Business Day (Johannesburg)

South Africa: A Dedication to the Business And Science of Change

Johannesburg — THREE months before Prof Nick Binedell, founding director of the University of Pretoria's (UP's) Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), opened the doors to SA's youngest business school in January 2000 he showed Laurie Dippenaar, co-founder of the FirstRand Group, around the Gibs campus in Illovo, Johannesburg.

"It was still under construction. It looked like Kosovo. He looked around and, after about five minutes, he said, 'Big investment, high fixed costs and bugger all income,' and I had two sleepless nights," says Binedell.

The sleepless nights are a thing of the past . In just eight years Gibs has become a world-class institution. In fact it reached that status five years ago when -- in the first year it took part in the Financial Times business school rankings for executive education -- it made the list of the world's top 40 business schools in 2004, coming in at place 40.

This year Gibs was placed 38th on the pink paper's list, which has now expanded to 45 business schools.

It all began with a slip of paper Binedell handed to Sanlam CEO Johan van Zyl, then vice-chancellor and principal of UP about 10 years ago.

Binedell had just stepped down from his six-year tenure as director of the University of the Witwatersrand Business School and was not sure what his next step should be.

After a chance meeting with Van Zyl he jotted down on the paper "a few thoughts" on his stipulations for a new business school. These included that it should be in the continent's business hub, Sandton; that it should be autonomous; and that it should be "a business school for the 21st century".

The autonomy bit was important, but not something Binedell thought any university would accept. UP did, however, and Gibs was born.

"The level of autonomy we've had is unusual and we've partly been successful because of it. A business school needs independence because it must move at least at the speed of business and it must be governed in a way that allows it to move at that speed," he says.

Then followed a series of coffee meetings with SA's top CEOs, during which Binedell quizzed them about what they thought about SA's competitiveness, and the link between their strategy and the development of their executive teams -- questions pertinent to setting up a curriculum. He also found himself the recipient of R52m from UP to build the school.

"It was a bit of a record. We found the land, built the building, recruited the faculty, got the students and opened the doors in 16 months.... I was working six- or seven-day weeks. It was a big risk; there were well-established business schools in the area and some people were sceptical about the need for another school," says Binedell.

Invaluable financial aid and moral support came from Sir Donald Gordon -- the founder of the Liberty Group and the man after whom the school is named -- and his family.

On that slip of paper Binedell gave to Van Zyl was another stipulation: that the new business school should be world class from the word go.

Binedell, who, armed with a plastic model of the school that was still being built, had persuaded 45 people to do their Masters of Business Administration (MBA), then also threw himself into persuading staff from top international business schools such as Harvard, the London Business School, France's Insead and New York University's Stern Business School to guest lecture at Gibs.

He was joined by Karl Hofmeyr, who set about establishing partnerships between Gibs and big business.

"The first partnerships were with Sasol and Barloworld. They took a risk, but they came because of him," says Binedell.

Gibs has always made overseas travel a prerequisite for masters of business administration (MBA) students and the first MBA class travelled to China, India and Singapore.

"It was as clear as the end of my nose that (Asia's economic revolution) was happening," Binedell says.

"If you expose someone to new experiences you can help them change their emotional framework, and if they can change their emotional perspective then they'll be willing to change their minds (about running a business). Otherwise, it's their fact against yours. It's not enough to read about Asia; you need to walk the streets of Shanghai or Mumbai to understand," he says.

By now the MBA class has swelled to 180 a year and Gibs will soon start taking part in the Financial Times' MBA rankings. (It had to let enough time go by to prove its graduates' post-MBA success).

Between 1200 and 1500 executives are on the Gibs campus on a seven-day week.

The school, says Binedell, grew organically. "I'm not very big on detailed strategic planning, and I teach this: strategy is about insight and in a changing place like SA , if you change your world view you'll get your insights. I've learnt as much in the past six months in SA as I have in the past 10 years. Things have changed significantly and it's about being on the balcony and on the dance floor. You must understand the nitty-gritty of the waltz, but also the landscape of the ballroom," he says. All the best leaders have "elements of creative disorder" in their work. They plan well, but they allow for rapid change and are constantly sizing up the situation. There's an elasticity in SA and sometimes the chaos of the place fuels new sets of opportunities, says Binedell.

It may well be that this son of a Royal Air Force officer who had lived in six very different countries by the time he was 10 -- Rhodesia, SA, England, Germany, Yemen and Kenya -- simply became used to radical change at a young age, but everything boils down to choice in the end and Binedell has chosen (with apologies to Shakespeare) to take the tide that leads to fortune.

Gibs is now "a bit bigger" than Binedell dared to imagine back in 2000.

"It's very hard to tell what support you'll get, but we've had very good support, and it came early," says Binedell.

"The conscious decisions I've made (about growing the school) are more about the nature of the work done here, that we should be in the business community, attract faculty who are passionate about business education and have a strong focus beyond the narrow confines of business, of the day-to-day. That we would focus a lot on the broader issues, the social issues, transformation, global issues, and that we would keep innovating," he says.

Binedell views innovation as vital: "One of my great fears is that, because we have grown quickly, innovation would slow down, that memory would outweigh vision. You need to keep disrupting your ideas."

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