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Boardmans: Tom Boardman

How can I learn about business? What does it take to be an effective business leader? How do i foster business acumen and insight? What are the key lessons that lead to success in business?

Greg Fisher



Tom Boardman of Boardman's

These are important questions that any aspiring entrepreneuror business manager will ask themselves many times in their career. TomBoardman, the current chief executive officer of Nedbank and founder ofBoardman’s Retail Stores learnt his most important business lessons throughexperience, by being out there on the frontline, making important decisions andleading employees through good times and bad. He says: “A fundamentalphilosophy I have is that nothing you learn in life is ever wasted. Sooner orlater you will be called upon to use every bit of knowledge and experience andinformation that you have collected along the way. And that’s why when you areyoung you can be very smart and you can be well educated but actually only timeand experience can create wisdom.”

Tom Boardman started his career as financial manager forSouth Africa’s largest corporation, Anglo American. From there he went on tolaunch the country’s first ever chain of retail “home stores”, Boardman’s, andin so doing, paved the way for a whole new retail category in South Africa.After leaving Boardman’s in the hands of the Pick n Pay Group in 1986, he wenton to join BOE when it was still a private company. Boardman helped list BOE onthe Johannesburg Stock Exchange and was later named chief executive of thecompany. In 2002 BOE was acquired by Nedbank and a year later Boardman wasappointed chief executive of Nedbank with the task of turning the financialinstitution around after a few years of disappointing results and a consequent lossof market faith. He set ambitious goals for Nedbank in 2004 and achieved themin 2007, returning the bank to healthy profitability and ensuring that it wasstrong enough to weather the financial storm that lay ahead in 2008.

On the surface, it may seem as if Tom Boardman’s career hasbeen a smooth, successful journey as he has transitioned from one leadershipposition to another but when you delve into the details, you realise that hepaid a high price for some of the lessons learnt along the way. You alsorealise that he took both success and failure in his stride and learnt fromevery opportunity, and it is those lessons that have given him the wisdom,confidence and management insight to lead one of South Africa’s largestfinancial services companies through one of its most challenging times.

The first deal

Boardman obtained a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Law atWits University and then served articles at Deloitte & Touche to qualify asa chartered accountant. After completing his articles he was offered a job infinance at Anglo American Properties where he concluded his first major deal, amerger: “On the Monday we had very broad range discussions on the merger. Weagreed to meet again on a Thursday with the company with whom we were doing thedeal. We did a little bit of work on the Tuesday and my boss played golf everyWednesday, so he went off to play golf. When we arrived at the office onThursday we had a couple of notes sketched out. At the meeting the managementof the other company had a complete blueprint of the merger. They were so muchbetter prepared at that meeting that we were on the back foot from then on. Itwas a great lesson in preparing for meetings. He who prepares best gets what hewants.”

Boardman described how this lesson has stuck with him since1973 and it is evident that he still lives by this philosophy today. Before mymeeting with him he asked for an outline of our discussion and arrived at themeeting prepared with printouts of slides, documents and a clear idea of the directionof our conversation. Having had to scramble for position in the merger talks backthen, Boardman’s team eventually consummated a deal. It was then that he wasexposed to the realities of a corporate merger. He had learned about thestructure and purpose of mergers in his accounting and law classes but no oneever warned him about this thing called culture. “One can potentially cutcosts, achieve economies of scale, share systems etc…. but when you try tomerge two very different cultures it’s a very difficult and complex thing,” hereflects. Ever since that first deal he has been much more aware of culture inorganisations. He always works on fostering the right kind of culture in hisorganisation and takes time to assess culture when considering a merger or apartner organisation.

Getting lucky

A few years into his tenure at Anglo American Properties,Boardman was relocated to Cape Town to be finance director of Sam Newman’s – abuilding supplies company in the HL&H Group, also part of Anglo American.“I went to Cape Town early in 1977. After the riots in 1976 South Africa was indeep trouble. Things were looking really, really bad and the building industrywas in a nosedive. Cape Town had some of the wettest winters ever so theresults of the building materials division were dreadful. Eighteen months afterI arrived there the chief executive left. The other execs looked around andsaid: “Tom, can you just hold the fort while we look for a new CE?” I was 28 atthe time and the company employed around 3 000 people. So I held the fort asacting MD and I learned another of life’s great lessons… that a huge amountin life depends on luck. Now obviously if it comes your way you had betterseize the opportunity. You may be absolutely brilliant and talented and you getno breaks. But when a break comes, you have to seize it.”

