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36: Clive Kaplan

Chief Executive Officer - Green Mind Capital
Clive Kaplan has developed a coaching programme that assists CAs to move from the management space to the executive space.
13 November

CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and today we're joined by Clive Kaplan, who's the chief executive officer of the Green Mind Capital Group, which Clive formed in 2013 to offer career advice for executives, especially chartered accountants. Clive himself is a CA with 25 years' experience in business and was previously involved in property development in the Johannesburg inner city area. Interestingly, Clive has been in board meetings with the likes of Meyer Kahn from South African Breweries, Markus Jooste from Steinhoff – oh boy – Jack Cohen from Amap and Frank Thompson from ADvTECH, as well as various non-executive directors from the likes of Old Mutual. Welcome, Clive.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Thanks Ciaran, it's great to be on your show, thank you very much for inviting me.

CIARAN RYAN: I guess it's fair to say that you have, at the board level at least, hung with the big boys. You've been on boards with guys like Meyer Kahn, give us an idea of what did you learn from that?

CLIVE KAPLAN: Firstly, I must say that it was an honourable experience to be amongst such big dogs like Meyer Kahn, for instance, Markus Jooste because I knew him in those days about 15 years ago when he was really on the cusp of his expansive group internationally.

CIARAN RYAN: What period would that have been, how long ago was that?

CLIVE KAPLAN: Probably 2002, 2003.

CIARAN RYAN: Just before they were starting this explosive growth internationally.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Absolutely, they were based in Wynberg. Markus was a particularly interesting person, he was a very, very astute businessman and, interestingly enough, a stickler for governance and administration. I even had an experience with the internal audit, which he absolutely insisted on, if you got brought into a company, he sent his internal auditors. Nothing that appeared on the…report was acceptable. So it either was clean or it was not clean. It was interesting to rub shoulders with him, he's a very, very efficient and competent person, a very forceful personality and he ran a very, very tight ship. As I say, the governance was impeccable. So it was somewhat of a shock to me to find out, to read in the press actually what happened to him and I was surprised. I didn't really expect that he was of that calibre but I also believe my own view that he expanded into something that was too big for him and he had to keep his share price up and one thing led to another.

CIARAN RYAN: Just for people overseas who may not know what Steinhoff is, it's a retailing group that originated in South Africa and expanded internationally, and collapsed a few years ago, basically through accounting trickery, and basically there was phony income being created to disguise losses elsewhere in the group. I believe it has been described as one of the biggest corporate wipeouts of wealth since Enron. That may or may not be true, but it has been compared to that. It's interesting that you say that he was a stickler for governance and that he was very adamant about clean audits and getting the right information, we know that he was a forceful personality. How did you end up on the board though, what was your role there?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I wasn't actually an executive director because of the functionality that I did I was an invitee on the board but I attended all the board meetings, which we had four times a year.

CIARAN RYAN: Were you employed by the group or were you an outside consultant?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I was employed by the group.

CIARAN RYAN: What was your position there?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I was director of treasury, as well as other operational functions. So I had quite a broad responsibility, one of them was internal audits, incidentally, the other one was really around logistics and risk. So I played in the risk space quite a lot. Steinhoff bought 30% of our company from Salton USA at the time when they crashed. So that's how we got into bed with Markus Jooste

CIARAN RYAN: What was your company?

CLIVE KAPLAN: The company was Amalgamated Appliance Holdings Limited, that's where Jack Cohen came in. Funnily enough, Frank Thompson, who then landed up at ADvTECH and did a great job there, he left us in 2001, he was actually the CEO of Amap before he left.

 

Markus Jooste wanted to control the whole market

 

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so there's a bit of tie-in there from Amap into Steinhoff. Amap, of course, produces appliances or used to.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Yes, very much smaller than what we used to be. Markus had a big vision for our company, he wanted to bring the JD Group in, as well as all the manufacturing stuff on his side into our group, so he had a huge vision for us. Markus was really a cradle-to-grave type of guy, he wanted to control the whole market, from the time that you grew the trees to the time that it landed up in a person's living room [as furniture]. Certainly, here in South Africa he developed that kind of thing and his idea was to put it all under one roof and he wanted to use Amap for that. But that never materialised and maybe better so.

