Exclusive interview with MARC VAN OLST, PRIVATE INVESTOR

 

MARC VAN OLST, PRIVATE INVESTOR, 36

 

From South Africa

Lives in Johannesburg

From inventor to investor.

A scientist from a privileged background, Marc left his job as partner with global management consultancy firm McKinsey to become a private investor.

He now uses his commercial knowledge to help small businesses that benefit society in some way. By helping them, his vision is to help boost local economies, and in turn help catalyze an African economic renaissance.

Husband, father, and fitness fanatic, Marc once invented a patented mining device.

Marc’s one nagging doubt is that post-colonial Africa may not yet be ready for a white African leader.

AB: WHAT IS THE NATURE OF YOUR BUSINESS? WHERE DID IT ALL START?

MV: Spinnaker Growth is a growth capital oriented investment firm. We identify exciting medium-sized businesses who are at the verge of real growth. They typically need to make the transition from entrepreneurship to true business building at this stage so we assist them with refining their strategies, developing processes to support their strategies, building the human engine for their organisation and developing a funding plan. We then help to provide the growth capital required to execute their plan (either from our own sources or from other sources). We usually work alongside large corporates who are looking to transform their own supplier base and do meaningful enterprise development. It all started after I left McKinsey. I had a strong conviction that the consulting skills I had learnt after 10 years at McKinsey could create huge value in the SME sector. I was also personally more excited about serving smaller, more agile companies who are having a real impact on society. I started out on a more socially-oriented route looking to support the so-called Social Entrepreneurs. After becoming involved in a number of social enterprises and helping to set up a Social Venture Fund, I felt that I needed to shift my energies towards more commercial enterprises who, because they are already much more robust financially, have a better chance of extending their impact (social and commercial) by growing aggressively. I also shifted my focus from small start-up enterprises to medium-sized enterprises where the job creation potential and investment potential is much higher. Spinnaker Growth has a team of about 10 people now, with world-class team members whose experience spans management consulting, entrepreneurship and investment. Although we are ‘new’ in the neighbourhood, I am really confident that we are well set up to serve the SME sector in a very impactful way. South Africa today, Africa tomorrow.

AB: WHAT ARE THE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN YOUR CAREER?

MV: In my first job after University, I was a shiftboss on the mines. I was really in the deep-end – fixing pumps at 2 in the morning, trying to manage 40 people who were much older than me, much more experienced and spoke a different language. Finally, having to be the ham in the sandwich between militant unions and hard-nosed mine managers. I learnt very fast that leadership was about getting the best out of others and not trying to be a hero yourself. I then left the mines to develop a patent (that was conceived while I was working on the mines). After 4 years of battling to get someone to buy into what was then a wild idea – to control a process based on the input of video cameras rather than humans – I eventually struck gold on a mine in Australia where the patent improved gold recovery by more than 7%. My efforts had been vindicated. Along with my business partner at the time, we sold the patent and gained the ‘Entrepreneur’ badge for the first time. I never lost the desire to support entrepreneurs after that and, after 10 years at McKinsey, I have returned to this world to pursue my purpose.

AB: ANY BAD MOMENTS YOU CAN RECALL? IF YES, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

MV:After 4 months on the mines, my Manager pulled me aside one night in the pub and told me that the people working ‘under’ me thought I was arrogant. I was really distraught as I had really tried hard to connect with the staff. I realised that they had judged me before they even knew me (I already had a degree and my own car and few of them had done anything more than school). I was unconsciously unaware of how to interact with people much less fortunate than me. I eventually overcame this label by spending time with each person individually, asking about their families, understanding their lives and offering to help them outside of work. I helped some of their children with their maths, science and english. I also taught some of them how to play golf and squash. At the end of the day, I learnt to connect as a human and not a ‘CV’. When I left the mines, they gave me a really touching send-off. It was very emotional for me.

AB: DO YOU THINK YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION REGARDING REACHING YOUR FUTURE GOALS?

MV: Being an entrepreneur, you can never be too sure. There are so many factors inside and outside of your control that determine your success. To be successful on my chosen path you need to have a clear sense of purpose but a ‘living strategy’ to respond to the new opportunities and threats that present themselves daily. If there were two things that give me a real sense of comfort, they would be that I have surrounded myself with great people who can challenge me and teach me and that I have spent at least 2 years ‘listening’ to the market before plunging in. In Lincoln’s words, “if you have 6 hours to chop down a tree, spend 4 hours sharpening the axe”. Our axe is now sharp.

AB: WHERE TO FROM HERE?

MV: Motion is more important than perfect direction for us now but we are very serious about being part of the exciting opportunities across the African continent. In Africa, there are many opportunities to ‘leapfrog’ the usual way of doing things. Cell phones leapfrogged landlines. I believe off-grid energy will leapfrog grid-based power supply. I believe education will be done in completely different ways. Who knows, we may even be able to build roads without tarmac soon in Africa. Africa gives you permission to innovate without the inertia of the status quo.

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