- Players: Hina Kassam and Irfan Pardesi
- Company: ACM Gold
- Launched: 2005
- Turnover: More than R400 million
- Profit: R350 million
- Company Value: R3 billion
- Awards: World Finance Best Broker Africa 2013
- ARABCom Best Broker 2012 (Middle East and Africa)
- Contact: www.acmgold.com
Irfan Pardesi has never seen his father have money. His brothers and sisters have, but as the youngest child, his experiences were of his father losing everything – twice.
It’s not typically the kind of household that an entrepreneur would emerge from, where entrepreneurship meant tough times and a family struggling to make ends meet.
But for the youngest Pardesi, it meant something else: Survival. Growing up in Pakistan and nearing the end of high school, the young Irfan could have dropped out. His family could no longer afford to pay school fees, and by working he could help to pay the bills.
Instead, pushed by his sister Hina Kassam, who was married and living in the UK, he decided stay in school – whatever it took. He was good at his studies, and he wanted to get his A levels. “I started selling mobile phones to pay for my school fees,” he says, and his path to entrepreneurship began.
Wanted: Resourceful spirit
Today, Pardesi and Kassam run ACM Gold, a forex trading platform that spans international markets, and has a group turnover of R400 million, with very impressive profit margins. Launched in Pakistan, the business’s head office then moved to Dubai, before settling in South Africa.
“South Africa has everything we’ve been looking for. It’s a beautiful country, the climate is ideal, its banking sector is well regulated and trusted, and it offers all the skills we need,” says Pardesi. “We’ve found our home, and we have big growth plans.”
Having lived on three continents, the brother and sister duo have a good understanding of what they’re looking for. Kassam grew up in Pakistan, spent time living in Uganda and Kenya, and settled in London before moving to Dubai to head up ACM in the bustling UAE capital. While Kassam was in Uganda, Pardesi finished his A levels and was looking for a way to study in London.
“I had negotiated with my school to let me finish my A levels in one year instead of two. I needed to save costs. We were broke, there was a lot of unrest in Pakistan, and loans were piling up. I wanted to get on with my future.”
Getting his A levels didn’t solve any of Pardesi’s problems though.
“I would be the first person in my family to get a university degree, and they weren’t having any of it. My father had borrowed a lot of money, and my extended family expected me to start working as soon as I was out of school to help pay off those loans. I didn’t have permission to leave Pakistan to study abroad.”
But this was a kid who had paid his own school fees and finished his A levels in one year. He was going to get to London. The problem was that global events didn’t agree.
“I finished school in June, and started getting ready to leave for the UK. I’d told my family that I was going to Uganda for business. And then September 11 happened, and the British embassy in Pakistan closed.” There was no way Pardesi was getting a visa. The London School of Economics had accepted him, but he couldn’t get to the UK in time for his first semester.
Entrepreneurs are nothing if not resourceful. Their greatest strength is seeing an opportunity in every challenge, and finding solutions where others would give up. If he couldn’t get a visa in Pakistan, Pardesi would fly to Uganda. “Hina was living there and she had a friend in the UK embassy. I arrived in Uganda and they had arranged a British visa so that I could continue on to London.” Kassam had taken a loan and was able to give her brother £730 over and above the £1 500 he’d already saved up for his first term’s fees and living expenses while he found a job.
Becoming a specialist
Entrepreneurship is all about making it happen. Pardesi wanted to get his degree, and he needed to pay his way while also sending money home. In his first week, he secured a job at Starbucks, working 40 hours a week. But this didn’t leave much time for studies.
“I changed my schedule so that I went to university for two days, and worked five days a week. This meant skipping lectures that didn’t fit my schedule. I’d tried convincing the school board to change it for me, but they refused.”
Pardesi’s grades were good enough to qualify him for a scholarship in his second and third years though, and so when he graduated in 2004 he’d managed to not only save some money, but was living comfortably and still sending money home.
