The flourishing members of business’s “second chance at life” club

Some months back, Business Day’s editor Peter Bruce asked whether I’d like to contribute to his fine newspaper. Back then it wasn’t possible because of my restraint of trade. But that ended in July, so my first column for Business Day appeared this week. Called Undictated it appears every Monday – one more reason to start your week with the country’s top business newspaper. Judging by the feedback, that is very much what many of SA’s business leaders do. Peter has agreed that the column can be republished on Biznewz.biz on Wednesdays, so here is this week’s contribution. It looks at urgency so evident in those given a second chance at life. People for whom there’s true meaning in living every day as though it were their last.  – AH    

By Alec Hogg* 

Barry Sergeant, financial journalism’s self-styled hyena, is an acquired taste. He speaks more openly than absolutely necessary, digs into

Barry Sergeant: An authentic eccentric whose best is yet to come
Barry Sergeant: An authentic eccentric whose best books are surely yet to come

areas others find repulsive and loves poring over forests of legal documents. An authentic eccentric, he has an affinity for dress-suits, cowboy hats and winkle-pickers. And the late Johnny Cash.

While chatting this week, I discovered this unique human almost to meet a man most remember for his Boy Named Sue. During the past year Sergeant’s been through chemotherapy, spent weeks in intensive care and undergone facial reconstructive surgery. Somehow, during all of that, he managed to write his third book.

Sergeant’s latest contribution, The Assault on the Rand, is good. But if my theory holds, his best work lies ahead. Because by overcoming the Big C, he joined a rare group whom providence grants a second chance. These most fortunate of our species who survive close encounters with the Grim Reaper. An experience which injects them with a new freedom and seemingly endless energy.

The founder of Apple, the late Steve Jobs, is their obvious poster boy.

After pancreatic cancer surgery in July 2004, Jobs returned to his office like a man possessed. As Apple CEO Tim Cook put it: “He came back on a mission. Even though he was now running a large company, he kept making bold moves that I don’t think anybody else would have done.”

The result, also recorded by Walter Isaacson in his excellent Jobs biography, was the iPhone and iPad. Innovations which changed the world and turned Apple into the most valuable company on earth. A peak reached just before Jobs died in October 2011.

Others in this exclusive club sometimes take a little longer to warm to the task. Like Alan Knott-Craig.

In the opening chapter of his autobiography Second is Nothing, Vodacom’s founder describes his second heart attack as life altering. He writes about looking down at his form on the gurney, “seeing my body from a distance as though I was a spectator….unwilling to return to the confines of a physical body.” But return he did after the electric shock pads were applied.

This hard-bitten business leader said he tried to tell others what he’d experienced, but couldn’t find the words. So eventually stopped talking about it: “Still, I knew with certainty that the experience had affected my life profoundly, especially my views about death, my purpose on earth.”

After a couple of years recovering, Cell-C came calling. That was 18 months ago. Its Saudi-controlled parent promised Knott-Craig all the support and financial resources he could wish for. So he set about turning the local cell phone duopoly on its head. In the past year, Knott-Craig’s price cutting efforts has seen Cell-C’s customer base surge 30%, its voice traffic double. On Friday he allocated R200m to expand the stretched Johannesburg base stations. He says provided the Regulator plays ball, there’s $350m in fresh capital available this year and more to come in 2014.

Knott-Craig whispers he’s “never worked harder”. So how’s the ticker? No comment. But he’s got the flat stomach of a 26 year old and the calm exterior of a yogi-master. In Warren Buffett’s parlance, he is tap-dancing to work. Living proof that having fun in business works better than any heart regulating pills. Especially for those who get an unexpected second chance at life.

Stephen Mildenhall is perhaps the most extreme example.

A mild-mannered, softly spoken chartered accountant, Mildenhall was the first to draw a line in the sand over Brett Kebble’s mismanagement of JSE-listed companies JCI, Randgold and Western Areas. As chief investment officer at Allan Gray, he’d studied the financials and seen value in the Kebble-controlled stocks. After his firm became the biggest single shareholder, Mildenhall took the rational approach of calling for the removal of their incompetent CEO.

What Mildenhall didn’t know was that Kebble had secretly pillaged the companies for years. Especially Randgold, whose stash of shares in its hugely successful offshoot UK-listed Randgold Resources had been quietly sold by Kebble to fund nefarious schemes. Including lifestyles of senior members of the ANC’s Youth League and other politically connected elite.

For Kebble, handing over the ship wasn’t never an option. So exactly eight years ago this week, he arranged to have Mildenhall “decommissioned”. It was a Wednesday, the night when Allan Gray’s CIO was the regular market commentator on my radio show. He arrived home a little later than normal. And after getting out of his car, was shot three times.

Within a few days Barry Sergeant’s underworld connections passed on that the shooting had been a “hit” arranged by Kebble. I told Allan Gray. They thanked me but said their investigators insisted the attack was random, a risk of living in a country where crime was out of control. Once he’d fully recovered, Mildenhall did the logical thing, packed up his young family and emigrated. Only after Kebble himself died, did the money manager discover the truth behind his nightmare.

Like Jobs, Knott-Craig and others in the exclusive second chance club, Mildenhall has returned stronger than ever. In 2008 he started UK-based Contrarian Investment Management. Its flagship Global Equity Fund is one of the best performers in the world. Since inception in January 2009 it has generated an annual US Dollar return of 26.7%. Neatly double its benchmark, the MSCI World Index, which is up 13.4% a year.

At the end of July, the Mildenhall fund had around $135m invested in each of its top three holdings. They are Gannett, the New York Times and, of course, Apple.

 * This article first appeared in Business Day newspaper on Monday 26 August 2013. 

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