Bob Skinstad: Global citizen now expanding his business horizons in London

Former Springbok captain and 2007 World Cup winner Bob Skinstad has successfully converted his career from the playing fields to the boardroom. A month ago Skinstad relocated his young family to London where he accepted an offer to expand his business horizons. In this fascinating interview with‘s Alec Hogg, the former Seartec executive and popular television pundit talks about living in London, leadership, global citizenship, South Africa, and, of course, what needs to be done to revive the fellows who now wear his beloved Green and Gold.

Bob Skinstad

Alec Hogg is in High Street, Kensington with an old friend, Bob Skinstad. Bob, it’s interesting to see you in London.

Thanks, Alec. Yes, it’s good to be here. It’s nice to bump into you. There’s a couple of coffee options we wouldn’t necessarily have when we bumped into each other in the past, but it’s good to be in the U.K. Starting to settle. It’s been a bit nerve-wracking although I was here ten years ago but this time, getting four children into schools and set up etcetera, has been a bit more stressful than I thought it was going to be.

Last time we were talking was on television, about Seartec. You were there for some years.

Yes, that’s right and I absolutely loved it. We had a fantastic opportunity in the South African market. With Seartec, I’m still very close to what they’re doing and still help on the marketing stuff – the outsourced marketing stuff. I think it’s a great opportunity for the Sharp brand in South Africa, to have a partner that’s got distribution around the country and understands the nature of the market. Not only the SADC countries but Africa as whole, is such an interesting market in that space. I think South Africa’s going through a real transition there at the moment and certainly, we’re gobbling up some time in front of customers, which is probably the most important thing.

It was a success. No doubt, you learned a lot.

Absolutely. I’ve learned an incredible amount, especially because we were part of the HCI Group and the Seardel Group, which became DENEB and the leaders there have been fantastic to learn from. Upsizing, downsizing, wheeling, dealing, and understanding where value lies in businesses, so for me this is a move trying to extract some value out of what I’ve done. Whether it’s in the corporate space or on the rugby field, there’s intrinsic value in everything you do, especially if you can learn from those experiences, so I’m trying to put those altogether and make a play for myself.

What are you doing over here?

I like to say ‘exploring at the moment’. I’m settling in. Look, I’ve kept my business interests in South Africa. All, except for the restaurants. I’ve sold out of the restaurants to put some money on this side of the pond but we still run the sports business. The old school group runs that and all of the sponsorship and stuff for Seartec is still over there and very ably run. Here, I’m actually working for a family office and they’ve got holdings in South Africa and here, as well as all over the world. For me, it’s another step up – a chance to learn more, to roll up the sleeves in my business development role. I suppose if a customer needs to grow customers, I try to learn about how to grow them some more customers with that team. For me, business is 99% about learning, the experience, and the leadership. Once you’ve got that in working with a team, that extra one percent is about cobbling together as an individual. Everyone comes with their own experience, their own degrees, and their own background. If you can make sure someone knows you’ve got their back when they need, then it’s a huge part of moving forward.

Are you enjoying the anonymity of being in Britain? We couldn’t sit here in an open area with people walking past without (probably) 15 girls stopping to want your signature. Are you enjoying that?

Alec, like you can’t believe. I love my social cricket and I was able to play a few games towards the end of the season last year and it was an absolute delight to be able to take my family down, picnic, and have fun. Look, there’s the odd, “Hoe gaan dit, Bobby?” depending on where I am, but there’s been almost 100% anonymity and it’s been great. It’s actually really allowed me to focus, simplify a lot of things, and I suppose in a way, concentrate more on what’s important to us than what’s around us as opposed to always having something else to do on the weekend (i.e. commentary). I still love that. Involvement in sport is huge for me but I just felt that I had 20 different masters and for me, it’s been a real chance to just simplify that whole side of it.

Read also: Bob Skinstad’s journey – From Bok eighthman to entrepreneur

And becoming a global citizen in a way – moving into a bigger pond.

I’ve got to say that for me, I was one of the first sportsmen onto social media, understanding global media, and then working in that space after a rugby career. Specifically, in South Africa then, but right now it’s just made the whole world so tiny. We communicate with people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s WhatsApp, a direct message on Twitter, or a LinkedIn reach-out to somebody. It doesn’t matter if they’re a South African based in Delaware, New York, Johannesburg, or where we are right now – in Kensington. It really doesn’t matter, so that is literally flattening everything out. For me, being a global citizen means you’ve got to be prepared for it. You’ve got to be able to take the chances when they come your way.