By this time, Kassam had moved back to London and was working in bank finance, and Pardesi secured a position at a boutique investment house that negotiated operational leases for aircraft.
“Our role was to find an investor, bank and carrier simultaneously, and then structure a deal. It wasn’t very complicated, but it was a highly specialised field that to outsiders looked scary and difficult. We were a boutique house, and yet institutions like Deutshe Bank and Goldman Sachs were asking us to value deals – and we could charge a premium price for our services.
Related: 9 Things Successful People Won’t Do
It was Pardesi’s first big lesson in business: Focus on what you know best. You don’t need to be a master of everything, you just need to know a lot about one thing. “We knew who we were, and we didn’t try to be anything else. It made us extremely good at what we did, and highly sought after in the market.”
It was also during this time that Pardesi was first introduced to currency. “We were advising our clients on currency derivatives and hedging of currencies, and an idea started percolating. I’d already learnt that as a specialised expert you garnered respect, and now I started thinking that as a ‘newbie’ if I wanted to launch something of my own, it needed to be in an area where my skills and knowledge were scarce, and I could make a difference.
“The obvious answer was an emerging economy.” Pardesi had saved $120 000 in bonuses and grown a seed fund as his idea continued to percolate, and then he suddenly found himself back at square one.
“My father had a liability of $160 000 and my parents needed me to come home. The money I’d been sending helped with living expenses, but hadn’t solved their debt.” The seed funds went towards servicing that debt, and by early 2005 Pardesi found himself back in Pakistan looking for something to do.
“My sole goal was to accumulate as much money as quickly as possible to launch the business I really wanted,” he explains. “I did this in a number of ways. My father had started a small property valuations company that I got involved in. I understood valuations, and we were soon on a panel assisting Pakistani banks with property valuations.”
He also started importing mobile phones, and partnered with a local teacher to open an HR consultancy. “I was scrambling. None of these businesses had the scope I was looking for. They did well, and we made a profit on two of them when we sold them, but I knew they had limited growth potential. I was looking for something where the sky wasn’t even the limit.”
These businesses were fairly simple to set up and run, with low barriers to entry, but in the background Pardesi and Kassam were busy on a different project. “While I was still in the UK, Hina and I had developed a habit of visiting brokers and CEOs of trading houses to see what they were doing,” says Pardesi.
Kassam, in particular, was looking for an additional income stream. “I wanted to start trading forex so that I could leave the bank, but first I needed to learn as much as I could.” They made contact with a South African company, Global Trader, that was operating in the UK, and became introductory brokers (IBs), earning a commission if they introduced traders to the online platform.
By the end of 2005 both siblings were in a position to launch a forex trading company. Kassam was trading and doing well, and had made good connections in London. Pardesi had saved $22 000 in seed funding, and had sold the businesses he was involved in. His plan was to move back to London and launch the business. The plan lasted exactly as long as it took to book a ticket, move back to London, and turn right back around and return to Pakistan.
“I had no business plan; I just wanted to hit the ground running. And then I realised that the money I had saved wouldn’t even last two months in London. I immediately turned around and went back to Pakistan,” he laughs, recalling the shock of realising the miscalculation.
Kassam stayed in London with her husband and family. She would negotiate the platform deals in the UK and Pardesi would set up the business in Pakistan.
Lessons learnt, and improvements made
The launch of Accentuate Capital Markets (ACM) in 2005 taught Pardesi his second big lesson in business: You can launch a highly successful business with limited funds.
“After saving and losing my start-up capital, and then saving up again only to realise it wasn’t enough, we needed to find a way to bootstrap the business. My aim was still to reach for the stars, but first we needed to start building a brand, earning a good reputation and securing a client base. We needed to start small to become big.”
The partners worked out a way to launch with limited investment capital. “Hina approached Global Traders and negotiated a deal with them. She was already a client of theirs, plus we’d been IBs for their brand for over a year. They knew us, and we were always aware of how important relationships are in business, so we’d fostered the relationship we had with them.