CIARAN RYAN: How long did you stay at Steinhoff?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I wasn't at Steinhoff; I was at Amalgamated Appliances.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so Amalgamated, which was acquired.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Yes, I was there for 15 years, so I left in 2008 when a new CEO was brought in by Bidvest who had then bought the company…sorry, Markus did bring this guy in, and went through a major restructuring because the group wasn't doing well at that time.

CIARAN RYAN: Jack Cohen, of course, was also very renowned as a great CEO, he really did steer Amap to quite dizzy heights at one point, didn't he?

CLIVE KAPLAN: Yes, absolutely, he was a doyen in the industry, he had been in the industry for many years, he was coached and mentored by Bennie Slome. So he had a depth of expertise but he was also a very nice man, a great guy to work for.

CIARAN RYAN: Tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up, went to school, university and how you ended up where you are now at the Green Mind Capital Group.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I am a Pretoria person, I went to Pretoria Boys High, thereafter I was in the air force for 12 months, I had a little stint at the border, which was interesting but I wasn't really involved in any action and I didn't want to be.

CIARAN RYAN: I think just to explain for people who are overseas, South Africans of your generation would have been required to do military service.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Then I came back and I went to Rhodes University, where I did a BCom and it was a wonderful student time for me, a real student experience. Then I joined a firm of accountants to do my articles and then I left the profession and returned to it when I was 29 to finish off my CA, which I did at Cape Town. So I qualified in 1981 from the University of Cape Town Graduate School. Then I fiddled around for a while and I became quite ill, I was hospitalised for six months and I was told that I would never work again, and that really was the beginning of the next phase of my career. When I came out of hospital I was employed Tedelex and it grew from there. So I really came from zero – I won't say hero – but certainly zero to somewhere.

CIARAN RYAN: So you've veered between being a consultant, being a chartered accountant, running risk and treasury, to what you are doing now.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I've had vast practical experience in a number of different disciplines and I think that being a CA has really added to my quality as coach because with all of my clients I can identify with the businesses that they are working in to a larger degree, simply because I have had that experience. So it's much easier for me to set the context and one of the things that I find very valuable is to be able to give a top-down view. So that's the one thing of having the advantage of sitting at the top and seeing how things actually waterfall down, and how different it is from the bottom when you look up.

 

“You can only learn to be an executive from another executive”

 

CIARAN RYAN: A charted accountant, it has a certain cache because to qualify as a CA it takes a tremendous amount of work. What are the typical issues that you find where CAs are running into trouble, where do they need coaching?

CLIVE KAPLAN: It's an interesting question that you ask. In fact, the coaching that I do is really transformational coaching, not in the sense of transformation but moving from one domain to the other. One thing that I learnt pretty clearly is that there's a huge difference between being a manager and an executive, and to make that transition is a very difficult thing. It takes time, lots of time, and there are lots of cuts and bruises and broken bones in the process, as I experienced. My coaching programme really is about helping CAs move from the manager space into the executive space. Really, it's quite simple, it's about maneuvering yourself into second-in-charge to the executive who you report to because you can only learn to be an executive from another executive, and that will not happen unless you particularly claim that space. So to get into the executive space, unlike the manager space, you need to position yourself, you need to network yourself there and you need to make sure that you find a place for yourself. That's the kind of work that I do.

CIARAN RYAN: There's been a lot of discussion about the accounting industry and its shortcomings and all of the corporate scandals, which have been enabled to some extent by CAs and chief financial officers and so on. I notice in your material that you place a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility. That is something, of course, which is discussed a lot in business these days. Personal responsibility these days means different things to different people. Previous people who we have had on CFO Talks have said the real ethical test is when you do something would you want your children to know about it. I find that quite a useful guide. Define what you mean by personal responsibility.

