Home Articles COVER STORY: Jannie Mouton: man of vision and focus

COVER STORY: Jannie Mouton: man of vision and focus

“There is no downside to having a qualification as a chartered accountant, only upsides. One of the things I have learnt here at PSG is never to use the word ‘I’ but rather use the word ‘we’”

Jannie Mouton is one of South Africa’s most successful and influential businessmen.  Accounting SA had a rare opportunity to speak to the chairman of the PSG Group to find out more about the man behind the exceptionally successful company he founded in 1995. He stood down as executive chairman of PSG in 2010, but remains involved as the non-executive chairman.

The PSG Group Ltd (PSG) is an investment holding company with underlying investments operating in the financial services, banking, private equity, agriculture and education industries. Its interim results for the six months ending 31 August 2013 indicate that the company’s market capitalisation is approximately R15.4 billion, with its largest investment a 28.3% interest in Capitec Bank. PSG owns 100% of PSG Private Equity, PSG Capital and PSG Corporate Services, with substantial holdings in PSG Konsult (64.8%), Curro Holdings (57.1%), Thembeka Capital (49%) and Zeder Investments (42.6%).

“There is no downside to having a qualification as a chartered accountant, only upsides. One of the things I have learnt here at PSG is never to use the word ‘I’ but rather use the word ‘we’.”

The stated PSG strategy and philosophy: “We invest in companies with uncomplicated business models operating in industries with attractive growth prospects and led by talented, hard-working and passionate people,” is also an accurate description of Jannie Mouton’s own approach as entrepreneur. This becomes clear during our opportunity to talk to a man whose keen business focus has made him the driving force and major investor in a string of exceptional South African companies.

Jannie Mouton is positive about the general business prospects of South Africa as a leading African economy. He says he does not like negative people and believes there are “more opportunities here in South Africa than in Europe, for instance”. He notes that statistics show increasing GDP growth since democracy in 1994 and points out that his own ‘second life’ in business started in the new South Africa, when he started PSG in 1995 by acquiring the controlling interest in what was then PAG (Professional Assignment Group). “Of course there are challenges as well, such as the influx of jobless people into the country, but overall it is a country of opportunity in many industries.” It is Mouton’s belief that in a free business environment, you can leave it to successful companies to grow, employ people and pay taxes.

This much-admired entrepreneur comes from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape where he matriculated in 1964. He studied for his BCom (Hons) degree at the University of Stellenbosch, did his articles at PricewaterhouseCoopers and qualified as a chartered accountant in 1973.

Being a CA(SA) has definitely contributed to his business insights and practices. Some general career advice pointers he gives to young, freshly qualified South African chartered accountants who want to make their mark as a business leaders or entrepreneurs is: “It is important to know who you are and what you are capable of doing, so that you can be realistic. For instance I cannot take over Billiton or Sasol – they are too big. I don’t have the relevant knowledge and I also do not have the finance. If you want to start a business, you should understand that particular business environment and for that you have to do some fundamental research.”

He believes “there is no downside to having a qualification as a chartered accountant, only upsides”. The advantage of a CA lies in a fundamental understanding of those basic sets of accounts that form the basis of each business. “Once or twice a year you stand still and summarise everything in a balance sheet and income statement.”

Mouton also thinks that a CA is “an unbelievably practical qualification and gives you a bit of vision. While doing your articles, you audit many different companies in different sectors. This contributes to one’s general understanding of business because you have the opportunity during those years to learn from many different people and companies.” He believes a young accountant should “work hard at gaining as much academic, work and life experience as possible. Perhaps only in his thirties should he decide what he or she wants to do or become – a stockbroker, entrepreneur or whatever.”

The path to success

This entrepreneur does not have one specific piece of advice that would ensure business success. “Success is a process to reach a destination. For instance, hard work is important – but it is not only hard work that counts. Among others you have to be aware of the business environment and be smart enough to identify opportunities. You should also have the courage to take risks if you want to start a new venture.” He adds, however, that “once you have decided what to do, it is a matter of focus”.

With various twists and turns in his career, Mouton has had to pay ‘school fees’ on a number of occasions. One wonders whether being fired in 1995 from stockbroking firm Senekal, Malan and Kitshoff (KSM), of which he was a founding member in 1982, changed him and the way he views business and life in general. Looking back, he says being fired was a good thing, “otherwise I would have drifted along”. At the time, losing his job forced him to rethink life. “Sometimes you have to stand still and re-assess.”

Like most influential people, Mouton has had many admirers and critics over the years. Although known for his forthright honesty, he admits that he can be difficult and is “not always right”. Yet he confesses to having a soft core and perhaps one of the most telling things about Jannie Mouton is the fact that he dedicated And then they fired me, the book written about him by Carié Maas for Tafelberg Publishers in 2011, to “everyone who were loyal and good to him throughout my life: parents, family, friends, shareholders of PSG and colleagues”. The book was not his idea, as he thinks that it is arrogant to write a book about yourself. In the end he decided there was no harm in having it written, since he thought that somebody could learn from some of the lessons – both good and bad – that he has learnt.