“We told them we’d be trading in Pakistan and getting them new clients in an emerging market, but we needed their platform for free. Their model was to charge monthly minimums to businesses that used their platform, but we couldn’t afford those fees, so this negotiation was essential to the success of our start-up.
“All trades would still go through their offices in London, and they’d make the commission, of which we took a small percentage. We were working off low margins, but we needed the platform to get started, and eventually they agreed. We were in business.”
Once the deal was signed, Pardesi focused on securing great office space. “Our fees were small, so we needed to focus on volumes. This meant having a good office that people could visit, meet me and the dealers, and feel secure depositing their money with us. Our primary investment went into that first office and securing a few dealers.”
Pardesi had promised Global Trader 400 to 500 new clients each month, which was one of the reasons they had agreed to give them the platform without charging fees, and they now had to deliver. “We’d convinced ourselves (and them) that Pakistan was a new market with endless opportunities and no real
The reality turned out quite different. Growth was extremely slow. Pardesi kept the business lean, and they achieved break-even in the first month, thanks to existing clients and contacts, but they were nowhere near their target of 500 clients.
“I think one of the single biggest lessons I’ve learnt in business, and one we’ve carried through to every decision we’ve made since, is the importance and power of localisation,” says Pardesi. “Entrepreneurs are problem solvers. That’s what we do. But that doesn’t mean much if you’re trying to solve a problem that’s not your target market’s main concern.”
ACM was following the model of a broker based in the UK who does business online. It worked very well in the established UK, US and European markets, but not in Pakistan’s emerging market. “Online trading wasn’t embraced. Even though we had dealers that our clients could call, and white papers we distributed to educate our market, the model just wasn’t taking off.”And then Global Trader went bankrupt. It was completely unexpected as the business had been growing.
“We needed to regroup and re-evaluate what we were doing. It’s never nice to see a business go under, especially one you have a relationship with, but it did force us to change our model, this time with a much better understanding of our market guiding us.”
The secret of localisation
First, Kassam started negotiations with online platform providers that centred on a more holistic partnership. The reason was two-fold.
“Previously, we only hosted the platform and provided on-the-ground support. All accounts had to be set up through our UK partner, and approvals took up to a week and a half. This time delay meant people couldn’t start trading immediately. It also meant that they were essentially doing business with two companies – us and Global Trader, which could become confusing, and all trades were done in foreign currency.”
Kassam’s negotiations with a new online trading platform resulted in a very different business model. The platform was white labelled, so all trades were conducted through an ACM-branded site, which meant the client had only one point of contact. ACM also had power of approval, which meant they could approve new clients and get them trading immediately.
Their next big change was to localise trades. For the first time in the global trading environment, ACM offered a local trading denomination for gold.
“The subcontinent’s gold measurement is the tola. Around the world, gold is traded in US dollars per ounce. We allowed trades in rupees per tola, and did the conversions ourselves. It was a small change that Hina negotiated, with huge ramifications. No one had thought of localising trades. It wasn’t rocket science, or even difficult to do, but it meant our clients could trade in a denomination they were familiar with, and it made a huge difference to their confidence in their own trades, and our platform.”
The third big shift in the business model was focused specifically on how their clients traded. “Our dealers were extremely busy as clients would rather call them and have them make the trades than do it themselves online. They also liked dropping in to the office, and those who did so traded more frequently and for bigger amounts. They loved our environment.”
Armed with this knowledge, Pardesi made a decision that would never have worked in London. He cancelled his sales and marketing budget and redirected everything towards creating a physical trading environment that people wanted to be a part of.
“We had no sales consultants, but we did have three cooks, for example,” he says. “Clients could walk in day or night and order a drink, food – we even had staff who could run errands for them – all for free. We wanted them to feel at home. We were no longer trying to change the social behaviour of our clients; we were adjusting our model to suit their behaviour.”
