Entrepreneur Rob Sussman took a while to find his passion. But when he did, he was unstoppable.
Wired for tech Rob Sussman, Integr8, says he has a particular mindset that understands how computers think.
Visitors to the offices of Integr8 might notice that all the teacups on the shelves are lined up with the corporate logo neatly facing forward. None of them are chipped or cracked, because a company slack enough to tolerate broken cups will also tolerate business proposals sent out with coffee stains on them.
Integr8’s joint CEO Rob Sussman is deadly serious as he tells me this, then sees my expression and grins. “I’m fanatical about everything being organised. I know it’s anal but I believe it’s important,” he says. “If you make a big thing about little things, then the big things become important as well. The office has to be immaculate. I can drive myself berserk so I must drive my people absolutely crazy. I sometimes have to apologise and say this is how I am, everything has to be perfect, but it’s worked well for us.”
Sussman founded and grew the Integr8 group with his brother-in-law Lance Fanaroff. It’s a real family business, with his wife Tami the chief marketing officer, his mother-in-law the client relationship manager, his mother running the company’s property portfolio, Fanaroff’s brother running the IT rental division, his sister in office administration and a brother-in-law working as a project manager. The group has about 540 other employees too, making it the largest privately-owned ICT company in Africa.
Sussman is only 38 and looks younger, with gelled, spiky hair and a lean body honed by daily workouts. “I used to be the youngest guy in the boardroom, but now the average age is 26. So I’m the old, grey-haired one, except I don’t have any yet,” he jokes, finger-combing his funky hair and sipping a Diet Coke.
He’s come a long way since his inauspicious school days and directionless adolescence in Cape Town.
“I did computing in Standard Eight and dropped out, thinking it wasn’t for me. We had to code to make a green turtle run around a screen and we spent ages doing that. At the end you had a turtle running around and I thought, `What on earth was that all about?’”
He also dropped out of biology and accounting, worrying his mother by his lack of academic prowess. But his father was unfazed. “My father was very chilled and laid-back. If I’d followed my dad, I’d be working on Greenmarket Square or renting out chairs on the beach,” he says. “School didn’t interest me. I didn’t like the academic side or the structured environment. Later, I also learned the corporate environment wasn’t something I enjoyed. I’m more in tune with the entrepreneurial world.”
Most of his friends went to university, but Sussman didn’t. He had no plans at all, so he enrolled for the easiest-possible year-long business course, then skipped most lectures.
If I’d followed my dad, I’d be working on Greenmarket Square or renting out chairs on the beach.
His life was going nowhere, but when his father decided to move on, his entire world changed. “You know how people say you have an ‘ah-ha’ moment? Well, I got a proper klap as a wake-up call. Within the space of six months, my parents got divorced, my older sister went to live in Johannesburg, my younger sister went to live in Israel and the family house was sold. My mom and I moved into a guest house and shared a room with our dog. I thought if there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”
Losing his whole family support system was the turning point. He enrolled for electronics at a technical college, followed by a three-year course in electrical engineering. “I excelled. I learned to listen in class, studied hard and did my homework every day.”
Going it alone
A job with IT company Bhekisizwe taught him how to build computers. He also took a Microsoft course and lobbied his managers to let him launch a Microsoft business unit. When they refused, Sussman quit to set up a Microsoft integration company on his own.
“I realised I had a particular mindset that understood how computers think. I just kind of get it; maybe I’m wired that way. So I went on my own and started selling computers to friends and then to businesses.”
With 550 people, it’s not a close-knit family business. It’s not sitting around with pizza by the pool.
Despite his lethargic start, Sussman quickly got his act together. “I missed out on the phase of partying and drugging. I didn’t smoke and I didn’t drink. I was too busy working and looking after my mother. Saturday nights consisted of movies with my girlfriend and my mom.”
If his girlfriend tolerated his mother joining them on dates, she was definitely a keeper, I say. She was, and they’re still together two decades later.