How are you finding the difference in the exchange rate between South Africa and the U.K.? I guess it’s important if you’re coming here and funding yourself in Rands.

Look, it’s a huge challenge and for someone of my age to be doing it with four kids…there are a lot more costs than someone just upping and moving for a job that’s going to help you pay straight away. I keep telling my wife we can’t do the multiples based on what the exchange rate is on a daily basis. In fact, I’ve stopped looking at the Forex counting apps etcetera, because I don’t think it’s quite the multiple that we see. It’s not necessarily £1.00 to R19.00/R25.00//R18.00 or whatever. There’s a metric that I work out based on what I would pay for food for my family in South Africa and what I would pay here, and that aggregates a little bit. I’m lucky. I’m relatively frugal. I don’t splash a lot of money. We’re not big buyers of things. I don’t necessarily believe in buying too many of those but experiences…we do buy those.

It’s still expensive but here, you can be quite smart about getting places relatively cheaply, which is always difficult from South Africa so maybe we claw a bit of that back (the travel expense). As long as you don’t look at it as something negative but rather as a positive experience, then I think you smile most of the day. I still say that the opportunity for me here…it’s the right time for my young family. We might be back in South Africa in two years, 20 years or five years. It doesn’t really matter to me as long as I’m doing what’s best for them, for me to see the world and chase opportunity, then I’m excited.

Read also: Bob Skinstad on reboosting Sharp with Seartec in SA

And you remain invested in South Africa.

Absolutely. I’ve kept a lot of investment in South Africa and in fact, I’m looking at business that would benefit from having a presence here. For me, that’s a huge boon for South African businesses. I’m heavily invested in KNF Ventures. They’re always trying exit into a slightly stronger currency, which is a huge part of it. Over here, someone’s got to go and knock on those doors, see the big funds, and see what they’re looking for; whether it’s Fintech… Are they backing entrepreneurs and people – that hybrid vigour that we have in Southern Africa. A lot of people buy the jockey and not the horse. Those people come over here and make their way. I’m hoping to be a link for some of those as well.

Talking about jockeys, horses, and rugby: The South African performance over the weekend had many Saffers in the U.K. feeling pretty distraught. No doubt, as a Springbok Captain once, you must have watched that.

Absolutely. Look, I’m a massive sports fan anyway – a Springbok fan. I’ll be screaming at the TV whether they’re winning or losing. Yes, it was disappointing. Give great kudos to the All Blacks. They play a beautiful brand of rugby at the moment. They’re just playing with incredible confidence and honesty as a team. They work really hard. The Springboks…we talk about what they’re going through. They do go through a lot as a national team. I think they’ve got different influences that not everybody understands but I don’t say that as part of an excuse. I think they must be hurting because they don’t like losing and they are the cream of the crop in South Africa. It was good to watch rugby at least being played like that – like the All Blacks. The Springboks scored a couple of points where I really felt they were in that game. Brian Habana’s try was a beautiful example of using the ball and using it well. There were glimpses of positives as well.

The score-line. Have you ever lost that badly?

I’m not sure. I’d have to think back. Certainly, in Super Rugby, I have. I’ve taken a hiding from the Crusaders and teams like that. I’m never really proud of doing that. The score mounts up pretty quickly. I think they’ve scored 30-odd unanswered points in the last 15 minutes of their last three test matches, which means the other teams are reeling and going backwards, and they seem to be getting stronger and stronger. As a Springbok, I don’t think I have and that’s why I feel for the guys.

There’s a view now that the All Blacks are out of sight, but England is playing quite good rugby as well. Firstly, will South Africa give the All Blacks a game when they play in South Africa and secondly, do you think that England might be competitive?

Firstly, I think the South Africans will definitely give the All Blacks a game. They will have learned a lot from that outing. I think the coaching team have really got to isolate what they want to work on because you can’t work on everything. You’ve got to try and stop a few of the gaps but you’ve also got to work on your own attack. Look, England is a very good side. Eddie Jones instilled a lot of confidence. That three-match series win in Australia would have given them a lot of confidence. Taking nothing away from U.K. rugby, the club rugby hasn’t always inspired me. There’s much more of a muck-fest. In the late summer, when the fields are firm underfoot (and I think even the Saracens are playing on a 4G pitch), it’s an incredible running game that they’re playing – really high-paced try-fest type of game and I think that’s given the English guys a lot of confidence that they could match someone like the All Blacks with that kind of a game.

You mentioned Saracens. It’s almost like a South African offshoot here. Do you watch them? Do you follow them?

