- Player: Basil Reekie
- Company: Clientèle
- Position: MD
- Contact: +27 (0)11 320 3000
- Visit: clientele.co.za
Under Basil Reekie’s leadership, the Clientèle group has successfully navigated the global economic downturn, which saw many companies around the world post vast losses.
Bucking the trend, Clientèle’s embedded value since 2008 has grown from R1 billion to well over R4 billion, while paying out dividends of more than R1 billion in the same period.
Clientèle is the only company presently listed on the JSE that has increased profits every year for the last 17 years. In 2015, the company was placed 14th in the Financial Mail ‘Top Company Survey’, and in 2015 it was also certified as a Top Employer by The Top Employers Institute of South Africa. Entrepreneur spoke to Reekie about his winning strategies.
You strengthened the Clientèle senior management team across all business units. How did you do it?
We were in the fortunate position of experiencing rapid growth which meant we needed to increase the size of the management team. This allowed us to determine what our weaknesses were and which additional strengths were needed to build a strong multi-disciplinary leadership team.
I normally look for a good attitude and proven ability. Formal qualifications are the least important factor, except for specialist roles such as statutory actuary or finance director.
Clientèle grew its employee number from 400 to 1 300 in seven years. How did you ensure that decisions could still be made quickly? Growth of this level can result in exactly the opposite.
Our biggest challenge has been remaining nimble as we have grown rapidly in a constantly changing environment. However, we have been successful at this in most areas.
The secret is making sure that the Group Executive team is aware of what is going on in all areas of the business and encouraging them to make proactive decisions.
Something I also encourage is people being prepared to test ideas and not being afraid of failure. If something does not work, it is important that you quickly revert back to what you were doing previously, or try something different.
Clientèle retains its strategic focus: creating simple, affordable and reliable products available to all South Africans. How important has it been to retain the strategic focus and how is that achieved against a backdrop of market challenges?
One secret to our success has been the ability to keep things simple. Nonetheless, we have extended our product range significantly over the last eight or nine years, adding products like our various hospital plans, our legal plans and our premium products, which offer significantly higher sums assured than our regular products.
Each time we add a product we are extremely conscious of the need to ensure that the product itself is simple and easy to understand and that it will enhance our offering to our clients, existing and new.
We have tried to stay away from being reactionary in what we do and do not simply copy our competitors, rather we are always looking for something that is unique, yet simple.
A good example of this is a recently launched funeral policy that pays the normal funeral benefits on death as well as a return of all premiums paid on death. This, we believe, is both revolutionary and easy for our clients to understand.
Another area where we are strategically focused is the area of client service. We aim to treat every client well at every touch point of the business.
The group has a reputation for its dedication to corporate governance and responsible budgeting. What is your advice on ensuring excellent financial management?
Make sure that the right people — those who understand the numbers — remain involved in the detail. That will always result in good financial management.
Furthermore, keep authorisation limits relatively low and ensure that the executive team thinks about spending as if it was their own money. That helps to ensure that no-one spends frivolously, even when the business is growing.
How do you gain consensus?
My leadership style is relatively collaborative. I listen to the opinions and views of other executives without being afraid to make decisions when these are necessary.
All significant decisions are discussed in the relevant forums, particularly at Group Executive level.
As a business we are more than happy to test things and this makes it much easier to gain consensus than in another environment.
The key to consensus for us is that we set sensible targets before any tests are undertaken. We are rarely unwilling to test something provided that we have clear objectives beforehand to allow us to determine (unemotionally) whether it has been successful or not.
What does ‘big picture thinking’ mean to you?
Big picture thinking is innovative. It’s the way a person looks at problems, opportunities and situations. Idea generators often think of big changes, new projects and substantial opportunities to create new business.
To be a ‘big picture thinker’ you need to be able to step back and look at the business and set goals for the long-term future, at the same time as being able to drill down into the detail in order to make a success of any given venture.
To imagine possibilities beyond what is immediately obvious, while homing in on detail when necessary is absolutely critical for a really successful leader.
In the insurance space, you have to be able to look into the future, understand what is changing in the competitive landscape and still be able to look at the detail of what is happening at present to make sure that the big picture you envision is indeed the one you want to achieve at your organisation.