CLIVE KAPLAN: It's very different to the way you described it but personal responsibility is something that I found working with my coach and I always thought that I had a particular childhood understanding of responsibility, it was really taking ownership of all the things that you've done in your life. But I learnt that it's actually much more dynamic, that taking personal responsibility is knowing that you can create anything you want, all you need to do is find out how. I think that had a dramatic impact on me, it happened pretty much in the middle of my life but that changed things for me and it's very much what I present in my coaching.

CIARAN RYAN: Who would you say influenced you most in your personal and business journey, and why was that such an influence?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I think the big thing for me was that I got myself a coach and at that time coaching was not really acknowledged to be an intervention of any sort. I worked with Leonard Carr, who is a specialist in industrial psychology, and he taught me a lot about the dynamics in the executive space. Funnily enough, particularly about the narcissistic person and how much that type of personality influences that space. That opened up a whole new vista for me and that took me to another level because I was able then to predict and maneouvre myself differently when understanding what I was up against. I think that was definitely the biggest influence.

CIARAN RYAN: Are you aware of this research, I think it came out of an Australian university, which suggested that I think it's a fifth of chief executive officers have psychopathic traits. You mentioned Markus Jooste being an extremely forceful personality and I think if you move around in those circles, guys don't make it to the top without climbing over corpses. That's not to say that they are criminal psychopaths, but they do have psychopathic traits. I'm not suggesting Markus Jooste either is like that, it's just an interesting observation that has been made.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I think that's valid; I went to a presentation recently about criminal activity and I think it was called toxic leadership. There were some very learned people there, there was one guy from Unisa, I forget his name but he's a professor, and he raised this issue, he said that 25% of executives – I think it was Harvard University that did the survey – are psychopaths, not had psychopathic tendencies.

CIARAN RYAN: They are psychopaths.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Yes, so you have the narcissist, the sociopath and the psychopath. The psychopath is a deluded human being and is very, very dangerous. So if one takes two steps back it's not unusual to find a lot of people with those types of tendencies in the executive space and the tendency really is it's my way or the highway, and it's all about me.

CIARAN RYAN: How do you as a chartered accountant or an executive and you're rising up through the ranks and you're under the sway of some personality like that, how do you defend against that?

CLIVE KAPLAN: The fact is, as far as I am concerned, you need to understand the personality and the personality is very predictable when you know the person.

 

Learning how to play the executive game

 

CIARAN RYAN: Right, if you label it correctly, I've got a psychopath in front of me, you're a little bit inoculated against it.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I have a viewpoint that there are only two types of people in the workplace, there's the narcissist and everyone else. Identify the narcissist and you've pretty much won the game. They tend to be quite devious and they control by using devious methods with the people around them.

CIARAN RYAN: Define what you mean by narcissist?

CLIVE KAPLAN: That's an interesting question, there's a lot of stuff that goes behind the narcissist…

CIARAN RYAN: He's only looking after himself.

CLIVE KAPLAN: It's a person who is very egotistical, very self-focused, very concerned about them being acknowledged and they have a grandiose understanding of themselves. But that's not the toxic part of the person, the toxic part of the personality is the manipulation that they put in place to control the people around them with power. If one knows that and knows where the nodules are where power can be taken and not go there, instead of playing the executive…from a power point of view, you prevent your personal power from being taken from you, and in that process you develop a level of confidence, which is very solid. So the kind of work I do is not turning people into narcissists, the kind of work I do is learning how to play the executive game, which is punctuated with a lot of narcissists and that does come into it. But once you know the personality, they are actually very easy to manipulate.

CIARAN RYAN: Who is easy to manipulate?

CLIVE KAPLAN: The narcissist.

CIARAN RYAN: Give me a practical example of that, one that you have encountered.

