MechChem Africa

Peter Middleton Comment Mechanical TechnologyThe keynote speaker was Adrian Saville, author, professor and chief strategist for Citadel & CIO Cannon Asset Managers.

At the start of his talk, Saville quoted boxer Mike Tyson who once said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” a phrase the launched a talk laced with lessons from the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Saville began by pointing out that company growth relates directly to earnings. He quotes Warren Buffet on this: ‘In the short term the market is a popularity contest; in the long term it is a weighing machine.’ But year on year earnings data shows close correlation with the economy. “GDP growth has the greatest impact on company performance,” Saville said, adding, “so for companies to perform well it helps to have a supportive business environment.”

Research into more than 1 000 JSE-listed companies was conducted by Saville’s team to see if any managed to grow earnings in spite of the economy. “Between 1997 and 2013, there was only a handful. We call these the ‘exceptional exceptions’ and they are quite an eclectic mix – from Mr Price to WBHO and from EOH to Famous Brands. These ‘counters’ have managed to grow earnings consistently ahead of nominal GDP growth, regardless of the economic cycle,” Saville revealed.

The additional ‘ingredient’, for the success of these companies, believes Saville, can be found in the performance of Muhammad Ali during his 1974 fight in Kinshasa against the younger and stronger George Foreman. “Ali was not expected to win. In fact, a plane was waiting on the runway ready to fly him directly to a neurosurgeon after the fight,” he pointed out.

While Ali was noted for his lightning speed and high-energy around the ring, during the fight he deliberately leaned against the ropes, took a defensive posture and allowed Foreman to hit him on the arms and body, while constantly taunting him about how ineffective his punching was. Ali later dubbed this strategy ‘the rope-a-dope’.

For eight rounds, Ali taunted Foreman, encouraging him to hit harder and harder while opportunistically throwing straight punches to Foreman's face. Then, during the eighth round, with Foreman visibly tiring, “Ali came off the ropes, landed several right hooks, followed by a 5-punch combination, a left hook that brought Foreman's head up into position and a hard straight right that knocked him to the canvas,” said Saville.

From a strategic point of view, Ali was brilliant. He did not adopt his ‘dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ skill. He developed a new fighting technique in order to improve his odds against a very powerful opponent.

The key ‘ingredient’ for business success that Saville lifts from this is ‘agility’. The ‘exceptional exceptions’ all have the ability to quickly realign their strategies to accommodate the conditions facing them.

Secondly, he lifts out the ‘rope-a-dope’ technique used by Ali. “Companies need to withstand the vagaries of a challenging environment. They need ‘shock absorbers’ in place to cushion company earnings during turbulent or trying times.” This ‘ingredient’ Saville calls ‘absorption’.

Two contrasting companies that he argues exemplify the value of these ‘ingredients’ are Kodak and Fujifilm. “In 1995, Kodak employed some 150 000 staff but, by 2014, that number had shrunk to 8 800. In contrast, Fujifilm has seen its employee numbers rise from 15 000 in 1990 to 50 000 today.

Realizing that the traditional chemical-film photographic industry was collapsing, Fujifilm used its background in materials chemistry, imaging, optics and analysis to develop a diverse range of products from digital X-rays to cosmetics. And the company is now recognised as one of the world's most innovative.

“Companies that are able to balance both the qualities of agility and absorption experience better profitability and return on equity. Those companies wishing to see off the challenges of a subdued business environment should look closely at these two factors – agility and absorption – and find ways to enhance both,” Saville says.

I find it fitting that Ali’s agility and absorption lesson was delivered in Africa. We are still going to have to weather slow GDP growth, but we are not unused to absorbing economic pressures and, across Africa, agility is evident.

In our future as MechChem Africa we are determined to use Saville’s key ingredients and to seek out real success stories as inspirational as the great Muhammad Ali’s.

Have a safe and happy holiday.

Peter Middleton

BANNER 8

Contact MechChem Africa

Title: Editor
Name: Peter Middleton
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za or peterm@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

Title: Editor
Name: Glynnis Koch
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

Title: Advertising Manager
Name: Brenda Karathanasis
Email: brendak@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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