“In the first 12 months while they were still looking for anew CE, the economy improved. Massive housing projects were initiated on theCape Flats and we had the driest season in 25 years. Every month the numbersgot better and better. It was not genius; it was the way the things work. Theresult was that a year had gone by and they hadn’t found a new CE and they saidto me: “You are it, GO!” Boardman points out that business people must monitorevents in the external environment and respond with conviction to changes. Thatmay mean seizing opportunities when the environment works in your favour orputting contingency plans in place when it works against you.

Knowing the numbers

Not yet 30 and leading a company employing 3 000 people –many of them older and more experienced than him – Boardman had the advantageof being able to understand the numbers in the Sam Newman business. Numbersbring everything down to a common unit of analysis and enable a person to seethe big picture, he says. “What happens in any business is that you put moneyin. It either goes in as debt or equity. Then it fragments and it goes intoinventory, people, buildings and plant and equipment. Eventually it comes outthe other side as profit, which is reinvested or distributed as dividends.While it is fragmented, it is very difficult to interpret. A person whounderstands the numbers in a business can be like the only interpreter in thecity of Babel where nobody spoke the same language. So if there is one personwho can speak all the languages, imagine the power that person is sittingwith… as a 29 year old with one year in the business, the big picture that Igot from having all the financial pieces was very powerful.” Boardman suggeststhat all people who want to succeed in business should develop the skills tointerpret financial reports, “without that you will always be at the mercy ofthe person who can provide such an interpretation” he says.

One of the major developments that Boardman introduced atSam Newman’s was the transformation of the company’s struggling retail hardwarestores. The company had many wholesale yards and just two retail stores andBoardman realised that retailing hardware goods in a store is different towholesaling building supplies from a yard. He revamped the stores to make themmore appealing and brought in a Swiss store designer. By displaying items in amore logical, accessible way, turnover started to increase: “When things aregoing well you need to understand as much as you can about the reasons why.When business is going well people seldom ask why. But if it’s going badly theywant answers. Things were going well so I set out to find out why,” hereflects. “We did in-store surveys and discovered that more and more women werecoming into the hardware store. So we asked them why they were coming to thishardware store.

They said it was because they liked it. We found out that womenmake the majority of home décor decisions and hardware had traditionally beensold in an environment where women didn’t feel happy. We discovered that bycreating a hardware store with a pleasant environment we had hit on somethingbig.” The business took the next step to leverage this opportunityand a new Sam Newman’s store was built – “a whole new concept” which took off immediately because there was nothing like it in SouthAfrica at the time. It was a home store but it retained items such as paint andwallpaper. “We scaled down the range of technical fittings but we had a toolsection. With this new concept we took what Sam Newman’s was known for, butadapted it for women.”

Taking a leap

Even though the new Sam Newman’s retail stores were doingwell, the HL&H board questioned whether the concept fitted into theirportfolio. HL&H was an industrial group and the directors saw the retailstores as non-core. Boardman was tasked with finding a buyer. He looked aroundfor a few weeks and then started toying with the idea of buying the retail storeshimself. He approached the board and was told that if he could raise the moneyin 30 days, they would consider selling to him. He mortgaged everything, andborrowed as much money as he could to raise the capital for a 51% share in thenew business. The Swiss store designer and one of the other Sam Newman’smanagers put up the capital for the other 49%.

One of the real challenges of the acquisition wasnegotiating the price of the sale: “When you are buying, you want to get theprice as low as you can.…if I had been a total outsider, I would have arguedand haggled to knock down the value of the stock. But having been MD of thebusiness, it is very difficult to argue against what you have on the books. Iprobably paid too much for the business and, with hindsight, I would haveinterposed an independent person to act on my behalf.” After agreeing on aprice, Boardman and his partners developed a plan to turn the retail storesinto a sustainable, growing business.

