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COVER STORY: A VISIONARY AT 16

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Brooks Mparutsa CA(SA) achieved at an early age his lifelong international ambition to uplift Africa when he was appointed Hollard’s Executive Director: International from 1 January 2016. He discusses his real passion for Africa with Eamonn Ryan

At the tender age of 16, Brooks Mparutsa made a decision to become a CA(SA) and a business leader. Having achieved that not-immodest ambition at a relatively young age, he set himself a new one which he has – again  – also already achieved, to become an international business leader. Brooks attributes this success to his vision, claiming many who don’t fulfil their latent potential simply didn’t set the goal.

Today, he presides over a division – which includes countries in the Rest of Africa (outside South Africa) and in Asia – that contributes almost 35% of Hollard’s value. Last year the rest of Africa contributed R250 million and operations outside the continent R235 million in profits, which is nonetheless still dwarfed by the R1 billion South Africa contributed to the group. However, domestic growth is expected to slow while Hollard plans to increase its international operations.

Brooks already has had an impressive career in both the public and private sectors that has taken him all over the world, yet for all that he recommends chartered accountants spend as long as possible at their audit firm, as well as in the public sector, for the experience. ‘It is a path I definitely recommend.’

TIME SPENT AUDITING IS NEVER TIME WASTED

Today, Brooks has 19 years’ experience as a CA(SA). ‘I started my career at what is now PwC in Mafikeng. After doing my articles, I decided to stay on for another three years. When trainees qualify as CAs, many think their learning is complete. In my role as audit manager, I got my first real exposure to managing people, and this is especially important at the start of your career – to learn to be a people leader.’

It was at South African Airways (SAA) in the late 1990s that he developed a love of travel, spending much of his time working with banks, lawyers, financiers, most of them in Europe, as Director of Structured Finance, acquiring aircraft that each cost up to US$150 million. He sees the period he spent at SAA and later the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) as his ‘national service’ as he feels a duty to assist in the development of South Africa and Africa.

‘Such public sector organisations provide CAs with the opportunity to learn about complex transactions at a young age,’ he says, pointing to the huge infrastructure programmes currently under way at Eskom, Transnet, and many others.

‘Part of my vision is focused on the economic success of Africa. For instance, I spent some time as Head of Finance: East Africa at Stanbic Bank, and gained familiarity with the economic challenges on this continent. I don’t want to stand on the sidelines and criticise, but rather be part of a solution,’ he says.

Brooks had been educated at one of the finest Jesuit private schools in Zimbabwe. At 16 he had no clue as to his direction in life, being split between the sciences and arts subjects until his accounting teacher gave him the direction he needed. ‘He literally inspired me, and thereafter I knew exactly what I wanted to do. From then on it was never a question of whether I would become a chartered accountant, but when.’

His privileged education in Zimbabwe in no way helped him in South Africa, where he had to have a day job while studying a Hons BCompt through Unisa. Having graduated the tough way has shaped his view today, that affordability should never be a hindrance in gaining an education. While accounting firms come in for a lot of criticism for the slow pace of transformation, Brooks has only praise for his first experience doing articles at Coopers & Theron du Toit in Mafikeng. ‘I spoke no Afrikaans, and at the time, a lot of the working papers were in Afrikaans. The two partners (Andries Brink and Stephan Barac) magnanimously decided henceforth that everything would be done in English. Both showed leadership in establishing a multi-cultural firm, one in which I never felt like an outsider even pre-1994.’

AN INSPIRATIONAL LEADER

Brooks was drawn to Hollard in 2007, he says, because of its deep entrepreneurial spirit and where people were empowered to make decisions. Though the company has grown phenomenally to become one of South Africa’s largest insurers in just 36 years, it has not lost its DNA. ‘I am a firm believer in leading people by inspiring them. That way, people will accomplish great things and go the “extra mile” whereas the management mentality of “do as I say not as I do” typically results in people doing the bare minimum.’

His inspirational management philosophy, he says, comes from observation of and participation in team sports, where he observed that it was not the fittest nor those with exceptional natural talent who performed best but usually the most inspired.

While his every milestone has been an accomplishment, he is particularly proud of having achieved a quick turnaround of the Hollard finance team, when it was needed. Just after joining Hollard as CFO the finance team had had inconsistent performance, he explains. He inspired the team to a turnaround strategy (however, predicated on the basis that ‘if we don’t fix it now, they’ll find someone who will’), and by the same time the following year the performance met all reporting expectations. It brought a tear to his eye, he says, that when he left that position last year for his current post, the team sang for him We are the world, which they had adopted as their motivational song.

