‘Koos Bekker’s Billions’ – TJ Strydom delves into a private billionaire’s life, career and business decisions
What did a boy who grew up on a mealie farm do to build such a fortune? Read an excerpt from Koos Bekker’s Billions:
Under Koos Bekker, Naspers made several bad investments, a few mediocre ones, a few good ones … and one that shot the lights out. A modest bet on Chinese technology startup Tencent changed Bekker’s destiny. Was this genius, strategy or just plain old good luck?
Strydom is a business author and journalist who has written and reported for Reuters, the Sunday Times, Financial Mail and Beeld. His unauthorised biography of Christo Wiese scaled the bestseller lists in both English and Afrikaans. Koos Bekker’s Billions, his second non-fiction title, is a fascinating look into the life of a very private billionaire. Here is an excerpt.
In 1970, a schoolboy claimed victory over an established part of South Africa’s entertainment industry. Strangely, judging by his reputation later in life, Jacobus Petrus Bekker used an old medium to outmanoeuvre a newer one.
The battle for eyeballs took place in Heidelberg, a town some fifty kilometres south-east of Johannesburg, where Bekker, known to all as Koos, was his school’s best speaker and chair of the debating society. In a bid to rejuvenate public discourse at the Hoër Volkskool, his committee livened up their events by making discussions more topical, pushing a few of the ‘shy guys’ to pitch in and limiting musical interludes to only the best, wrote Bekker in the 1970 yearbook.
The result: well-attended debates, a willingness to participate and an enthusiastic audience. ‘Even the allure of slipping out to the drive-in theatre during debating evenings seems to be dying a natural death,’ Bekker boasted.
A case of ‘debating killed the movie star’? Probably not. The knife fight scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which came out that same year, can’t be beaten for entertainment value, certainly not by a few teenagers’ speeches.
More likely the young man just grasped early on how to put the best spin on results when delivering an annual report to stakeholders. And he was not wrong about the imminent death of the drive-in … movie magic would find a new parking spot in the decades that followed.
The name ‘Koos’ is probably best translated as ‘Jack’. At school, Bekker was a bit of a Koos of all trades. He played in the first cricket team, won the regional trophy as part of the first tennis team and even led the second rugby team to victory in its league that year.
And he was clever to boot – the dux pupil who passed Afrikaans, English, Mathematics and Physical Science with distinction. Sure, it was not quite the seven A’s clocked up by future Constitutional Court justice Edwin Cameron that year. But fewer than 100 matriculants in the entire Transvaal, then South Africa’s most populous province, scored four distinctions or more in those final exams.
Of course, he was head boy too. And head prefects get to say their farewells. ‘And whatever each of us might accomplish, it will not only be a personal achievement, but an achievement in which the Heidelberg Volkskool also had a stake,’ were Bekker’s parting words.
In this case, it turned out to be a stake worth a tidy sum half a century later. Page to a footnote below the chair’s remuneration for 2020 in the Naspers annual report, and the fine print reads: ‘Koos Bekker elected to donate the rand equivalent of his director’s fees, being R2,1m (pre-tax), to education. This year the recipient was the Hoër Volkskool in Heidelberg.’
Who can afford to pass on a R2,1 million pay cheque? A dollar billionaire, that’s who.
‘I’m not convinced that great wealth is really correlated to happiness,’ Bekker told a room of MBA graduates in the Netherlands in 2014.
‘When you make the first few million euros, it’s going to change your life totally. You can look after your parents, you can eat in any restaurant in the world, you can travel for a holiday … it gives you liberty.’
He himself used that freedom to build a career that brought him even bigger financial rewards. ‘So, the first million is very important, but then there is a diminishing return. Between 10 million euros and 100 million, nothing much happens. Between 100 million and 200 million, absolutely nothing happens, right?’ he said.
It was a spunky speech to deliver to an auditorium full of MBAs. Most of the eyes in the room had already glazed over with dollar, euro or renminbi signs.
‘Beyond a certain point, money is pretty pointless and certainly not worth devoting your life to,’ he added.
It’s always tough to accurately gauge the means of the truly wealthy, and ‘rich lists’ do a fair bit of guessing. In January 2022, Forbes estimated Bekker’s fortune at $2.8 billion, and ranked him the 1008th richest person in the world.
Even if you ignore his property portfolio and the mountains of cash he raked in with share sales over the years, it still adds up to a bundle. Making the most conservative of estimates, looking only at his publicly listed stock in Cape Town-based Naspers and Amsterdam-listed Prosus will get you to R16 billion (more than $1 billion) in early 2022. As his source of wealth, Forbes lists ‘media, investments, self-made’.
So something happened between 1970 and 2020. Bekker dabbled in media and investments and made himself billions. But how? What did a boy who grew up on a mealie farm do to build such a fortune?
In the first decade or so, his approach seems quite ordinary. Bekker studied languages, law and literature at Stellenbosch University, dabbled in student journalism and met his future wife, Karen Roos. He then moved to the north and, while doing an LLB at Wits University, he had his introduction to the business of television, filling in as translator for the dubbing of dramas and documentaries. He tried his hand at being a state prosecutor, but soon quit. Next, he worked in advertising.
In the meantime he married Karen, who became one of the nation’s first television presenters. By the early 1980s, with South Africa descending into violence in apartheid’s deadly final decade, they had decided to leave the country.
He sold his house and borrowed as much as he could to enrol for an MBA at Columbia University in New York. ‘I went to America to go and work there,’ he recounted later. ‘I did not want to come back. It was the 1980s, and South Africa looked quite grim.’
A few years later, however, he did return to start a pay-TV company soon to be known as M-Net. When it became profitable, Bekker took the concept to Europe, where he stitched together a business that spanned more than a dozen countries on the continent, selling it for a tidy profit a few years later.
M-Net was only the first of the so-called M-group of companies he founded. The others – MIH, MTN and M-Web – each became what could have been a decent success story for any entrepreneur. Bekker took it to another level.
In 1997, he settled in Cape Town and became CEO of Nasionale Pers. This is where he found and assembled all the ingredients he needed to make (or bake) billions.
‘I think “recipes”, like “principles”, are dangerous. Both imply a certain timelessness to your outlook, a rock-solid truth you were born with and with which you will die,’ he told Ebbe Dommisse in an interview for the latter’s book Fortunes: The Rise And Rise Of Afrikaner Tycoons.
Perhaps Koos did not follow a recipe from the start, but he definitely cooked up something. And a study of his life and career reveals some incredibly useful kitchen habits.
This book takes a closer look at Bekker’s approach to business. His was a clever combination of reading the wind, throwing caution to the wind and embracing the winds of change. Over more than four decades he used fifteen methods to give him the best chance of making it big. If you like, call it the ‘how to make billions’ listicle (number ten will shock you!). DM/ ML
Koos Bekker’s Billions by TJ Strydom is published by Penguin Random House SA (R280). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts.
In case you missed it, also read Book Extract: Christo Wiese – Risk and Riches