They decided to call the business “Boardman’s Retail Stores”encapsulating the Boardman family name in the same way that quality departmentstores like Garlicks and Masons had, recalls Boardman.One of the benefits of working for a large successfulcompany early in your career, is that you may learn relevant managementpractices and pick up some useful strategic tools. At HL&L, Boardman wasexposed to a framework for understanding business that resonated with him andhe has applied it in every business he has run since. He found that certainbasic business principles apply equally whether you are running a start-upretail business with only two stores or a large listed financial servicesinstitution. The framework he uses, which came from HL&H, and is still usedin Nedbank today, is depicted on the left.

“It starts with vision” says Boardman. “At Boardman’s, ourvision was: ‘To develop the first national retail chain, mass marketing qualitycontemporary design, household goods at affordable prices’. Twenty five yearslater I can still recite it. So could every person in the business. And eachone of those words had a great deal of importance.” Values were not as high apriority for leaders in the early 1980s as they are today, says Boardman, butin launching Boardman’s, they did try to be explicit about what was importantto them as a company. Boardman relates how they crafted strategy and identifiedcritical success factors: “When you have your vision, you need to establishstrategy; within strategy, you need to decide what your critical successfactors are. Every business has critical success factors, three or four factorsthat determine the success of the business. You may have to go out and do someresearch and scenario planning to understand what is happening in the market. Look at the macro side, do your normal old SWOTanalysis to ascertain exactly what those success factors are.

At Boardman’s, our critical success factors were:

  1. To have unique and different merchandise. To be different
  2. To display items in a way that people can visualisethemselves in a room
  3. To achieve store efficiencies to minimise shrinkage

According to the Boardman adopted framework, you need todetermine the critical success activities attached to the critical successfactors: “This is about ascertaining what different people within the businessmust do to achieve the critical success factors. Linked to that you need toestablish an appropriate structure for the business so that people caneffectively carry out the critical success activities, and then you need tofind the right people for each role,” says Boardman. “Very often managersselect people and then look for a job for them. They should first identifytheir critical activities and then find the best people for those activities.

“With the right people in place you ensure that each personhas specific objectives stipulating exactly what you want them to achieve. Youmeasure people-performance based on those objectives and reward them for goodperformance,” says Boardman. “In thirty five years, the reward performanceblock is the most difficult block I have ever had to wrestle with. It is morecomplex than all the other things in managing a business and if you get itwrong it drives the wrong behaviour. Once you have got the reward system inplace you have to constantly ask whether the reward system is driving youtoward your vision. Is it rewarding the right value systems and driving yourstrategy?”

Making it work

Having mapped out his strategic plan, Boardman set about thehard work of building a business. He thought he had worked hard as a 29 yearold managing director of a building supplies business, but he worked evenharder when it was his own capital on the line and he was running a growingretail business with his family name in the brand. To be really effective as amanager he found that he had to be visible. “There is no substitute for’management by walk-about’; visible leadership is the first step in leadership.Initially it was easy because we had two stores. As the business grew it becamemore challenging but still essential. I also travelled with my buying teams tothe trade fairs in Milan. On my first visit to Milan, I asked: “Where does allthe wood come from?”

I knew from HL&H that moving timber around is veryexpensive and if I could find the source of the wood, the factories producingthe furniture would be nearby and I could buy directly from them. I discoveredthat the wood came from Yugoslavia and most of the manufacturing was in anortheastern corner of Italy. So we hired a car and drove up to visit smallmanufacturers in the area. We negotiated deals with them and in so doing cutout the middleman. None of the other retailers were doing that and it gave us acost advantage. Our willingness to get intimately involved in the operationsand work with the buyers allowed us to establish this advantage.”

Today, Boardman is still renowned for being highly visible.On my way into Nedbank, the ladies at the main reception told me how much theyenjoy it when the CE spends time talking to them and finding out how they are.

In search of growth

After eighteen months in business, the Boardman’s managementteam decided they were expanding too slowly. To help grow the business theyresolved that they needed a partner. After considering a number of retailorganisations in South Africa, they received a call from Pick n Pay. Boardmanliked the family values of Pick n Pay and after some rounds of negotiation theydecided to enter into an equal partnership in which Pick ‘n Pay would buy 50%of the equity from the original partners, allowing them to pay off their debtsand providing some capital for growth in the business. The partnership meantthat they shared the profits but also needed to fund additional capitalrequirements on the same basis. Boardman saw the upside of this relationship,but failed to pay enough attention to the potential downside.