Soon, clients started bringing friends. It was a lively, social atmosphere where everyone was pampered. “There was something about the energy of the trading floor that they loved. You walked in and you were immediately a part of something special.” Pardesi’s brother, who is a real people’s person, also joined the business, and the company finally started seeing the volumes it had hoped for in its first year, with turnover growing tenfold.
Spreading too thin
By 2007 Pardesi once again started feeling the itch for growth. Their office was doing well, so what was next? “We opened an office in Cyprus as our foothold into the European market, but we soon realised that while we understood the Pakistani market, the European market was very different. We just weren’t making any headway.”
In early 2008, a third office was opened in Dubai, which had a similar environment and structures to those in Pakistan, but real growth still evaded the brother and sister partnership. “We had lost sight of that key lesson: Localisation,” says Pardesi. “We were trying to branch out when we had a model suited to the market we were already in, based in a city of 21 million people! What about opening more offices in the area where we already operated, and had proven our model?”
Pardesi and Kassam now started actively concentrating on a model that had originally brought them into the industry – that of paying commission to local IBs who introduced new clients to the platform. “Each IB could open their own local office based on our model, work off our platform and use our systems. It meant owner-managers across the region were promoting and growing our brand, while building sustainable and profitable businesses themselves.”
It was the start of Pardesi’s realisation that their business model didn’t only help people trade, but also created wealth for local business owners.
“We’ve created many dollar millionaires over the past few years, and we’re proud of that. We don’t charge a minimum, because we got our start that way, and we share a percentage of the commission.” By late 2009 there were 277 offices spread across Pakistan all based on Pardesi’s model and using the company’s own system, which they built between 2008 and 2009.
“Building our own platform was the next logical move. We’d saved up the business’s profits and wanted to create a platform that had the capacity for thousands of simultaneous trades, was highly secure, looked good and was easy to use – and we could hire top international talent to help us do it.”
It was also a business that benefited from the recession. “This helped our growth in two ways. First, people wanted to be in control of their money, which made online trading desirable. Second, in a volatile market, gold prices go up. It’s seen as a long-term, stable commodity. We re-branded as ACM Gold, and focused on this market. Our trade in local currencies and denominations enhanced our success.”
By 2010 expansion was back on the cards. Dubai’s office was doing nicely, and ACM Gold now started eyeing India, which had a similar environment to Pakistan. Pardesi had also opened offices in Malaysia, Macedonia and Slovenia, and began the process of disinvesting from these markets.
“We wanted to grow, but recognised that these markets didn’t want the model that we were so good at. While we realised that we might have to change the model to reach our next level of growth because business is about adapting with the times, it wouldn’t be in those areas.” So where was the next opportunity? The answer was easy – Africa.
The move to South Africa
Pardesi and his wife had honeymooned in South Africa in 2008, and at the time she made him promise that they would return to the rainbow nation. Two years later, that time had come.
“We recognised the huge potential Africa had to offer. We’re suited to emerging markets, and we’d already learnt that localisation works. If we wanted to expand in Africa, we needed to operate locally. South Africa was the perfect fit.
“It has a well-respected Financial Services Board, is one of 11 countries that understands forex, and has a highly trusted banking environment thanks to strong regulations. We knew that people would be comfortable sending their money here, and trading through a local platform.”
Pardesi had also opened offices in Madagascar, Uganda and Kenya which readily accepted ACM’s tried and tested model – but South Africa didn’t.
“It was a big reminder that you can’t make assumptions about a market until you’re physically operating in it,” says Pardesi.
“We had country managers in our satellite offices around the world, and Hina was splitting her time between Johannesburg and Dubai. We had closed most of the Pakistan offices and had handed them over to local brokers. We had a big deal pending with the Pakistan Exchange, and we wanted to concentrate on our growth in Africa — but we just weren’t getting it right.” Then Pardesi realised their error. South Africa may be classified as an emerging economy, but it also resembles Europe. It needed a different kind of localisation.