‘Such prompt financial reporting was the first time it had happened in the history of the company,’ says Brooks. The rewarding aspect of this was to see people excel as a result.

Just as he sees his own role as inspiring people, when hiring he looks above all else for motivated people, those willing to give 110% while they’re with him rather than someone just looking for a job for the rest of their life. Indeed, he ranks his biggest failures as making the wrong hire choices  – as correcting them is extremely painful. ‘Technical competence is often the thing one is looking for in a specialist type of position, but when a team is involved it is a team-player you need above all. My preference is for ambitious people with passion, their own personal vision for their careers – and I don’t expect them to stay for the rest of their lives.’

This type of dedicated team he accomplished in his previous CFO role, and he says he’s setting about doing the same with his new team in Hollard International.

‘The cornerstone of what I do is visionary. From the age of 16 I have dreamed of certain achievements and through passionate management the translating of those dreams into actions. A big part of that is, I build teams. I’m the sort of leader who says, “I don’t need to know everything, but within the team I build we need to know everything.” My personal vision is to help Africa succeed better – and I intend to execute on that,’ Brooks enthuses.

DOWNSIDE OF THE FAST LANE

With his new function and gruelling travel schedule, some of the softer aspects of management expected of Brooks have inevitably suffered, he says. He regrets this because within both Hollard and himself there is a social conscience of ‘giving back’. Nonetheless, even if he can no longer see people as often as he would like, he still mentors several people at a time.

‘People development is very important to me, and not just in finance. It’s about me helping you to be the best you can – this is one of the most rewarding things any manager can do. Mentoring is not about right or wrong, but challenging people and giving them insight, as well as realistic goals for their own careers. All I can do for young people is share the scars on my back so they at least don’t make my same mistakes all over again.’

He has no regrets about the CA(SA) qualification, even though he’s now moved out of finance and into operations. ‘CAs can accomplish whatever they want throughout an organisation, whether a large or small business. My concern is that many CAs specialise too soon in today’s training. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago and is a trend that is in the interests of the firms rather than the individual. I see a conflict of interest here: in my articles I could audit a corner café to a multinational – and that variety of experience is what makes a CA relevant to the business world,’ says Brooks.

FAMILY TIME

For a man who spends 75% of his time travelling, it’s fortuitous that Brooks lists travel (preferably in comfort, given some of the exotic locations he goes to) as his major fun activity. The rest of the time, his family looms large and he loves nothing more than watching his kids play school rugby and basketball. When it’s holiday, he’s back in the aircraft flying with his family for a skiing holiday or seeing the beauty of Africa. Rwanda is his current favourite locale as he sees ‘a lot of energy in the country and a deep desire to unlock the potential of this continent’.

His positive sentiment towards the continent’s future – when many South Africans seem stuck in cynicism  – stems from having lived in several other East African countries such as Uganda and Tanzania, and seen their indomitable spirit in the face of insurmountable obstacles. ‘When you’ve learned to deal with load shedding on the scale they do, it puts local power shortages in perspective. It teaches you to prioritise and better appreciate what we have as a country, and to see things through different values,’ adds Brooks.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

Hollard projects its International division will grow at a compound rate of 30% a year over the next five years as it implements a strategy to achieve that rate by extending its footprint. ‘That means a lot of travel, and it’s not always sexy. However, it’s something I’m passionate about and therefore to me it doesn’t seem like work but rather fulfilling my personal vision. This job for me is my dream job.’

It’s also highly stimulating, he says, ‘switching from dealing with people in Indonesia to people from Zambia, each with their unique cultures, backgrounds and even languages. These experiences enrich one: for myself, I believe it makes me a better person, better father and spouse because I see the world from so many different angles.’

His vision doesn’t end there, though having just started a new challenge he says it would be impolitic to look further for now. ‘I see my current journey as lasting at least ten years, during which I view it as a given that our [Hollard] international business will be a commercial success. Maybe then, I’ll be up for a new challenge.’

FIVE TIPS FOR NEWLY QUALIFIED CAS(SA)

‘Pat yourself on the back for having qualified. The night you qualify is a special one – splurge!’

Be patient. ‘The CA qualification only opens doors – it’s not an end in itself. You’re still at the beginning of your career and are green. Be willing to learn and gain exposure to the “real” world,’ Brooks says.

‘Get experience of managing people. That’s precisely why I stayed an extra three years after articles because business is almost entirely about managing people.’

‘Get global exposure, because business is rapidly globalising and becoming multi-cultural.’

‘Have fun! Do things personally and in business that you enjoy,’ says Brooks.

Author: Eamonn Ryan