CLIVE KAPLAN: One of the techniques that I teach is something called you king, I am nothing. That's where if you are going to approach them and you want to get something out of that type of personality – I'm going to overplay it – you approach them by going into the office and saying you know everything, you're the big king here, I'm just a little…

CIARAN RYAN: Wouldn't he know that you're being snide and sarcastic?

CLIVE KAPLAN: No.

CIARAN RYAN: You're doing it in a way that he wouldn't notice.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I'll tell you why because you tell him everything he believes about himself, and then once you've opened him up then you put in what you want to suggest. If it's good, he will take it as his own, but it will get done. If it's bad, you can just bow out comfortably without leaving your power behind by saying I'm so pleased I came to speak to you, I knew that I was missing something. When you play into the personality – obviously I have overplayed that quite a lot – when you play into the personality and avoid trying to claim things for yourself because a narcissist believes that they are the only clever person in the room and they will always make you feel that way. So if you play it differently…

CIARAN RYAN: “Oh, you're so smart, you're so clever, we need your intellect.” I know what you're saying.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Absolutely, as I say, I have overplayed it but it's very different to say I've got a good idea, I think we should do this.

CIARAN RYAN: There's a lot of negativity around in South Africa at the moment, though, it has to be said we won the Rugby World Cup, so perhaps we can leverage that to turn things around. But in your interactions with business and executives, what strikes you most in terms of executive attitudes, is there a mood of despondency around or are things turning for the better?

CLIVE KAPLAN: That's an interesting question, I think on paper things look pretty bleak in terms of that we are spending more than we are actually getting in. But I think the general view of the people I deal with is really looking at finding different opportunities in other countries, which I have found quite a lot, and it creates an interesting dynamic. The most interesting dynamic that it creates is there are jobs that are becoming available in South Africa because the guys who are leaving are not guys at the bottom, they are guys who are at the top who are leaving. So when they say the economy is down and so on, I think that there are quite a lot of jobs that are becoming available due to people who are emigrating. So I think that's really the tone of things, so I think people are in this 50/50 space at the moment. I think they've stayed around because they've been a lot more than that, I think I would include myself in that, but I think we have got to a 50/50 situation.

 

“I certainly believe that there's no better person on the planet right now than Cyril Ramaphosa”

 

CIARAN RYAN: I want to throw this at you, if you were president for a year, give us two or three things that you would do urgently to fix the country.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Is that a trick question?

CIARAN RYAN: Yes, it's a trick question [laughing].

CLIVE KAPLAN: I wouldn't like the job, but I think the way that it's playing out at the moment, in my view, is that we have a thick political issue that we're trying to work through here. It's more politics than it is economics. My own personal opinion is that Moody's is really looking at Cyril Ramaphosa to be the person to navigate us through the intensity of the political dynamics at the moment. I certainly believe that there's no better person on the planet right now than Cyril Ramaphosa because he started at the bottom, he was a blue-collar worker, he's gone all the way through the trade unions and that's where he is today. The most important thing is he is not a bush fighter, he doesn't come from the war. In Africa most of the guys who have taken over have been bush fighters and, in a way, believe they deserve to… [unclear]. Cyril is not like that. I certainly wouldn't like to do his job because I think it's much more complex than just pure economics, I think it's very political.

CIARAN RYAN: It is a hell of a tough job and he is in the sharks' tank because he's being snapped at from all sides and yet, he's got to turn this economy around. I think the big problem that everyone agrees on is how do we break out of this low-growth trap? We're not going to be growing more than 1% or 1.5% for the next two or three years and that's going to make no dent whatsoever on unemployment. I guess it comes back to this whole issue that you were talking about in the beginning, it's the level of skills that we have in this country, do we have the right leaders in order to turn this ship around. You made a point that Ramaphosa is probably the right guy at the moment, nobody else could do that job at the moment but what about below him?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I must say that I don't follow it too closely, some of the people who I think are really interesting are Pravin Gordhan, he's a particularly interesting person…I think what's been lacking in the government is competency to a massive degree, to see what's happened to the state-owned enterprises, there was absolutely no management, what was going on there was insane. When you read about the sewerage that's pouring into the Vaal River at the moment it's incompetent management more than anything else. I think that Cyril will be able to maneuver himself to put competent people in charge…

