Jun 17

Business and education

As my first-born son is about to graduate, I took to reflecting on the value of a university education in business. Having largely blagged my way through Appleton Grammar School, I won a place to read law at Warwick University. Since leaving, Warwick has continued to go from to strength-to-strength in global rankings. Notably, too, Warwick now boasts one of the top business schools in Europe and the top-ranked on-line MBA globally. Yet, despite its stellar academic reputation, Warwick doesn’t carry the cache of either Cambridge or Oxford, nor indeed many of the London University Colleges. This discounting of red brick university’s real academic performance in favour of the traditional and fashionable (elitist) tertiary institutions is both misguided and short-sighted. While it may be true that a graduate from Oxbridge or London may bring a valuable network of contacts with them, I am far more interested in what the individual brings to my companies, rather than the academic badge they carry, or sometimes display for all to see.

In my thirty years of establishing and running businesses, I have employed people with little or no formal education and others with Oxbridge degrees. Some of the best salespeople I have ever encountered have emerged from very difficult and disadvantaged backgrounds and with no tertiary education whatsoever. I would employ many of them all over again. Conversely, some of our most highly-qualified colleagues could not sell ice in the desert and are best left in front of computers and spreadsheets!
But one of the major challenges (and opportunities) the South African financial services sector has been grappling with for a number of years now is the upskilling and professionalisation of financial sales forces. Frankly, the day of the policy flogger are long over and good riddance. The Financial Sector Conduct Authority and FSB before it, have done a remarkably good job in setting standards for the licencing of individuals to operate in the financial services sector. It’s been tough on many of the older operators who knew their product, had an established client base, but lacked any broader or deeper understanding of financial planning. The good ones have taken up the gauntlet, studied hard and are now operating under licence in a far more professional and responsible manner towards their clients.

In this regard and of particular importance, licenced representatives must maintain their fit and proper standards, are obliged to treat clients fairly and are required to complete a significant number of continuous professional development hours each year. In many respects this has made the recruitment of wealth specialist in our companies much easier. We only employ suitably-qualified and licenced individuals to join us, it’s that simple.

Reverting to the opening theme, my personal observation is that the quality of graduates we interview from Stellenbosch University in particular has remained generally very high over the years. I don’t know whether this has to do with education, culture, or the particular subject specific academic strengths of the institution. Stellenbosch graduates often seem to have a strong work ethic too, while exhibiting those all too rare qualities – good manners and courtesy.

I can hear the howls of derision from my UCT graduate mates, but irrespective of whichever tertiary institution at which one had the privilege of studying, what has become perfectly clear to me is the vital importance of a quality tertiary education system to the sustainability of business in South Africa.