For Schalk Malan, CEO of BrightRock, a lesson learned as a hesitant competitive swimmer has served him well for life, and a career built on loving change.
Schalk Malan was in his matric year in the little town of White River in Mpumalanga, when he made the big decision that would forever change his life. It was sink or swim. He chose swim.
A talented rugby player, he had already decided, much to the shock and amazement of his family, that he was going to forgo the team sport in favour of his solo speciality. Then, one night, at a small gala, he wasn’t so sure anymore.
“I didn’t want to swim this one race,” he recalls, “and my mom got quite annoyed. She said to me that if I don’t swim this race, she will never come to a gala again. It sounds like a hard line, but she did it out of love.”
So Schalk took a deep breath, and put one foot on the starting block, then the other. At the sound of the pistol, he dived in. “All said and done, I actually ended up winning,” he shrugs.
More than that, he went on to become the South African Schools Swimming Champion, and the lesson he learned guides him even today. Listen to your mother. That, and take the plunge.
You can’t win the races you don’t race, and that applies equally in the world of business as it does in school sport. As a co-founder and now CEO of BrightRock, Schalk has learned how to silence that little voice of doubt that once made him hesitate on the sidelines. The secret is: focus.
“You can’t worry about other problems that might come up later on. You just need to focus on what you can control right now,” he says. “I think swimming taught me a little about that discipline. You can only focus on your goals, and stay inside your lane.”
But what if things don’t go according to plan? They seldom do, says Schalk.
“What I’ve learned is that your preparation is actually there to prepare you for how to handle things when they don’t go according to plan.”
He remembers his first day of work at a big insurance company, where he had been hired on the strength of his academic record as an Actuarial Science graduate.
“I’d always worked hard to keep my marks quite high and compete well in my class,” he explains.
Still, he discovered very quickly that your marks count for little when you are presented with a daunting challenge in the real world.
Asked to build a model for a new insurance product, he wandered “cap-in-hand” to a more experienced colleague: “All your bravado falls away. You have to walk to this guy and say, I need help here. Help me? Guide me? You realise quickly that you can’t do it on your own. Getting 80% might be possible and academically sufficient, but in the workplace you realise that 80 percent sometimes might not be good enough. And you then need people to protect you and support you.”
Just shy of six years ago, when Schalk joined the small team who founded BrightRock, on the premise of its Needs-Matched philosophy – your insurance changes as your life changes – he found the right people.
Surround yourself with brilliant people who are smarter than you, and more diverse in their thinking, says Schalk, and you will succeed. But it helps too, if you are able to dive in at the deep end, swim for your life, and prove that you’ve got what it takes to Love Change.
Meet Noelene Reddy, BrightRock Processing Manager, whose view of life has changed for the better since a little stranger made her debut
As Processing Manager at BrightRock’s headquarters in Johannesburg, Noelene Reddy takes pride in ensuring that her team delivers quality work, on schedule.
But there was one particular project, late last year, that took a little longer than planned to see the light of day. And that was Noelene’s beautiful baby daughter, Ayva. “She just didn’t want to come out!” laughs Noelene.
But the wait, as it turned out, was worth it, for mom and “over-the-moon” dad, Ajay. Basking in the glow of first-time motherhood, Noelene calls Ayva a blessing and a miracle, and on top of all that, a tiny teacher of some very important lessons.
“I’m learning something new from her every day,” says Noelene. “There’s no manual that comes with a baby, so you have to take every day as it comes. She’s teaching me the value of patience. It’s been an amazing journey so far.”
For Noelene, the journey goes all the way back to the town of Merebank in KwaZulu-Natal, where she grew up with a dream of caring: she wanted to become a nurse.
In the meantime, after matriculating and moving up to Johannesburg, she took a temporary job in the mailroom at a health insurance company. She worked her way up the ladder and found a career for life, leading to a bright new path at BrightRock in 2012.
“Walking out of my comfort zone after 10 years in one company was a scary thought,” recalls Noelene. “But my immediate impression was, wow, so many opportunities in such a small company. I have never felt more welcomed. We have a dedicated bunch of people that day in and day out try to conquer the world.”
For Noelene, the BrightRock philosophy of loving change means hard work and sleepless nights, “but it’s worth it in the end, when the pieces of the puzzle come together.”
