I’d worked in radio as a general news reporter and (far too young) as an editor in South Africa and London for seven years and realised I needed to specialise.
As I look back, it reminds me that we are nothing without others. Only one CEO I have ever met adamantly believed he’d made it on his own. I don’t believe it for a moment. We are the product of the choices we make, those we choose to inhabit our inner-circle, and those we keep at arm’s length. We are the product of the opportunities we grab, and those we ignore. Without mentors and those who spot our potential to be better, we cannot be our best selves.
“Financial journalism” sounded like a grand title, but I had no economics or business training and somehow needed a plan. I’d recently read a profile on Peter Bruce, editor at the time of the Financial Mail, who after a long career as a foreign correspondent, was taking on a daunting new managerial role as editor of the country’s premium financial magazine. He admitted suffering imposter syndrome and was asked what was his biggest fear: “Getting found out” was his reply.
If he could do it, so could I, I naively thought, but how?
A chance meeting with one of Africa’s smartest radio brains, Alastair Teeling Smith, with whom I’d worked previously, at a mutual friends’ birthday party, led to a series of interviews that changed the course of my life.
Three years later I was sitting in Primedia CEO Terry Volkwyn’s office and asked to contribute 20 minutes of business content to a new show called The World at Six. It was to be a mix of news, business and sport, hosted by the inimitable David O’Sullivan. The idea was we would divide the show into three 20 minute segments. No-one thought to tell me that I should take account of news, traffic and adverts and really I had just 12 minutes of airtime. I had 20 minutes imprinted on my brain and was going to deliver it. I am embarrassed to admit I was a terrible collaborator.
A month later I was called to another meeting. “It’s not working,” said the Australian radio consultant Ian Grace. Terry Volkwyn looked stern.
There was a silence. “Well,” I thought, “ it was good while it lasted.”
“From Monday, you’re doing an hour,” he said after what felt like an eternity. It was probably no more than a second or two.
I was flooded with a mixture of emotions. There was no way I was ready for this.
Just three years previously I had made a very nearly short-lived start in financial journalism at Moneyweb founded by the visionary Alec Hogg. Not long into a three month probation, he called me into his office and very kindly suggested that perhaps this was not the job for me.
He’d discussed it with the team and they had all agreed: “We’ve never met anyone more clueless about markets and business than you.”
I pointed out that I had been open about my ignorance with all ten people who had interviewed me; even at one point saying “What is this All-Share Index you guys keep talking about?”
I found their guffaws an odd response, but they suddenly made sense. “No-one believed you. Everyone thought you were joking…you really are clueless.”
But there was a flicker of recognition that I’d acted with integrity and given full disclosure. “Why don’t we do it this way,” I suggested, with nothing to lose. “give me to the end of three months, and if I have done nothing to impress you, I will go quietly and do something else.”
Alec agreed. The clock was ticking.
Weeks went by and I felt like a drowning man in the sea frantically waving for help and everyone on the beach was waving back. There was a very clear sense that I was not going to get the break I needed.
Late one afternoon I picked up rumours of a tax scandal linked to a billionaire businessman. With a clock ticking loudly against my future-self I researched Dave King, a Scot who’d made a killing in South Africa from a firm called Specialised Outsourcing. Tax issues are tough to report on as the revenue service is forbidden by law to comment on individuals affairs until there has been a court case.
I took a deep breath. King had a reputation of being tough as nails and for not tolerating fools. He answered. I told him what I knew and he immediately confirmed, corroborated and embellished on what until that moment had been a series of juicy rumours.
SARS initially issued a terse “no comment.”
I wrote up Kings version from my notes and published “King in R1.4bn tax tussle.”
The story exploded and at the next Friday editorial meeting the traffic to the stories was at the top of the league table.
I still had a lot to learn, but I was in.
Back in the room with Terry Volkwyn and Ian Grace, I stammered something like “…this Monday?”
“Yes,” came the perfunctory reply.
It was insane. My contact book was sparse and my first producer Chris Hewitt’s biggest claim to fame was he knew less than me. We got stuck in anyway.
I was the new kid in a fiercely competitive space-at one point there were five or six shows all trying to do the same thing and vying for the same guests.
We brought Laura Clancy, today a senior manager in the 702 machine, to produce the show and our performance rocketed. Later the hard working Saras Arjunan, today with China TV joined, then Thekiso Lefifi, who would later leave and return to the job where he and Tshego Mathe spend each day scouring the world for tales to tell.
There was another “it’s not working the way it should” meeting with Terry and Ian Grace in 2010 and the show was extended to its current 2-hour format.
It needed fresh thinking and new ideas and a fresh approach and in stepped Cecile Basson, today the very effective programme manager at KFM. She got the brief to make sure that we covered all the important stuff but if there was a choice between interesting and important, interesting would always hold sway.
And it still does. Some days are better than others. We seek to balance the light and shade. Always looking out for stories of heroism and entrepreneurs who risk everything for a dream. Over the years I have written hundreds of thousands of words in newspapers and magazines, hosted TV shows and gone toe-to-toe with some remarkable and some truly revolting people.
It has brought with it a plethora of awards for work across all media and I remain delighted and honoured by each public recognition of the stories I have the privilege of sharing.
What’s next? Well that is precisely what I am thinking about. In an increasingly complicated and conflicted global environment many people and businesses will fail. Many will survive and thrive well into the future. I am hunting down those stories and the lessons we can learn from them to share with you.
If you have a big idea that you’d like us to consider, let me know. I look forward to lots more learning. Everyday.