The secret of success
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At 39, Malcolm Hall is at the helm of Open Box, recently voted by Fast Growth 100 as the fourth-fastest growing company in SA. A finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year in SA last year, Malcolm is also a Springbok sailor.
Leadership for me is about creating an environment where people can be really successful at whatever it is they are doing – and love it. It’s then very easy to lead people when they are excelling at what they are doing.
A big part of being a leader is humility. It’s always been important to me to not delegate the job that nobody wants. The worst thing that you can do on the boat is clean out the bilge – the bottom of the inside of the boat where you get a bit of seawater, diesel and odds and ends floating in there.
That’s a job as a leader that you should show that you are willing to do, and that you do willingly. In doing that you gain the respect of others. Nobody can then say “no” to another job. There are then no superstars, nobody is above the rest.
I was born and bred in Newlands, Cape Town. I went to school at SACS and then studied at UCT. I did a lot of sailing as kid and got to see a lot of SA and the world. I became a junior Springbok and was skippering reasonable-sized boats where the owner had made millions in business and the rest of crew were also respected businessmen in their own fields – and there I was, a 15-year-old teenager still in school telling them what to do.
As soon as you step on to a boat, the roles that you are assigned creates a level of hierarchy that cuts across no matter what the people involved do when they step off the boat. On the sailing boat I was, quite honestly, often the best sailor. People were looking to me to give them that direction as to how best navigate the course. I was often giving very specific instructions to somebody more than twice my age, who in any other facet of life would’ve been giving me direction.
I had ambitions to sail in the Olympics and with SA’s readmission it became a possibility. I left university and campaigned full-time for the 1996 Olympics until we (my partner and I, sailing a two-man spinnaker trapeze boat) got to a point where we were told that we’d hit a political glass ceiling. It was devastating and left me directionless: everything I’d been working towards in my life had been pulled out from under me. It was particularly bitter, as we’d got such little support from our government. It came down to the political bottom line that sailing was seen as a white sport. I became disillusioned with politics in sport and lost my love for sailing as a result.
I managed to find a job implementing financial systems (basically, back-office accounting systems), and then did a BCom through Unisa. I was working full-time and studying after hours; consulting to companies with 2 000 to 3 000 people on how to install these financial systems, while at the same time furiously studying as to what these accounting processes should be.
Three years later, my girlfriend (now wife) and I decided to move to London. The accounting system I was working on in Cape Town had just gained traction in the UK, so I got a job (at Deloitte) straight away, and pretty soon I was managing 45 people across Europe. I was seen as the “e-commerce guy”, and moved quickly through the ranks and rode the wave like hell.
I then got involved in an IT start-up and was basically involved in the “dot-com” environment, working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. For a good few years, it was a crazy time. I was interviewing 18 people a day, hiring and retrenching, putting financial systems in place, finding premises, and then helping with shutdown when our investors pulled out. So I got to be involved in the entire cycle of a business within an 18-month period. My eyes were then opened to the possibility of running my own business.
Open Box is an SA customs software development company with an international client base. Some 98 percent of our revenue is in US dollars and on any given day we’re working with people in India, China, Australia, South and North America, as well as Europe.
We’re a company that consumers don’t see, that helps businesses run more efficiently. We sell time (consultancy), not packages. I learnt some fantastic lessons in terms of the organisation that fell down, one of which was focus. Now I’m very clear about what we do and do not do. And that’s been a lot of our success. The challenge of being told what I can and can’t do is like a red cape to this bull. All of my life has been about proving people wrong when they say that something can’t be done.
I always wanted to create an SA company working with businesses I’d got to know while working in the UK. I’d been working at a place where I loved going to work every day and was excited about the challenge of creating an environment where people would want to come to work, where people are doing what “makes the music play” for them. When the work you do is the thing that you love most of all.
I basically just had my Rolodex with me when I moved back to SA. I won a big tender and never looked back. My wife came up with the design of Open Box, and I came up with the name. It was about removing the mystery of financial systems, removing the fear around them. To begin with it was myself and my brother-in-law, plus one other.
At the start we hired a lot of friends and family, which brought its own set of unique challenges. It was potentially very combustible, so the key was really open, really honest communication. We couldn’t afford for it not to go well from a communication standpoint, as at any point the company could’ve ended. We couldn’t count on a future. Now we have a bit more of a tomorrow, but that culture hasn’t changed.
In 2002 we were three people, now we are 100. We review everybody’s salary every month, as I’d rather be moving a person’s salary much more frequently, as they grow with the company and become more of an asset, than create the false promise of a bonus in a year’s time. People ask us: “When do you get work done?” But growing people is what we are about.
The value of Open Box is about the value of the people who choose to walk through the door. I do joke that we bribe people with breakfast in the morning… but we grow the value of our company by growing the value of what our people can do.
We make that our focus. And so we become better as individuals and better as an organisation. People get given greater opportunity and become moulded around doing what inspires them.
I’m not fixated on turnover, staff numbers or profit. I care about working with good people and enjoying what I am doing. I’m not good at schmoozing. I am good at working through problems with people. I like to be involved in understanding the problem and then delivering the solution.
SA has really questionable leaders in really significant areas of the landscape.
So I look at that and it saddens me. But I’m also incredibly positive about this country.
We have so much potential and the ability to be successful with so much change. And we revel in it.
We thrive in change. And triumph because of it. I love that. Living and working in this country, with South Africans, is what keeps me alive.