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Bittersweet week in the life of SA's media giant

Business Maverick

South Africa, Business Maverick

Bittersweet week in the life of SA’s media giant

South Africa’s homegrown media giant announced sterling financial results with impressive growth thanks to the company’s internet division. But the good news followed a tragic announcement earlier in the week that Naspers lost the head of its internet operation – Antonie Roux died in Germany at the age of 54. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Naspers is becoming a predictable earner, largely thanks to its internet division. The global media giant, renowned for smart investments in emerging markets, has announced pleasing financial results, with headline earnings up 15%.  

Consolidated revenues were set at R39,5bn, an increase of 19% over the previous year. The star of the show was the internet division, the fastest-growing segment of Naspers’ business. Sadly, the person who headed the very same internet division, Antonie Roux, died earlier this week in a German hospital after undergoing pancreatic surgery.  

Roux was an idiosyncratic man. His first day on the job at Naspers was on 1 December 1979, when the company that now rivals Google in some territories consisted of a handful of print titles. After joining the business fresh out of Technikon, Roux came to work in overalls at the beginning of his career, but would go on to become integral to the evolution of the most successful global media company to come out of South Africa.

When I last spoke to Roux, he told me he was amazed he had spent so long with one company. In his early days, he told me jokingly, he’d page through the internal magazine and see people getting longevity awards for 20 or 30 years of service. “I thought of them as losers. How can you work for the same company for 20 or 30 years? It is terrible,” he said laughingly. “But here I sit 32 years later. I think the remarkable thing is that if you look at it, I have worked in 10 different companies because each time has offered me such new and different opportunities in very different places.” 

Roux would go on to be part of the Naspers’ founding pay television team, and he’d help launch M-Net in 1985. Together with DStv, M-Net would prove to become Naspers’ cash cow, and would give the group the financial gearing to bear risk, and learn some expensive lessons en-route to honing their offshore investment strategy.

Twelve years after launching SA’s first pay TV channel, Roux was appointed CEO of internet service provider MWeb South Africa, where his role was to mainstream the consumer web, to launch a business offering and to pioneer commercial projects and start-ups. In 2002, he was promoted to CEO of internet operations for MIH and spent five years in Bangkok.

It was offshore that Roux really began to get how to deliver smart investments to Naspers. “You go into the market, you don’t understand the language or the culture, and you think this will only work if you fly in expats to manage the business,” Roux told me a couple of years ago. “Not only is this incredibly expensive, but it just doesn’t work. The biggest lesson we learned is that you don’t invest in a product or an income statement. You invest in a local team. Now we find the best local teams we can get, people we can trust, and then do everything we can to support them.”

But these lessons came at some cost for Naspers. One of the first things that Naspers did in the early days in China was to try and replicate MWeb’s business in Asia. “We quickly learned that if you want to build a business around connectivity, you need to operate in a fully-fledged deregulated telecommunications environment that isn’t threatened by a monopoly. You need to be in a position to own the pipe,” Roux told me a few years back, when we talked about those early days in China.

“We were way too late in deregulated markets, and other markets had a situation very similar to the South African telecommunications scene, which makes it a hard slog. After our China ISP, we took the decision to focus on the communications and social networking side of the internet business,” he said.

Naspers is led by a nimble management team that is said to be very close-knit, with members who understand each other really well. The team includes CEO Koos Bekker, Mark Sorour, Steve Pacak, Basil Sgourdos, Cobus Stofberg and until this past Sunday, Roux. During our last conversation, Roux spoke of this team with great fondness.

“We’re really a team. Everyone brings a unique angle to the party and I don’t think there’s anyone here who feels they work for anyone,” he said, before recalling how the group met with executive search specialists Heidrick & Struggles when looking for new leadership talent. “We briefed them for two or three hours because we really wanted them to understand our culture. Fiona (Vickers), who heads their UK business, said it would be impossible to find anyone that would fit within Naspers’ top management because it was such a closely knit team,” Roux said.

From a pragmatic perspective, Roux’s loss won’t affect the group, thanks to the rapport within the leadership team, and because of the talent Roux nurtured within the internet division – which includes some of the smartest thinkers in the converged sector. But on an emotional level, the loss must be massive and smart like hell. 

Roux was an original. He was curious, bristling with energy and always seemed to be in love with his life. He was propelled forward by an enviable drive, which in part was his belief in what he was doing and the excitement of the internet. 

“Antonie was quite amazing, because he was really courageous in getting things going. There was no way of not getting ahead, because he was really aggressive and he had the money behind him and it paid off, as you know, big time,” Bruce Cohen told Alec Hogg during an interview with Moneyweb. Cohen was part of the team that started up MWeb.

“He was an amazing team-builder. He really knew how to motivate people. I think those who worked with him will always remember him very fondly. He was a genuine guy. But he also had the attention span of a mosquito, and he was sometimes insufferably arrogant. But those of us who knew him well, we were very happy to indulge him because he really loved the internet, and he was a true believer in this sort of digital future.”

Roux had cancer a number of years back, which responded well to treatment, and after his recovery he seemed to have a new lease on life. I interviewed Roux many times over many years, and during our last conversation he displayed an infectious sense of joie de vivre. He talked about how he and his wife Sonja had been to Kenya to see the world’s largest terrestrial mammal migration play out on the Serengeti. Roux described this as a deeply spiritual experience. During our chat I got the sense that he was grateful to have been given more time to experience life.

Earlier this year, round about the time of his birthday in March, Roux became ill again. He was hospitalised, and required pancreatic surgery. He flew to Germany after finding an excellent doctor to operate on him there. Tragically, he died shortly after the operation on Sunday 24 June 2012, at the age of 54.

My enduring memory of him is of his boundless energy and enthusiasm. We once talked about success and failure, during which time he relayed what someone in India had said to him: “Only if there is a large problem is there a large opportunity.” 

Roux laughed out loud, which he did often, and then said: “Isn’t that wonderful? That is now my auto-signature at the bottom of my emails from my iPad, because I think it is so valid.” 

It’s a maxim he lived by, and which helped him build an industry. And as a result, the legacy he leaves behind is enormous. DM

Read more:

  • Development spend to cap Naspers profit on Reuters 
  • Naspers earnings increase, boosted by sharp rise in internet business on Business Day 

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