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After winning one of their country’s three gold medals at the 2012 Olympic Games, South African Rowing might have expected a surge in financial and other support. But despite its global achievement, the sporting association survived on scraps and the world-beating passion and discipline of its handful of high class participants. That attracted the attention of RMB, whose CEO James Formby explains in this interview with Biznews.com’s Alec Hogg why his company has become rowing’s headline sponsor. Apart from tailor-made adverts raising the profile of the sport, it could prove a shrewd investment, too. South African rowers have a very real chance of reaching the podium at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio, having won gold and bronze at the recent world championships. This time there’s little chance of commentators mistaking them for Australians – as happened when SA’s coxless four won in London.
RMB’s support of Rowing South Africa and the way it’s aligning the sponsorship with its brand is a fascinating story that we’re going to get into, in a moment with James Formby who’s the Chief Executive. Before we go there James, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into banking in the first place?
I was originally actually at camp in London for one of the big banks. I was doing camp work. Until then, I didn’t actually really know what bank did and that gave me my first taste. The bug bit and when I came back to South Africa, I was very keen to work for a bank.
What did you study?
When I studied overseas, it was a Masters in Philosophy. I studied for a while, and then I temped. Then I decided to head back to South Africa.
That’s an interesting side because at RMB, you guys do think differently. It almost reminds me a little of what Anglo American used to do with the PPE students from Oxford and Cambridge whom they would often put into the Anglo hierarchy and of course, develop well from there.
Yes. At RMB, we have a very similar thing. I really wanted to kind of, join an organisation that could make a difference and at the time, RMB was young. It was small and it was doing amazing things so I was immediately attracted to RMB, I must say.
Has life changed much for you since you became CEO?
It’s gotten a bit busier but it was still busy before. I definitely attend more board meetings and things like that as opposed to doing other stuff – more meetings and slightly less clients. I came from the client side so I love meeting clients and dealing with clients but it’s been great. It’s exciting to be able to work with the different teams across a bank and try and make things happen, and make changes for the better.
And also, to drive new processes like this one that you guys are involved with now, with Rowing South Africa. It was interesting, reading about this ahead of this interview, that RMB hasn’t had a television commercial for nine years. Why?
When you really come down to it, we deal with fairly small cross-section of clients because our focus is really, the large corporates across South Africa and also the big financial institutions so we have very deep relationships across those segments. Typically, we market much more directly to them and we also have flagship events like our Starlight Classics events so those have been our focus. There’s obviously, also RMB Private Bank, which I don’t manage. It’s managed as part of our broader group. Obviously, there’s an important brand in RMB Private Bank as well. We felt we were missing something by not really, widening the awareness of RMB and what it does and we think it’s a complementary part of a broader advertising strategy.
— Wits Rowing (@wubc_wits) June 3, 2016
‘Thinking. Pulling together’. Nice, short words I suppose, that mean a lot. Clearly, they do but they are words, which can be remembered within the organisation.
Yes. What happened here was that we started with quite a long process and a little bit of soul-searching to say, “What do we think makes RMB different or distinct?” There are many thing that all banks have. We’ve all got good people. We’ve got good platforms and products, etcetera. We are a talent brand so that’s not to say that we don’t think we’ve got talented people, but we know that many corporates and banks have very talented people. We felt (after thinking) that we are different. Not because of the people whom we have, but because of the way that they work together, the way they can get things done, and deliver unique solutions for our clients. That’s what makes us distinctive. We wanted to create an analogy using that thinking but we needed another analogy to try and explain it. It was interesting. It wasn’t that we’d decided a long time ago that rowing was a sport. It was rather more by chance.
In fact, I talked at one of our conferences; just about focusing on what’s inside our boat as a metaphor for saying ‘let’s focus on what we can control and not on what we can’t control. We’re going to be the best at what we can control’. Funnily enough, that linked to the boat and then linked back to what makes us distinctive. It suddenly started to lead our creative team towards the thinking that rowing was a great analogy or metaphor for that message. I can’t take the credit for it. Our marketing team came up with that piece of the puzzle.
It is a lot of creative thinking and yet, in another sense, these are the guys who won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. South Africa only won six medals. One of them being these four chaps whom (for most people)… I guess, if you had to do a survey around South Africa and say, “Who are James Thompson, Matthew Briton, John Smith, and Sizwe Ndlovu?” I’m not too sure too many South Africans would actually know that these are gold medallists.
Yes. They probably wouldn’t know, but I think many people remember seeing that amazing race and how they came from behind to win it. They were such a surprise that the commentator actually thought they were Australian initially. Clearly, he corrected his mistake. It’s a great story but what’s a much greater story is how Rowing South Africa has achieved excellence against all the odds. A gold medal’s obviously one instance, but the excellence of these teams achieved – both at different levels and not just the Olympic level. It’s fantastic. Once we understood the story, we were very drawn to the story of Rowing South Africa and what it’s been able to achieve, almost against the odds and on very meagre means.
Great new partnership unveiled between RMB and Rowing SA – excited to be part of the project #thinkingpullingtogether
— Frontiers Sport (@FrontiersSport) June 1, 2016
Only 3000 rowers in South Africa, so not expected to be a powerhouse internationally. You’ve got the look for the ingredients somewhere and perhaps, in the bit of reading I’ve done, Roger Barrow (the coach) could be that ingredient. What’s your reading of it? Why are they such outperformers?