Yes, I have been watching them. Obviously, John Smit was over there. Schalk Britz is there now and Ernst Joubert. For me, Brad Barrett has been one of their outstanding leaders. He was a youngster at the Sharks when I had a year at the Sharks. Brad and I got on very well. He’s part of the furniture there now. He’s a senior guy and hats off to him. He’s actually just gone and got the cap doffed for him. He’s got his degree. Not a lot of young rugby players do that or have the stick-ability to go and get a degree. I think he’s done very well in building that team around a style of play and a culture, which is part of what I’ve been saying about the Springboks for a long time.

Have you come across Maro Itoje? I had a chance to interview him last week and I was extremely impressed at the way he came across, talking about a young man with intellect as well as a physique.

Yes. I think Maro won everything there was to win last year.

Twenty-eight games in a row.

Unbelievable. With cross-test matches, England Junior’s the year before, into Heineken Cup and into the League Cup over here, and then into a fantastic test series from overseas. He’s an incredible player. A very high work rate and a high skill level. I actually watched him play on the weekend and I was very impressed by how involved he got in turning the game around. It was a very ‘tight hold’ game. Northampton Saints against Saracens. I think it was 14-12 or 12-10 for a long, long time and then you could see the engine room start to tick over and he was making big hits driving guys back, driving lineout wins that he’d won and it made a big difference in the outcome of the game. Yes, he’s an incredible player.

But it is interesting as well, that he is of Nigerian heritage. Africans can play incredibly good rugby – not just the old Springboks – but with the emerging players coming through South Africa, surely at some point in time that’s going to swing the weight back (or the positive influence in South Africa) in South African rugby.

Look, I think so and I hope so. I’ve got a theory about South African rugby and why we are where we are at the moment. I promise you; it doesn’t include the fact that we’ve got no player talent. It’s an absolute fact that we’ve got some of the most incredible talent in the world. In fact, I think at the last time of counting we’ve got two full Springbok teams (if you count 1-15 and 1-15). I call them the Second and Third team of the Springboks although some guys might say they’re a better starting player – but playing overseas. If we had starting line-ups, we could have 45 players out there and two-thirds of them would be in Europe – still active and still playing. How can you say then that we don’t have enough talent coming through? Look at our U-20’s and how well they’ve done in the last couple of years. The U-19’s…just go and watch any classic clash of a schoolboy game in South Africa. You’d see incredible talent coming through. I don’t think that’s the problem at all.

Getting back to you, I remember in the past you were very focused on marketing. Are you adding other skills into your business game?

I’m trying. I’m probably going to register to do something on the finance side shortly. I think it’s an incredible asset to have. I’m going to have to start right at the beginning because I certainly wasn’t at the front of my maths class at school but now I have a bit of experience and understanding. The marketing, I really feel that if you’re curious enough and willing to be eclectic enough, you can pick up bits of marketing there. There are specialists but specialisation has become so broad a term now. Social media didn’t even exist as a marketing platform three years ago. You can’t tell me that 20 years of traditional marketing is going to make you better at marketing and social media than a kid who’s come through and he’s got an understanding of LinkedIn and the social media platform, whether it’s an Instagram or a Snapchat. It doesn’t really matter where or how they specialise.

They’re going to have a skill that you don’t have. Are you eclectic enough to learn and curious enough to be able to move with those times as well as being able to hold the fundamentals to heart? You’ve still got to have a conversation with a customer. You’ve still got to fulfil the promise to the customer. You’ve still got to be the brand that they want you to be. When they are at their touch points, that’s important to them. It’s not important to you. All those kinds of things… It actually doesn’t matter if I was playing rugby for the Stormers or the Springboks, or trying to market a restaurant or a small brand. They are all the same thing. Those fundamentals remain the same but the skill sets around that are changing all the time. I think you need to have an eclectic, dynamic team so for me as a person, that will evolve but I think I need to learn a bit more about extracting value and maybe creating value as well, and keeping value in the brands and maybe even the businesses that I buy into.

And this globalisation of the Bob Skinstad brand (or the Bob Skinstad person): what are you expecting in the next five years, to be able to learn from being involved in a much bigger economy, as we are here?

Well, it’s a very humbling experience to understand that South Africans and Southern Africans in general are able to survive over here in corporate positions, in leadership positions, and actually affect markets of this size. What I’m expecting to learn is how some of them did that, where it’s replicable, where I can try and do that on a smaller scale, and how I can do that and influence that in businesses that I either buy into or have influence over. And then, to make that something that can translate into me spending more time in Africa, which I love dearly, travelling the world and raising a family in a solid way.

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