CIARAN RYAN: Sorry, I think it's more than that, I think it's state capture, I think it was a deliberate campaign to steal.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I would agree with you, I think it was [state capture] but I like to believe that we've passed through that. I think going forward, the kind of people who are going to be put into positions if Cyril wins the political battle that's going on at the moment it will be around competency and not around political nepotism. As I say, I am 50/50, I think Cyril is the man for the job. I certainly think investment is about do we have the right leadership here in this country, more than the fact that we have a low growth rate because South Africa was really always looked at as the ‘head office' of Africa and I think one of the biggest potentials in this part of the world is to have a unified Sub-Saharan federation of states and build infrastructure and get the mining and agriculture space on a federal basis, similar to how America does things. So there's huge opportunity for the right leader here. If we get it right, we'll get it right.

CIARAN RYAN: It's an interesting thought because there's so much cost associated with having borders between us and Zimbabwe, for example, and the delays that happen when you are crossing the border, sort of a federation of states, although there will be a lot of resistance to that because there's a lot of vested interest when you have your own personal fiefdom or kingdom, you're not going to give it up without a fight.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I think that's valid and I think one of the things where there are changes happening and it's the [bush war] veteran mentality, which needs to be weeded out. I think we've come out of the bottom of the parabola ad I think we are on our way out of it because there's a new generation of people who are coming in. Professor Nick Binedell has got a lot of really amazing things to say about the young people in this country, their vision, their aspirations and their energy and he's been saying this for well over ten years. If he's right and we have the right leadership, this is going to be a very exciting part of the world.

 

No slowdown in corporate scandals

 

CIARAN RYAN: Just a couple of quick questions, you are also a chartered accountant, the profession, as we've already discussed, is coming under heat for some terrible corporate scandals, and the solution to this amongst the accounting standards set is to regulate how figures are to be reported. But still, we don't see any slowdown in terms of corporate scandals, and I guess this comes back to what you define as ethics and personal responsibility. Is there a better way for accountants and chief financial officers to behave?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I think it always starts at the top, so the influence comes from the chief executive officer and the CFO is either going to say yes or no. If he says no, he must leave. He can't say no and stay, that's for sure. So the thing about ethics is a very interesting idea because ethics is a subjective call and it's not the way business is done. Business is done on a legal basis, the crucible of business is law and it has the objective through the case history that it has to determine what is right and what is wrong. So I think ethics is a bit of a misnomer. I do, however believe, and a lot of my clients, by the way, got pushed out of the way because they played the ethics game…

CIARAN RYAN: In other words, they refused to do things which were unlawful or immoral?

CLIVE KAPLAN: No, unlawful is unlawful, I never agree with unlawful. But when you're making an ethics call you have got to be sure that you're in the inner circle because maybe you have missed something, and if you're not in the inner circle you can't make that call because there are other dynamics at play there and you need to know what those dynamics are. So I have a view around that, I don't believe that CAs should be part of illegal activities, that's categorically the case, it's always been the case. But where I do stand on this one, Ciaran is that the CA SA qualification is probably the finest business qualification in the world. If you look at any of the other countries, the CPA or the ACA, any of the other countries and ask any CA who's left this country and gone abroad how this measures up to other countries, it's very different. One of the reasons I think the board exam creates a particularly interesting dynamic, and this is of lateral thinking. So when you write the board exam all the barriers between the subjects are broken down…so you have to be thinking laterally at all times, you're taught to think laterally. So when you deal with a problem you bring in all the dynamics, you don't just look at one or two. So you've got a much better perspective on what needs to be done and that's why they make good business people. Just incidentally, in America most of the CFOs are MBAs, which is quite interesting, not CPAs.