Again, it links to the message in our ad because with a small pool of rowers, it can’t just be about the talented people. Obviously, they’re very talented but it’s much more about the way they work together, and the way they’ve built a team (acted and behaved as a team) to achieve amazing things. Out of that pool, I’m sure that other countries with much bigger rowing communities would say they’ve got bigger/more muscular people, but we’ve been able to do that well because of the passion, commitment, and teamwork that the other countries may not have been able to do.
Are there things that you’ve been able to learn from observing the way Rowing South Africa has gone about its work?
We’ve really been amazed at the passion of the people and the incredible discipline that they show. The time and commitment that these elite athletes have to devote to rowing boats on and off the water, or inside and outside the boat is truly amazing. They do this. Not for the fame because as you pointed out, they’re not famous. They’re not know. Maybe this ad will help to show this. They are extremely passionate and disciplined and they’ve achieved excellence for excellence’s sake and not because of the huge sponsorships or because rowing has been a sport, which hasn’t been the beneficiaries of massive publicity or sponsorship.
Those three words that you are using through these ads and clearly, like to associate with RMB – thinking. Pulling. Together. What do you put around them when you’re talking to not only your own people but to the public?
Part of the detail/message ‘thinking’ and one of the ads we focus on specifically is all about the detailed hard work, the preparation, and the planning that one has to do. ‘Pulling’ is really, the race, passion, and commitment to win and obviously, ‘together’ is about teamwork and this where I think rowing is unique from other sports. It’s much more about the team. In other sports, an individual can score a century or score a goal. Here, it’s really only about the team and every member of the team has to be absolutely functioning at 100 percent. The ‘thinking, pulling, together’ in isolation, works because each word is powerful on its own but when one puts it together and thinks of the combination of words, it’s also very powerful. It’s a thinking man’s sport. Thinking is what we do at RMB. That’s what we pride ourselves on but thinking and pulling together has this combination of working together, which is something that’s much broader than just banking.
It talks about the role that banks play in our economy and in our society. I think you can extend it to say how important it is as South Africans, that we think and pull together. You can engage with these words (I think) on multiple levels.
How has your team at RMB reacted to this sponsorship?
The truth is that we haven’t really told them yet. We launched this today for the press and more widely, and we’ll do a viewing across the bank of these ads and the sponsorship only on Friday. I think there may have been a few whispers in the corridors and I think there’s a little bit of excitement coming through, but we’ll really only see it after Friday.
They’ve been struggling financially, for a long time (Rowing South Africa). Are you only now going to be kicking money in, and for how long?
In terms of our arrangement, what we’ve tried not to do is trying to exclusively, buy SA Rowing. That’s not the intention at all. We wanted to work with SA Rowing and help and support what they’re doing. We’ve got an annual arrangement – renewable – and if it works for us and it works for them, we’ll keep doing it. We know this is not something, which we enter for the short term. It’s something we want to build and we want to help SA Rowing beyond the Olympics. We haven’t put a defined time on it. What we have also said is the way we can work together is not only in monetary ways. There are many things that we can do to help our teams. For example, we’ve given them access to our slow lounges, which is obviously through the FNB brand but they’ve all got access to slow lounges because when they travel, small things like helping them by sponsoring them with small things they need such suntan lotions, equipment and all of those things.
We don’t want it to be seen that we’re just providing monetary support and clearly, we also want to make sure that the sport benefits. Not only at the elite level where it is important, but also at a school level and at a developmental level. I think those help build the sport for the longer term.
There’s no doubt that the involvement with a smaller sport like this, can be thoroughgoing. The prize, surely, has to be the potential for another gold medal. South Africa never won a rowing gold medal up until the 2012 Olympics and I think we’ve competed 18 times so that was an outlier. How are these guys doing? Are they likely to be contenders in the Rio Olympics?
I must say Alec, I can’t really comment specifically. I just wouldn’t know, relative to the other teams and how they’re doing. We know that they’ve put an incredible amount of work in but we always said that this was an association, which wasn’t about the Olympics. We’ll all root for them at the Olympics and we’d love them to succeed but this is actually a story, which is much more about the passion and commitment of people to achieve this excellence whether they win a Gold, Silver, or Bronze or not. We’ll still be proud to be associated with them and to support them because of the passion they’ve shown.
How big is the team that’s going to be going to the Olympics? Are you close enough to that?
I don’t actually have all the details on that, Alec. I know that they’re getting close. The boats have just gone and the selections are literally in the process of happening. I wouldn’t want to pre-judge exactly what and who’s going, etcetera because that process is still unfolding for them as far as I know.
There’s no doubt that the timing of your television campaign isn’t going to hurt their appeal to South Africa. It won’t just be the people at RMB who’ll be pulling for them.
Yes. Absolutely. We hope that it does just that, that it raises awareness for South Africans who are going out and competing on the international stage and hopefully, will do well. We know that South Africans sometime achieve amazing things, against odds.
James Formby is the Chief Executive of RMB.
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