but obviously not in a professional sense. This has changed over time. When I was younger, I was quite ambitious and wanted to know what the next step was in my career. How could I move up the professional ladder? I was never driven by money, motivated more by the intellectual challenges that awaited me.

For about seven years I worked in one of South Africa’s Big Four banks, in what I would refer to as a vicious cycle of promotions and performance reviews. It was all about getting to the next level with an eye on the “fifth floor” which was the executive suite. In my later years, I began to find myself motivated by the ability to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Serving the agricultural industry in the country is extremely rewarding, because I can make a meaningful difference to the industry, to farmers, and to the institution and its people.

Describe your most compelling qualities

To build and strengthen relationships. I get my energy from interacting with people and relating to them. I believe that in retrospect that people won’t necessarily remember what you may have told them, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Did you help them? Did you engage with them? Were they made to feel respected?

I believe that we need to understand the psychology of people behaviour in order to get the best out of them. I think that I’m an intuitive leader and this is important in understanding people and what drives them.

How do you think others might describe you?

I think that business partners, colleagues and staff alike would say that I’m sincere, accommodating and fair. I am quite soft-spoken and don’t over-react or shout when things get stressful. My teams might say that my particular strength is a combination of intellectual, technical and interpersonal skills.

In my dealings with people I’m transparent and consistent. With my team members and staff, I give guidance and mentor. I never manage two people the same way because everyone is different.

Do you recognise a shared ethos with Bravura?

Bravura was my first job post-articles. The team members were technically sound and strong but, most importantly, they were prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty. I recall that there was an absolute determination to satisfy clients and, in fact, to exceed client expectations. Obviously this took a great deal of hard work, dedication and commitment, and at times sacrifice.

Since my time at Bravura, I have taken with me a strong work ethos, a passion for deal-making and concluding transactions.

Another insight that I discovered at Bravura and have made my own, is to find solutions where others haven’t as yet recognised a problem. Irrespective of where one goes in one’s career it will involve having to deal with stakeholder expectations.

In the financial services sector we are effectively selling solutions. In this environment what sets one apart is the ability to develop solutions that are unique and that are really customised for a specific client or partner. In this environment we need to be nimble and adaptable. It requires innovation to break new ground and find new solutions.

One could say that career paths are carved by opportunity, with choices based on need. What drew you to your career choices?

Nobody can ever predict the exact career journey on which you will travel. I regard the positions that I’ve held as stepping stones and preparation for the next step.

If I look back at those companies that I’ve worked for, a common thread was that I walked in at a time when there was a lack of structure, lots of loose ends, significantly new ground to be broken, and overall structure to be created. This was what drew me to those positions. I enjoy creating structure; it is a multidisciplinary process that is intellectually challenging and stimulating and requires interaction with a variety of individuals.

Yet I don’t believe that this aspect of my career was necessarily by design, with me waking up one day thinking, “I want to create structure”. It is part of a journey that we embark upon. We discover new capabilities and interests, which we then refine into expertise as we continue on the journey. Along the journey, our leadership style matures and we develop new perspectives.

Although we’re prone to taking more risks when we’re younger, I would argue that making career decisions, regardless of age or seniority, is usually a massive risk. In the environment in which we operate, credibility is paramount, and if one loses that, one will never get it back.

What’s your take on leadership?

If you go to business school or read academic material, there are always diagrams of triangles and methods for leadership and project implementation. Lots of theory which doesn’t necessarily translate into the practical realities of business. Essentially it boils down to head, heart and hand. Someone must be able to see the end goal, another must be able to map the journey, and then someone must do the work.

But none of these matter much if the people involved are not motivated and buys into a common vision, sharing in the excitement, passion and purpose. For me, if you’re working 8 to 10 hours a day (of course at Bravura that would be 12 to 14 hours) the key is getting people motivated. If the individual is willing and engaged, unlimited performance is entirely possible. Unfortunately, if there is not willingness, it is an uphill battle.

As a leader I don’t look over people’s shoulders when they work; I determine the boundaries and I manage adults, not children. I find that if I get my team in a situation where they don’t want to let me down through collaboration and support, they tend to go the extra mile.

Of course it’s not always easy. Sometimes your health is not that great, sometimes you’re just having a bad day. Although as leaders, we are people first, and we all go through various phases and cycles. But, you cannot drop your guard, and in a way requires a bit of acting. A motivated leader will keep the team motivated. The enthusiastic team will help keep the leader motivated.

Do you have enough hours in the day?

There never seem to be enough hours in any given day. Time is an incredibly valuable commodity.

My position requires that I have to absorb a lot of information during a day and make decisions, which I don’t like deferring to the next day. Sometimes you’re dragged into a room with 30 people and you have to guide them in making decisions.

I wouldn’t say that I don’t sleep but I get through a lot of information during the course of the day, so my days can be long. Frequently I’ll be stuck in meetings for 10 hours of the day, so I’ve got my mobile devices with me to stay up-to-date on a continuous basis.

In a business day, including travelling, I will use any “down time” to respond to a few emails or review reports. At the end of a day, I won’t go to sleep if I have unread emails. When I travel, I’m of the view that the plane leaves only when the last person is on board, not the first person, to maximise the time I have available. Of course, this makes my colleagues extremely anxious, but I’m pleased to say that so far no plane has ever left without me.

And of course there are also social events that must be attended. When you are younger you can do five events on five consecutive days. When you’re older you need five days to recover from one.

How do you cope with the pressure of your position?

Some people avoid pressure, some despise it. I embrace it and confront it. I want to guide and direct an institution; I took a conscious decision to be in this position and the pressure is part and parcel of that. I enjoy dealing with the pressure and don’t get intimidated by it.

You wake up to find that you’re the “designated survivor” and are now running our country. What is your first order of business?

South Africa is currently dealing with an enormous number of pressure points. Our biggest challenge is getting people to work together. I would say that a common purpose and common values would be the first issue that I would tackle. This is imperative in business; if you don’t have a common purpose and common values then you’re in trouble. Why should this be any different for our country? There are so many voices today that seek to divide us, and so few who are truly attempting to bring us together across multiple cultures, beliefs and viewpoints.

My objective would be to unite people and to show them the enormous potential we have in this country, and that we can sufficiently provide food and other resources for all our fellow citizens.