Adrian Gore: Discovery’s zip to R100bn journey has big lessons – here are the most important

Today’s ‘results interview’ with South African super entrepreneur Discovery co-founder Adrian Gore goes well beyond a recap on solid financials for the year to the end of June. Discovery’s now widely mimicked ‘shared value’ business model has delivered superb returns for a group which has substantial businesses in SA and the UK, plus an enviable list of big-name partners whose operations circle the world. But Gore reckons if he were to do it all again, he’d be even more committed to the group’s revolutionary concept where customers are directly rewarded for making positive behavioural changes. And he’d have been more confident when negotiating those deals with global giants. In the interview, he also addresses localised criticism of South African Big Business’s apparent support of the political status quo, quantifies the cost of COVID claims – and provides feedback on revolutionary Discovery Green that’s bringing some of SA’s biggest electricity consumers together to invest in large-scale renewable energy projects. Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:06 – Introductions
  • 00:50 – Adrian Gore on Discovery’s financial results
  • 01:42 – What the pandemic cost discovery
  • 03:19 – On how big the foreign shareholder base is
  • 03:38 – Difficulties of selling SA to foreign investors
  • 04:27 – The rise of the Vitality global group
  • 06:37 – On Discovery health being slightly down
  • 08:19 – What impressed him in the past year and what it is that he does
  • 10:29 – Slowing down
  • 12:23 – On what he’s learned
  • 13:24 – The shared value model
  • 14:53 – Leveraging the shared model invention
  • 16:11 – The criticism towards big business
  • 18:49 – The reactions to the Discovery Green initiative
  • 19:58 – Conclusions

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Edited transcript of the interview with Adrian Gore, co-founder and CEO of the Discovery Group

Alec Hogg: A big day for Adrian Gore and the Discovery Group. Financial results were released today. They look promising in terms of normalised earnings, but the company has become so vast and globally involved that we’ll spend the next few minutes gaining insight into its future.

Alec Hogg: Adrian, it seems you’ve resumed dividends, indicating that the COVID chapter is behind you.

Adrian Gore: COVID is becoming endemic, but the environment was fairly uncertain when we suspended dividends. The market’s reaction was mixed, but we’re comfortable restarting it now. It was an inevitable move, not a monumental one.

Alec Hogg: Your normalised earnings have doubled since the low point of the pandemic. Have you assessed the pandemic’s financial impact on Discovery?

Adrian Gore: We paid a substantial sum of R12 billion in mortality claims. COVID has made health and life coverage more relevant despite these costs, reducing policy cancellations. We’ve exceeded liquidity targets and have returned to our pre-COVID position. While the current geopolitical landscape carries risks, I believe COVID posed greater uncertainty for the life and health insurance sector.

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Alec Hogg: What’s the scale of your foreign shareholder base?

Adrian Gore: More than 50% of our free float is offshore.

Alec Hogg: Given the current climate, I imagine you spend much time explaining South Africa to foreign investors.

Adrian Gore: Foreign investors often have a more optimistic outlook than locals. However, the larger challenge is scaling our intellectual property globally, not just selling the South African story.

Alec Hogg: The Vitality Global operation seems to be gaining traction.

Adrian Gore: It is, but it needs to scale more. Our partners have done remarkably well with the model, but we need to expand its global impact.

Alec Hogg: Reflecting on your US investment that was written off years ago and was hard to swallow back then, it seems the setbacks led to a course correction rather than discouragement.

Adrian Gore: Setbacks build resilience. That U.S. experience was a low point but also a valuable lesson.

Alec Hogg: How’s your UK business faring, especially in the life insurance and healthcare sectors?

Adrian Gore: The healthcare business had a reduction in claims due to COVID, which made profits appear higher. Those claims are now coming back, and there’s a surge in demand for private health insurance due to NHS struggles. Regarding life insurance, our business is growing quickly in the UK, but there are complexities to consider, especially concerning new claim patterns.

Alec Hogg: Adrian, even for people who know Discovery, it’s a complex business. There’s a lot to process. If someone who knows nothing about the group were to ask you what impressed you in the past year and what you do, how would you answer?

Adrian Gore: Well, the presentations can be overly complex, but in essence, Discovery is a financial conglomerate in South Africa offering a range of services, including banking and insurance. I believe it shouldn’t be seen as complex. The past year has been significant for us for various reasons, but mainly because of our standout performance in banking. Despite the proliferation of digital banks, Discovery Bank is performing ahead of expectations, which is rare for a new venture.

Alec Hogg: Are you starting to consolidate a bit? Discovery has always been highly innovative. Are you slowing down on starting new operations?

Adrian Gore: No, I think we’re focusing on significant initiatives rather than getting sidetracked by multiple smaller ones. It’s essential to work on large-scale projects that can make a difference. We have worked hard to instil the discipline to avoid becoming scattered.

Alec Hogg: Would you share these learnings with entrepreneurs?

Adrian Gore: Absolutely. It’s critical to focus on material projects rather than wasting time on marginal ones. Even projects with promise can become distractions if they will not significantly contribute in the long run.

Alec Hogg: The shared value model you’ve adopted has been met with some scepticism. What’s your response?

Adrian Gore: The data speaks for itself. We’ve seen compelling evidence that this model benefits us and our customers. Once you accept that behaviour is causal, you realise that changing behaviour leads to different outcomes. It’s not just talk; the data is extremely compelling.

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Alec Hogg: Would you have done anything differently in leveraging this innovation?

Adrian Gore: Perhaps we could have had a deeper conviction when forming partnerships. You may not always negotiate the best deal when you’re a smaller entity. That’s something we’re working on correcting now. I don’t have regrets because every step we’ve taken has been a learning experience.

Alec Hogg: With all of this going on, you still find time to help a little with the national challenges here in South Africa. Not always appreciated. There’s quite a lot of criticism of big business, and they’re saying that Adrian Gore and Co. are part of the problem, not part of the solution. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

Adrian Gore: Look, I think that criticism is healthy. We need to answer to it. But having said that, I’m not convinced it’s wise to let potential failures in areas like energy, logistics, and crime go unaddressed. I believe ignoring these issues is not the way forward. Instead, collective work should be done on fixing power stations and railways. Public sentiment towards the future impacts societal cohesion; when people feel insecure, they become withdrawn and focused on their own groups, exacerbating polarization. So, my perspective is that fixing these issues promotes positive growth and contributes to a safer, more cooperative society.

Alec Hogg: I really enjoyed what you presented a couple of months ago with Discovery Green, doing your thing to bring in a united force amongst businesses that they could work together on renewable power. What’s the reaction been like to that initiative?

Adrian Gore: The response has been incredible. Many companies are grappling with our challenges, like setting carbon targets. They can’t just put solar panels on their roofs as they lack the necessary scale. Our platform has been approached by 30 or 40 big corporates interested in joining. It’s not our core business, but the initiative has incredible potential.

Alec Hogg: It’s not your core business, but you’re making an impact. From what you’re saying, I gather that this project emerged from a small internal team?

Adrian Gore: Exactly. A small group within our team, consisting of actuaries and others, has been looking at this issue for us as a group. The project is not a deviation from our core business but rather an interesting parallel with enormous potential.

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