“South Africans understand forex in a way that many other nations don’t. Everyone has grown up watching how the rand is faring. We quickly realised that South Africans don’t want to be involved in anything they don’t understand. They won’t trade unless they know how the system works and what they’re doing. If we wanted to do well in this country, we needed to cater to this specific need – we needed to educate our market.”
Where Pakistan and India were happy to trade with the advice of their dealers and wanted a social trading floor, South Africans are comfortable trading online, but want to be educated before they do so. As a result, ACM Gold invested in UFG (University of Forex and Gold), a training platform designed with the assistance of Adriano Tabasso, through which they could begin training people.
While this is steadily growing into a comfortable secondary revenue stream, its original mandate holds true: To create a market for ACM Gold by educating the public. “In many ways, South Africans are like Europeans. They don’t want to trade as a hobby, they want to trade full-time, and this takes a keen understanding of the market.”
The fact that ACM’s platform can be localised is a plus point, as all trades are done in rands and dealers can assist their clients in their own language. “We added Kruger Rands to our offering because South Africans understand and are comfortable with them,” adds Kassam.
Pardesi returned to his IB model. “I made a point of attending franchise expos and approaching local brokers. We needed to bring re-sellers on board, and we had a model that made sense. We’re based in South Africa – when you deal with us there isn’t a boss or platform that is operating overseas, everything is here, in local currency. Decisions can be made quickly, and all support is easily available.”
Consolidation for growth
By 2013, the market had grown and changed enough to warrant a relook at the original online model. “The Internet and consumer comfort with online models and trading has come a long way in the last seven years,” says Pardesi.
“We were buying back offices in Pakistan that we hadn’t already closed, and consolidating the business out of South Africa. We can have clients around the world trading through our online platforms now, so the local office model is no longer relevant.”
Today, there is only one small office in each of ACM’s regions with trusted local partners supporting the online trading platform. “If the market isn’t yet comfortable with online, we don’t look at it. We’ll wait two years and they’ll come to us via our online platforms, based in South Africa.”
- Focus on what you know best. The best businesses aren’t masters of everything — they’re specialists in one key area, and invaluable to their clients as a result.
- Even big brands start small. You don’t need millions to launch a company. Make some strategic partnerships that everyone benefits from, start small and be patient.
- Localisation is everything. You can be a big, multi-national company, but always take the current, on-the-ground clients into account. Design your business offering with their needs in mind. What works in one market won’t necessarily work in another.
- Shift the business when the market changes. Don’t hold onto something because it worked well in the past — times change, move with them.
- Don’t make assumptions. You’ll only understand a market once you’re actually operating in it. Launch your business or local office, but be prepared to shift your model as you learn about the market and what it wants.
- If your business allows, build a network of re-sellers that believe in you and your products, and help them achieve their goals — you will automatically achieve yours.
- If you want to get the best out of people, appreciate their efforts lavishly and give them a path to grow and prove themselves. The bigger the dream, the more important the team.
- If everything seems to be under control, you’re not going fast enough.
Trading + Gaming = Traming
Pardesi’s latest project is traming.com, an android app that merges trading with gaming.
“Traming.com has been created to give everyone easy access to the financial markets,” explains Pardesi.
“The concept emerged from the understanding that in this age of simplification, people are constantly looking for quicker, simpler ways of doing things, and in that vein, even online trading was still too time consuming. I wanted to develop an app that made trading fun, quick and easy.”
With Traming.com, users can decide what direction the market will take in an allotted time frame. Will it be up or down in the next 60 seconds? Get it right, and you’ll see up to 85% return on your investment — within 60 seconds.
“These trades are available on most global asset’s including currencies, commodities and shares,” concludes Pardesi.
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.
- 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: propertypoint.org.za
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.”
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?
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 www.ettp.co.za
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.
- Player: Michael Mankins
- Company: Bain & Company
- Visit: www.bain.com/offices/johannesburg/
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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 www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.
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.
- Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
- Company: Brand Cartel
- Launched: 2013
- Visit: brandcartel.co.za
“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.
“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.
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.
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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