She relishes the opportunity to do things differently at BrightRock, by anticipating and staying ahead of the needs of clients and brokers.
“I like the fact that when we say we will make a plan, we do go out of our way to do so. And at the end of the day, we stick to what we promise people.”
So what does it to take to be a successful Processing Manager?
“Patience,” answers Noelene, after a moment’s thought. You have to listen carefully too, and you need to know the difference between being busy and being productive. You need to be able to take time to laugh, and to speak your mind even if you’re worried you might sound silly: “Sometimes your best ideas come out of random thoughts.”
But more than anything, feeling at home at BrightRock means being part of the family, and all the more so since little Avya became its brightest new addition.
Meet Jeanine Horn-Erasmus, a BrightRock team leader who has discovered the true secret of motivating a team. Bake them a delicious cake if they keep up the good work.
What does it take to run a happy office, where everyone gets along, gets the job done, and shares the workload when the pressure is on?
For Jeanine Horn-Erasmus, a Team Leader of Policy Finance at BrightRock, the answer is simple. It takes chocolate cake.
Not just any chocolate cake, but her own home-baked variety. “It’s nice and moist,” she says, “and I add coffee and caramel and cream to the recipe to make it extra special.”
Jeanine brings in her signature treat on special occasions, such as birthdays, baby showers, and, well, Fridays. “I always say to my team, if I hear no complaints from you this week, I’ll bake a chocolate cake.”
She hears very few complaints. “Working at BrightRock is like being part of a family,” says Jeanine, who divides her time between the Port Elizabeth and Durban offices. “We spend most of the day together and get to know each other quite well. We celebrate each other’s achievements and can count on each other.”
Born in Pretoria, Jeanine grew up in PE, a city she loves for its affordability, its work-life balance, and its leisure opportunities, from “Sunday Funday” on the beach to game drives in the Addo Elephant Park.
Outdoor photography is Jeanine’s other big interest, but her abiding passion in life has always been numbers. Her friends call her the Minister of Finance, because she is the one who loves maths and accounting, and she is the one who works out who owes what when the bill comes around.
Now she is the one who loves working with numbers at BrightRock, because numbers aren’t numbers – they’re people.
“The thing that sets us apart is needs-matched insurance that changes as the client’s needs change,” says Jeanine. The same applies to the job itself.
“Policy Finance is a very fast paced environment, constantly changing with the need to tweak processes as we learn from past experiences. You need to be open to change and be innovative and think of more efficient ways of doing the daily tasks in your area.”
Looking back on the year, her first at BrightRock, Jeanine pauses for breath as she counts off the change moments. A new job, a move to a new house in a new city, a big promotion for her husband, Jacques, who works in food management for Woolworths, a big decision to commute between Durban and PE to enjoy the best of both worlds.
“It’s been very exciting,” says Jeanine. “I can’t wait to see what change moments 2017 has in store for me.”
One thing is for sure. It’ll involve chocolate cake.
Meet Michelle Nortje, a BrightRocker who believes in positively pursuing change at home and at work, even if it means rebuilding a family home from scratch
Home is where you put your heart and soul into changing your world for the better.
For some of us, that means new counter-tops in the kitchen, shiny new taps in the bathroom, or a sunny clearing for a braai in the garden.
But for Michelle Nortje, Processing Manager for Corporate Business Services at BrightRock, change means throwing everything out of the doors and windows, including the doors and windows.
A talented interior designer by hobby and practise, she undertook a “full house renovation” of the family home in Krugersdorp over almost a year, leaving nothing but “an empty shell, and the love and care of putting it all back together again”.
Michelle grew up in Phalaborwa, in what is now Limpopo, a small bushveld town whose principal claim to fame is its intense heat.
“Winter was a relief,” says Michelle, “because it was only 30 degrees.”
While she dreamed of studying dressmaking and interior design, her parents – mom was in banking, dad was a supervisor on the mine – steered her towards more practical pursuits.
So she studied PR and Communication instead, and that’s how she found her way into insurance.
“I found my true passion was in the detail,” says Michelle. “Even something as small as the process of getting information from an insurer and making things happen for your clients.”
That flair and instinct for taking care of the finest detail has helped Michelle to fit right in at BrightRock, where her field of operations ranges from payroll to HR to procurement management.
