Johannesburg (Pt. 1)

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure who constitutes the readership of the esteemed Chazen Institute’s Student Travel blog. Therefore, I will take some artistic liberties in articulating my experience on this study tour. The first liberty I’ll take is to compare South African cities to US cities.

Johannesburg is a lot like Los Angeles. It is completely inaccessible without a car, or, as is our case, a giant tour bus. It is also a brilliant city: full of energy, creativity, and life. It is the heart of South Africa’s economy and as you drive in from the North (aka “coal country”) you notice the array of power plants and power lines that serve as the lifeblood to the city.

Coming from Kruger National Park, it is remarkable how quickly the tables turned for us. Suddenly, I sympathized with the giraffe at Kruger as I became a spectacle of great intrigue and amusement to the locals: ~35 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed MBAs tumbling off a bus and on to the streets of Joburg is something to be seen for sure.

I chose to sit in the front of the bus to take in the spectacle that became of the navigation of our vessel. Our fearless leaders, Uzayr, Eran, and Nick, have done a truly admirable job of organizing and executing a fantastic trip (and I mean that with sincere gratitude and respect). There were, however, moments when I was reminded of the Three Stooges as we travelled around the city.

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Our driver, Gilbert, demonstrated saint-like patience and skilled maneuvering through it all as we braved unintended side trips and sharp turns. I should also give a nod to the incomparable Jonathan Lechtman, owner of the Maximilian Group, and our official guide for the trip. For the sole purpose of continuing the analogy, we’ll count him as the Shemp to our Stooges (but his rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” begs for a more favorable celebrity comparison).

Cheers, gentlemen, it is easy for me to criticize. Thank you for everything, including a few solid chuckles at your expense.

But wait, the comparisons to LA continue: Joburg seems to sprawl endlessly, and the poor of Alexandra Township live immediately adjacent to the wealthy of Sandton with the same jarring contrast that one could find between the pristine campus of the University of Southern California and its surrounding area of South Los Angeles.

Sandton, where we called home for the past few days, could be confused with Beverly Hills. It features luxurious condo buildings and impressive mansions, all wrapped in security blankets of 10-foot high walls, electric fences, and armed guards. “If you look twice, call it in” read some of the signs around the neighborhood, echoing the cautionary reminder, “If you see something, say something”, which is familiar to many Americans. We were never in danger in Joburg, but the the highly visible security presence provided a palpable sense that a threat existed somewhere in our midst.

Alas, I’m afraid I’ve rambled on for far too long. We’ll now return to our regularly scheduled programming and my second artistic liberty: I’ll report on our visits with some of South Africa’s business and cultural leadership with a few of my favorite quotes (and a bit of background/context). I place “quotes” in apostrophes because I can’t possibly claim 100% accuracy as I furiously scribbled in my notebook. For fear of becoming a blog tyrant, I’ll also include the favorites of my colleagues and classmates.

David Shapiro, Deputy Chairman, Sasfin Securities

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Mr.Shapiro was our first speaker. He provided on context, both historical and economic, on South Africa.

“Most investors think vertically when they should be thinking horizontally.”

Eran Mizhari ’14 and I discussed this point after our meeting with Mr. Shapiro who felt that investors often take an approach that is far too narrow. He encouraged us to think less about a given company’s origin and more about how they operate. If companies are operating across the globe, or “horizontally”, than investors should be thinking globally as well. As an example, Mr. Shapiro cited Zara’s success despite its parent company’s roots in Spain (an economy in which most investors are reluctant to invest these days). This point was most appreciated by Clara Colina ’15 who hails from Madrid, Spain.

Similarly while some might balk at the idea of starting a business in South Africa, Eran proclaimed that he is “frothing at the mouth” when considering the idea of returning to his home country because of the tremendous opportunities to be had as an entrepreneur here.

“South Africa is a 20 year-old democracy. Most 20 year-old’s have little idea what they want.”

One important theme coming out of our meeting with Mr. Shapiro was the evolving role of the South African government in the economy. As Professor Alireza Tahbaz-Salehi (known to us simply, and affectionately, as “Ali”) pointed out, there are some similarities to be drawn with his home country of Iran in that both Iran and South Africa have a de facto one-party governing system. Needless to say, the one-party in both countries has a great deal of influence in the economy. While Mr. Shapiro suggested there is much room for improvement in the South African government, he also noted that it is indeed a new system and, understandably, going through some growing pains.

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Robbie Brozen, CEO & Founder, Nando’s Restaurants

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Mr. Brozen is the founder of Nando’s, one of the world’s most successful “fast casual” restaurants featuring PERi-PERi chicken (a dish sourced from Portuguese cuisine via Mozambique) as the main attraction. Our site visit to Nando’s differed dramatically from our visit to Sasfin. While were surrounded by the creature comforts of corporate South Africa at Sasfin, we found ourselves sitting on cinderblocks and plywood at Nando’s headquarters (which is undergoing a massive renovation). Mr. Brozen is an exceptionally charismatic man, a brilliant entrepreneur, and a die-hard champion of his Nando’s brand.

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“The journey is part of the reward. Don’t focus only on money, also focus on fun. If you’re not having fun, something is wrong. You should want to skip to work.”

By Mr. Brozen’s logic and experience, happy employees make a great product and a great product makes happy customers. He started Nando’s because he was unhappy with his prior job, and he wanted to do something he loved. It is a powerful reminder to us MBA students that you can do something you love, and that love can translate into a great, profitable enterprise.

“We were able to succeed in an emerging economy, which allowed us to succeed in places where others struggled.”

The sentiment of this quote is quickly becoming a broader take-away from this trip. Companies that have succeeded first in South Africa have developed a unique skill set and scrappy swagger, which has allowed them to thrive more broadly. Mr. Brozen believes that Nando’s has been successful in emerging economies, like Malaysia and India, because of its roots in South Africa. In this sense, South Africa can be seen as a laboratory, or test kitchen, for business ideas that could eventually be scaled to a global level. As Uzayr Jeenah ‘14 likes to point out, South Africa often serves as the “springboard” for many African businesses.

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We have had many other fantastic visits during our time in Joburg. More to come soon!

-Samuel Wollner ’14

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