He’s also still very close to his mother, and treated her to a European cruise for her 68th birthday, where she attracted envious glances from old dowagers convinced she was travelling with a toy boy.
Despite good looks and easy charm, Sussman says he’s only had two girlfriends, one from 16 to 18, and Tami from the age of 18. “I’m very much a long-term player,” he says. “I pick something and I give it a proper go.”
Tami now wants children, and Sussman is happy to oblige. “My wife wants kids, so kids she’ll get,” he says indulgently. The reason they are still child-free is because they have both focussed so hard on building the business.
What really kick-started his career was when one of his sisters introduced him to her boyfriend, Lance Fanaroff. Fanaroff was a businessman importing glass at the time, but when he won an IT networking contract, he commissioned Sussman to conduct the work. As the scope of the job grew, they joined forces to launch a company, initially working with business partner Mark Levy, who later left to form Blue Label.
Boom and bust
This was at the height of the dotcom boom, and they sold the business to a bigger company with big dreams of listing. But that plan burst along with the dotcom bubble, leaving the trio with nothing.
“We had nothing. No customers, no income, no money,” Sussman recalls.
The trio each stumped up R150 000 to create another company, Integr8IT, in March 2001.
They continually reinvest the profits into the business, rather than splurging on luxuries. I ask if he has any extravagances at all, and his answer is the gym. He’s serious. Not a flashy car, luxury house or baths in champagne, but fitness sessions. Trying to uncover any vices in this good, clean-living Jewish boy is a hopeless challenge.
He lives in an apartment in Cape Town’s Mouille Point, built when Integr8 first invested in commercial property developments. That shows how Sussman is happy to dip into various ventures rather than being an IT devotee. “I think I’m an entrepreneur,” he says. “I like to grow things out of nothing.” He didn’t come from money or a fancy education, he says proudly, pointing out what a successful enterprise they have grown from three initially small investments.
He’s also learned the importance of a properly structured corporation, overcoming his initial dislike of such formality. “I have figured it out,” he grins. “I now realise why corporate systems exist ? to enable companies to grow.”
His growth plans are hugely ambitious, with an aim of doubling in size every year for the next three years. That could involve listing or a take-over by a larger company. Not chasing growth would be unfair to the young employees who want to learn and join the management team and become partners and directors, he adds.
“I chase success, and I don’t think success is money. Money can come from success, but you can inherit a lot of money and it doesn’t make you a success. For me, success is growing things out of nothing.”
What he is growing now is ZunguZ, an application developed to let Facebook users securely transfer money to and from their Facebook contacts.
Integr8’s ideas machine usually begins when Sussman comes up with something new and proposes it to Fanaroff. Instead of picking holes or shooting it down, Fanaroff tends to stretch things into even greater possibilities. “As much as I present an idea, he catapults it even further. I plant the seed, he waters it and I have to trim it back. It’s a fantastic relationship and works really well.”
Discussing the creation of new ventures makes Sussman realise that that is what keeps him interested in being at the helm even though Integr8 has grown into a serious corporation. Yet sometimes he questions whether being joint CEO is still the perfect role.
“With 550 people, it’s not a close-knit family business. It’s not sitting around with pizza by the pool,” he says. “As the business grows, it’s no longer about you, it’s about your people and what they demand and their careers. You doubt yourself. You sometimes sit in a meeting and think, ‘I wonder if I’m the right guy for the job now?’ We have put brilliant people in the right roles to run the business on a day-to-day basis and a lot of them are better than I am.”
Yet he’s very much the leader, and still loving it. As our evening interview ends, he tells me he’s going straight back to work. “I can’t wait to see what’s happening and who’s done what. Work isn’t work ? it’s what I want to do. It’s my passion,” he says. “I get into bed at night with my laptop and work.”
Which is one thing that may have to change, or those elusive children could remain some way off yet.