CIARAN RYAN: In this country I think CA is almost like 80% or 90%, certainly at the top stock exchange-listed level.

CLIVE KAPLAN: Absolutely and there's a good reason for that, the guys are competent, they know what they are doing.

CIARAN RYAN: Final question, are you reading any good books?

CLIVE KAPLAN: Yes, I have just bought Robert Kiyosaki's Guide to Investing in Gold and Silver. Robert is a very interesting guy and I did a course with him recently.

CIARAN RYAN: Have you read all his books?

CLIVE KAPLAN: I've read Rich Dad Poor Dad but he's got some revolutionary ideas about money, about investment…

CIARAN RYAN: And what is an asset, his whole idea of an asset is something that generates an income. If you are living in a house in which you are paying a mortgage bond, it's a dead asset, unless it's earning an income.

CLIVE KAPLAN: He's got some really great ideas, he's a very successful man. I don't read one book at a time because some of the books are quite difficult to read. So I am also reading Mastery by Robert Greene, he wrote a book called The 48 Laws of Power, and another book about war called The 33 Strategies of War. It really is the kind of thing that all the great leaders, the winners of the world…it's the tactics that they adopted, it's very much the CEO-type of space like The Art of War, Sun Tzu-type stuff. Mastery is wonderfully written. Robert Greene's book are well written and unbelievably researched, a must read.

 

The biggest social revolution that's happening at the moment

 

CIARAN RYAN: So you find some application there to business?

CLIVE KAPLAN: Definitely, they are actually business books, it always alludes to the powerbase in a corporation. Then I am rereading Eckhart Tolle's The New Earth, which is a great book about self-actualisation and bringing together the physical aspects of being alive and the spiritual aspects of being alive. Really, really interesting. Other than that, I read magazines and the internet. I also have a fascination, just incidentally, in disruption, I think we are moving into a fantastically exciting world. So I try to follow that as best I can. I'm a Bitcoin guy.

CIARAN RYAN: Do you trade it?

CLIVE KAPLAN: No, I don't trade it, I'm what they call a hodler, I'm of the view that it's going to go up nicely because, in my view, it's the biggest social revolution that's happening at the moment against the banking system and the governments' control of money.

CIARAN RYAN: I'm also a Bitcoin guy and, of course, it rests on the blockchain technology and that is something that is absolutely going to revolutionise the way that we interact. You'll be able to transact with people who you don't know, it's going to create whole new mediums of communication and exchange.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I think it's going to speed things up a lot and the one thing that I like about it is the audit trail, there's a continuous audit trail. Let's say, for instance, you buy a secondhand car, if you go onto blockchain it will tell you when it was manufactured, who it was sold to at the beginning, what repairs they had, who it was then sold to and what repairs they had, so you'll have the whole history on the blockchain.

CIARAN RYAN: Smart contracts is another thing, of course, that they'll be able to use the blockchain technology for. So you don't really need a lawyer, you say we agree these terms and these are the milestones of the contract, you deliver on such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a price, penalties are built into the thing and the whole thing becomes self-regulating.

CLIVE KAPLAN: I think that's a very valid point because I think a lot more of that is going to be coming into play and, in my view, we are going to find that in the corporate space as well, that the IFRS presentation of financial statements…if you're in an industry you're going to have to use this, which will be an independent thing that's been structured by, let's say, Zego, and if you're in insurance you've got to use this, and it's completely sealed, you can't fiddle with it or change the numbers. So everyone reports on the same basis and the whole thing around the judgements of IFRS is going to fall away because AI might come into it. There are all sorts of amazing possibilities. I also believe that the auditor is going to become redundant.

CIARAN RYAN: Anything mechanical, when you just tighten up the rules, you can automate these things. Clive, we're going to have to leave it there, it's been fascinating talking to you, thanks very much for coming in. We've just been talking to Clive Kaplan, the chief executive officer of the Green Mind Capital Group www.greenmindcapital.co.za

 

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