Dan Nicholl talks Business Unknown with Michael Jordaan

A gastronomic quiz to kick off this week’s encounter with South Africa’s start-up poster boy: given the choice, where in Stellenbosch would you choose for lunch? Go with the chef the other chefs look up to, and try George Jardine’s spot at Jordan? Opt for glorious views, and settle in for a lazy afternoon at Guardian Peak? Try a touch of the exotic at Delaire Graff’s Indochine? All sumptuous options, certainly – but if you want to combine fabulous food, a sweeping Winelands panorama, and a menu that strikes a balance between playful invention and simplicity, then the choice is easy. Hidden Valley Wine Estate, and the national treasure that is Overture by Bertus Basson.

Basson himself would make for a cracking interview on entrepreneurship (of the culinary sort), leadership (championing all manner of initiatives to support the Stellenbosch community in lockdown), and staying calm in times of turmoil (keep smiling, and wear lots of trucker caps). But the reigning South African Chef of the Year is playing a cameo role here, albeit a most impressive one: delivering lunch from Overture to my home in Johannesburg, and to an office in the heart of Stellenbosch that’s home to Michael Jordaan.

A quick disclaimer: I have a business relationship of sorts with the former banker, who bullied me (in the nicest, kindest possible way) to start the wine show that now forms the cornerstone of my wine business. As such, he’s an honorary director, which amounts to a quarterly board meeting over food and wine, with very little serious discussion. That makes this particular conversation different: while the food is firmly in place, the discussion is mostly more earnest.

“We’ve been affected, as everyone has,” Jordaan says of the lockdown that Covid has fuelled, and its ensuing havoc. “I think it’s seen a reversion back to basic values. Some of the things we were doing were excessive – travel, for instance. Business travel to get to other continents, travel to get to meetings – we can do things quite efficiently by messaging or video conferencing. It’s been a time of re-set, when you can think about the world again, and what we want out of life. So often we’ve become captive to habits, going to work and coming home at a certain time, and suddenly the day, the week, the year is gone. So that’s been the positive for me: thinking about life deeply, and making changes. And needing to get on with your family…”

That last line is delivered with the rueful smile of the only man in a house full of strong women. But getting on with people has never been a challenge for the naval officer turned CEO turned start-up sorcerer – indeed, it’s people skills that account for the success he can lay claim to over a fascinating career.

“I’ve been lucky predominantly by figuring out that life is all about people. In business you have to surround yourself by people who are better than you, and then your business will do well.”

And if that sounds like it might be a calculated act in self-deprecation, Jordaan expands on a philosophy that contrasts with the cutthroat CEO image Hollywood has helped to groom. “The basic principle of good leadership is to give credit away. Don’t say things went well because I was the boss – name the people responsible, tell their peers they’ve done well. But when things go wrong, I’m in charge, the buck stops with me. Do that, and people will want to work for you.”

It’s an empowering style of leadership that requires leaving the ego at the door, and sits alongside another key to Jordaan’s business approach: knowing when to leave.

“It’s a philosophy. You need to say my work here is done. It’s important not to let the job you’re doing infect your ego. There are examples all over the world where people have to be pushed out, or CEOs stay too long. There are very few cases where you should outlast a decade of being CEO – and for every door you close, many more seem to open.”

Some pretty impressive doors have swung open through the Jordaan career: from then-CEO Paul Harris offering the Rand Merchant Bank management trainee the role as his executive assistant, to a chance weekend away with former colleague Yatin Narsai that inspired the creation of Bank Zero. But the same refrain echoes through every business, every opportunity: people.

“One of the things I learnt at FirstRand is the power of entrepreneurship,” he reflects. “If you get the right person to run a business, amazing things can happen. I knew I wanted to do something in the entrepreneurial space once I left big corporate, but wasn’t clear on what that would be. What tickles me is an entrepreneur who already has a track record of solving a real problem – and I want to be involved in businesses that somehow make society a little better.”

Cue education projects, cheaper data, easier banking, and dozens more start-ups (literally) that keep Jordaan inspired on a daily basis. And while he’s learnt not to have coffee with absolutely everyone, he has a love of wine – unsurprising as the third generation Jordaan living on the Bartinney estate where his grandparents are buried – and a great appreciation of the restaurant trade.

“It’s been a tough period for restaurants, with foreign visitors absent, and locals slowly coming back,” he says of an industry that’s taking a hammering across the country. “Restaurants are one of the few macro trends where South Africa can grow and create a lot of jobs.”

And all the more so when those restaurants are producing the sort of fare chef Basson has conjured up: a sizeable ham hock that falls apart at the sight of a fork, soft, light discs of gnocchi, a glorious vanilla cheesecake. The food meets with smiling approval from Jordaan, and inspires some closing counsel.

“I heard a great quote the other day – it’s not that we’re all in the same boat, we’re in the same storm. For people privileged enough to have some capital, now’s a good time to invest. Spend in your local community, or on local start-ups. But for most people, it’s a time to simplify your life, pay off some debt if you can, look at what you really need in your life. Focus on the important things – often, they’re right in front of you.

“And never waste a crisis. It’s an opportunity to reset. You’ll have to make some tough decisions, but believe that things will get better. Now is not the time for businesses to excel, it’s a time to survive. And if you do manage that, chances are many of your competitors won’t, and so by definition you’ll be stronger. So just survive, and you’ll do well.”

And so ends lunch with Michael Jordaan, serial investor, reinvented banker, and a man still cautiously optimistic despite the myriad challenges South Africa faces. Helped by the casual genius of Bertus Basson, it’s an hour of much-needed tonic for the lockdown-battered soul – and inspires my final take from our time together. Find out what Michael Jordaan is investing in, and whatever it may be, follow suit.

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