Labelled by some the ‘Boere Buffett’, one wonders what Mouton thinks about Warren Buffett, the CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway. He shares many of Buffett’s philosophies. There is a parallel in his choice of Stellenbosch for the headquarters of PSG rather than the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg or Cape Town – much like Buffet, who still lives in the small city of Omaha, Nebraska, where he was born, rather than in New York. Mouton clearly respects the man who came from humble beginnings to become one of the most successful business people in the world. “Most of that he achieved as an investor and he has a very interesting and wise look on life.” He describes how impressive it is to attend a Berkshire Hathaway AGM in Omaha, with 35 000 people there in person and with live links to other centres with even more attendees. He has read most extensively about Buffett and admires his business insights and philanthropy.

Indeed, he believes it is important to read about successful people and is a voracious reader of business books: “I think I learn something from each of them.” This is clear from even a cursory glance at his office library, the way he freely quotes other business leaders’ wisdom and the well thought-out reading list that appears at the back of And then they fired me.

His down-to earth and no-nonsense attitude to business is legendary. Yet looking back at his career until now, Mouton says there are, of course, things he would have done differently.  He has learnt many lessons: “One of the things I have learnt here at PSG is never to use the word ‘I’ but rather use the word ‘we’ because that implies that you are working as a team.”

Corporate governance and more …

Among the things that have changed during Mouton’s career are corporate governance requirements and the use of technology. As far as the former is concerned, honesty and integrity are “unbelievably important”. He has “no respect for all these tenderpreneurs and for fronting”.

One also has to understand the difference between corporate governance and corporate strategy. “Things like insider trading are well defined in law and are an issue of corporate governance rather than corporate strategy.” He thinks it is vitally important for companies to be honest and open with their shareholders and to communicate “both the good things and the bad things – it simply makes good sense”. At the same time he believes very strongly in the natural processes of the free market and thinks much time still gets wasted by unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape, which paralyse businesses.

Although he is not personally interested in new technology and computers, he does refer to the effects that technology has had on the way that business is done today – from trading on stock markets to the wealth of real-time information that is available via the Internet. “It makes a big difference in business.”

Jannie Mouton – the man and the businessman

For someone who has achieved so much, does Jannie Mouton still see major prospects for himself as business leader? He says simply that: “We keep our eyes open for opportunities.” Citing the example of Curro, provider of private school education (in which PSG has a majority shareholding), he says: “They are special people and we are absolutely dedicated to help them build the operation.” Curro was listed on the JSE (AltX) on 2 June 2011 and moved to the JSE main board in July 2012. Although Mouton describes it as still a small company, it is now the biggest operation in home schooling through distance learning in the country. He points out that home schooling is also growing internationally. With pride, he mentions the example of the school in Polokwane in the Curro group with 4 500 students that boasts a pass rate of 99.7%.

Making money is not what makes Jannie Mouton happy. In terms of the heritage he would like to leave as businessman, he says simply. “I would like to be thought of as someone who gives back, which includes giving time to people. Making a success of something like Curro gives me unbelievable satisfaction.”

A further important key to understanding Jannie Mouton the businessman lies in these remarks: “I think I would like to be thought of as honest and humble and respected.  Without friends and family I would be a poor person. I am not an individual who can survive on my own.” He believes it is important to have sounding boards to bounce ideas off and he draws strength from the people close to him – although he quips that, “of course, they may have another view”. In addition, he comments that “I am in a fortunate position to say that 76% of our shareholding is in the possession of friends and family.”

Mouton is still to be found in his office at the PSG head office in Stellenbosch daily. “PSG is well set and I come here because I like it here.”

Apart from reading business books, he also speaks about his love of poetry and is proud of a huge collection of Afrikaans literature and poetry. Mouton sponsored Versindaba (‘poetry indaba’) which in due course became part of the annual Stellenbosch Woordfees literary festival.

He also confesses to being ‘addicted’ to Sudoku. But mostly, he lights up when he talks about his family and friends. He is extremely proud of his children and grandchildren, who “have brought him nothing but joy”.

In 2004 Jannie lost his first wife, Dana, with whom he had his two sons, Jan and Piet, and a daughter, Charité. Both his sons have followed in their father’s footsteps by qualifying as chartered accountants and serving over the years in various leadership positions at companies in the group. Piet is today the CEO of PSG and his oldest son, Jan, manages the PSG Flexible Fund and serves as a non-executive director of PSG.

In 2010 Jannie married Deidré, whom he describes as his soulmate and friend. Spending time with his close family, including his grandchildren, and socialising with friends – many of whom he is proud to have as business associates – is the one thing he singles out as most important to keeping him grounded.

His achievements have been recognised in numerous awards, among others the Western Cape Businessman of the Year award (2006) and the Frans du Toit Medal for Business Leadership (Frans du Toit Medalje vir Bedryfsleiding) of the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (2008) and the All Africa Business Leaders Award (2012).

Author: Lia Labuschagne Independent writer, editor and communication consultant