When the deal wasconcluded, the plan was to open two new stores annually for the next threeyears, rolling out two additional stores in the Western Cape in 1985, another twoin the Western Cape in 1986 and then moving up to Gauteng in 1987. After signing the deal, the business began to grow accordingto plan. Two large new stores opened in the Western Cape in 1985, one inTygervalley and the other in Stellenbosch. Then, out of the blue, that sameyear, Boardman was offered a lease for a new store in Midrand. TheVerwoerdburgstad Mall was opening up and had 2 000 m2 of prime retail spaceavailable. Pick n Pay wanted to proceed even though it deviated from the plan.Boardman flew to Gauteng on Raymond Ackerman’s private jet, met with his oldbosses from Anglo American Properties, saw the development in the Midrand areaand decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. He was confident thecompany would be able to accommodate the additional capital requirement if therand did not weaken any further. If it did weaken, he would be in trouble, buteconomists told him that the currency was undervalued and would probablystrengthen. Boardman relates: “A big lesson here, when you look at scenariosand see bad news don’t ignore it. You have to contemplate theuncontemplatable.”

He signed the lease for a Midrand store and a few weekslater a lease for a new store in Eastgate became available. Once again Pick nPay wanted to build an additional store, at odds with the original plan, andagain Boardman rationalised it and signed the lease. When he signed the two newleases in Gautengthe exchange rate was at about R1,25 to a dollar. Within five months, PW Bothamade the “Crossing the Rubicon” speech and the rand fell to R2,63 to a dollar.There was now no way that Boardman could find the money to fund the workingcapital requirements of the expanded business; he just did not have the cash.The only way out was to sell the company. Boardman realised that he had takensome risks and the environment had turned against him. There was nothing hecould do. He sold Boardman’s to Pick n Pay for R1. Even though Boardman did not remain involved in thebusiness, what he had started continued to be successful. A new category of“home store” retailing had emerged in South Africa as a result of thepioneering spirit of Tom Boardman and the retail stores bearing his name stilloperate successfully in most major shopping malls in South Africa today. Boardman’sis now part of the Edcon group but the Boardman’s retail format that youexperience today is not very different from what Tom Boardman originallycreated in Cape Town in the 1980s.

Although he was sad to have to leave the retail businessthat he had put so much effort into creating, Boardman realised that he hadlearned some valuable lessons in the process of building and then losingBoardman’s. Those lessons laid the foundation for a superb career thatfollowed. After selling Boardman’s, he joined BOE while it was still a private,relatively niche financial service institution and played an integralleadership role in listing the business. He went on to become the BOE chiefexecutive, in the process expanding the base of the business substantially. BOEwas acquired by Nedbank in 2002 and then in 2003, Nedbank was in trouble. Thebank had issued four profit warnings to the market in 12 months and the mediawas reporting that analysts had “given up all trust in its numbers”. In hisfirst four months as Nedbank CE, Boardman reportedly uncovered a myriad ofaccounting problems.

“That so many holes have been found is Boardman’sachievement” reported Finweek. Multiple media reports stated that Boardman hadsteadied the ship and regained Nedbank’s lost credibility. He was open andtransparent and put a plan in place to address the problems one at a time,based on a well thought out priority list. In 2004, he set significant goalsfor the organisation – to achieve a 20% return on equity and bring the efficiencyratio below 55% within three years. The 2007 results reflected that, under theleadership of Boardman, Nedbank had achieved these goals and was, once again, astable, credible, well regarded financial services institution, effectivelyserving customers and generating good returns for shareholders. Boardman’sbusiness acumen and leadership helped re-establish the company and set it on apath to sustained profits when it looked like it was on its way down a painfulspiral. These leadership skills and business insights were developedwhile he was engaged in a tough and challenging process of building anentrepreneurial business. Entrepreneurship has many benefits of which learningis one of the most significant.

What you can learnfrom the Boardman’s story

It has been shown that human beings are naturally morereactive to negative information. If we get feedback on something, we willtypically spend more energy focusing on the negative aspects of that feedbackthan on the positives. A degrading comment from someone we care about will staywith us for a lot longer than a compliment or word of encouragement. Inpsychology this is called negativity bias. The implications of this forbusiness are significant: Managers and business owners tend to over-react to negativesituations – sales dropping, a customer leaving, a late shipment – andunder-react to positive situations. When things are going well, we seldom tryto uncover why they are going well. This means that we often don’t understandour own success and therefore fail to replicate and capitalise on that success.

One of the things that Tom Boardman did when sales werepicking up in the Sam Newman’s stores was to understand the trend. He conductedin-store surveys to find out why people were coming into the shop and makingpurchases. By understanding the success of the business, he discovered a wholenew market – women shopping for hardware items. None of the other retailers hadprovided for this market, and his effort to display the hardware items moreeffectively, attracted them. By understanding who was shopping in his storesand why they were there, he was able to further extend that offering through awhole new concept and in the process create a massive new market.

So how can you understand your success?

1. Survey customers – ask them what they like, why theybought something and what attracted them to your product or service.

2. Keep a track record – try to maintain a clear record ofmarketing material, product designs, packaging and promotional materials. Whenyou have had a successful period, look for relationships between all theseitems and revenue. Try to understand what is giving you increased revenue.

3. Employee focus groups – after a successful year or a goodmonth, hold focus group discussions with employees asking them what wasdifferent? What worked well?  Why do theythink you achieved success?

4. Keep a personal business diary – on a more personallevel, keep a notebook in which you record the nuggets of wisdom that youdiscover along the way. These may be things that you hear from others or ideasyou read about. They may also be things that you discover for yourself inmanaging a business, things that work well or fail miserably. Both providevaluable lessons.

Greg Fisher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Management & Entrepreneurship Department at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. He teaches courses on Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Turnaround Management. He has a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle and an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He is also a visiting lecturer at GIBS.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
  • Company: Property Point
  • What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit:

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.

While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.

Risk, reputation and relationships

“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.

So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?

Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.

“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”

A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.

“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”

Related: Property Point Creates R1bn In Procurement Opportunities For Small Businesses

Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”

This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.

“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”

In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”

Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.

“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”

Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.

Building a sustainable start-up

While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.

Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.

1. Align and partner with the right people

This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.

2. Make sure you get the basics right

Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?

3. Understand your value proposition

Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?

Related: Want To Start A Property Business That Buys Property And Rents It Out?

4. Unpack your value chain

If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?

8. Don’t ignore technology

Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.

Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.

“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”

Networking, collaborating and mentoring

Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.

“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.

“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”

The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.

To find out more, visit

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive

Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.

Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.

A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.

While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.

“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”

Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.

The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.

“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”

Related: (Slideshow) Top Advice From Local Entrepreneurs That Will Change Your Business In 2019

So, what were the differentiating factors?

What’s dragging your organisation down?

First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.

“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.

“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”

This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.

What the research revealed: Time


“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”

These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”

The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.

What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.

“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.

“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”

The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.

Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.

“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?

“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”

What the research revealed: Talent

According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.

“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”

To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.

It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.

This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.

“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”

The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”

The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.

“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.

“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’

“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”

The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?

“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.

“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”

Related: Entrepreneur Erik Kruger On The Importance Of Clarity And Embracing Failure

Teams perform better than individuals

To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.

“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”

Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.

“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.

“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”

According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.

“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.

“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.

“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”

How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”

What the research reveals: Energy

According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.

“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”

Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”

Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.

“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.

“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”

The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”

Related: How Yoco Successfully Secured Capital And The Importance Of A Pitch

Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.

Visit to find out more.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up

Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
  • Company: Brand Cartel
  • Launched: 2013
  • Visit:

“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”

When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.

Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.

“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”

The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon

We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”

This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”

The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.

Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.

This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.

“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.

Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”

The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.

“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.

The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.

Related: How Matthew Piper And Karidas Tshintsholo Launched Their First Business From Their UCT Dorm Rooms

Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.

“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”

The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”

The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.

The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.

“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”


Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.

1. Play with your work

Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.

2. Wag your tail

The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.

We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.

3. Check it, don’t wreck it

The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.

4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)

We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.

That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.

Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

5. Put your name to it

It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.

We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.

When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.

We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.

6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)

We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’

7. Walk the talk

For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.

Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.

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