She describes her experience of life at BrightRock as “awesome”, thanks to a culture of belonging and mentorship that instils efficiency all the way down the line.
“That is a feeling that you cannot buy and that I have not felt at another employer,” she says. “The people remain the driving force behind the idea, and are constantly recognised and valued for their contribution.”
Outside of the workplace, Michelle devotes her time to positively pursuing happiness, “be it gardening, walking my three dogs, or spending precious time with hubby”.
And if one day hubby comes home to find the walls repainted or the kitchen redesigned, well, that’s all part of the philosophy that drives Michelle at home or at work: don’t just Love Change, but change things with love.
Meet Ajay Dhani, BrightRock Processing Manager, whose formula for keeping cool under pressure is a handy lesson for us all
“Breathe,” says Ajay Dhani, Processing Manager at BrightRock, pausing to take a deep gulp of air before moving on to the next part of the mantra, “and listen.” Breathe, and listen.
It’s a lesson for living an even-tempered life, maintaining your equilibrium even when the tempests of change are swirling around you. Ajay learned the art while working in a call centre, at the foot of the ladder of the life insurance industry.
“When you’re dealing with a difficult customer,” he advises, “look at things from their point of view. Empathy is important. Don’t just listen, but listen completely.”
That ability to tune in to the other person’s wavelength has also helped to sharpen Ajay’s natural skills as a leader, going all the way back to his first job in a warehousing company in Durban, where he was quickly promoted to supervisor.
Growing up with his mom, dad, and three brothers in Newlands West, near Phoenix, Ajay originally planned to study electrical engineering, but family commitments drove him into the workplace when his father, a carpenter and shopfitter, fell seriously ill.
Later, Ajay got a taste for the restaurant trade as a “closing manager” at a steakhouse in Ushaka Marine World. He enjoyed leading a team and looking after customers, but the after-closing hours, extending until the early morning, took their toll, and he snapped up the opportunity to head inland and join his brothers in Johannesburg.
“It was a big change,” he says. “They sold it to me quite nicely, as a chance to try something new.” But the really big change came in 2013, with a move to a “fun, weird, unique and dynamic company”: BrightRock.
Ajay felt at home amongst the BrightRockers straight away, and today, as Processing Manager, he leads a team of 13, taking care of a range of vital functions from client contact to activation to financials. Through it all, shines the one bright ideal that defines his life as a team leader and team player.
“I’m basically all about delivering amazing customer service,” he says. “That means you must have the ability to inspire, you must have patience, you must be respectful, you must realise that each person is unique and different, and you have to be knowledgable on everything around you.”
Reflecting for a moment on life beyond the workplace, Ajay confesses: “I think I’ve turned out to be quite a boring guy”, which means catching up with music and movies, and spending quality time with his wife, Candice, a senior administrator at a cellphone company, and his family. His biggest Change Moment? That’s easy.
“It was when I got married,” he says. “I had to move from being a carefree guy to being a responsible human being. I had to learn to stop being a leader, and become a subordinate.” Remember, Ajay: breathe. And listen!
Meet Jaco Mostert, BrightRock National Sales Head, who sings the praises of opera and change
“Madama Butterfly,” says Jaco Mostert, sharing his enthusaism for the tale of the fragile geisha who falls in love with the hard-hearted American naval Lieutenant. “Or maybe it’s La Bohème,” he adds, after a moment’s thought. That’s the one about the carefree Bohemians in Paris, and their not so carefree love lives. It’s a tough choice.
Opera is a grand canvas of passions and emotions, set to enthralling song that soars across ages and cultures.
But Jaco, National Sales Head for BrightRock, has a vested interest when it comes to choosing his personal favourites from the classic repertoire. He is married to one of the most accomplished opera singers in South Africa, the celebrated soprano, Mauri Mostert.
“She taught me everything I know about classical music,” he says. Jaco himself is more of a baritone, and he uses his voice well to sing the praises of the company “I work for in my work time, and think about in my free time”. BrightRock.
He brings a wealth of experience and insight to his role, which he relishes for the opportunity it gives him not just to talk to people, but to make a meaningful difference to their lives. But he wasn’t always in insurance.
For 14 years, he worked for the Department of Correctional Services, rising to the rank of Colonel, expertly trained in, among other things, the delicate art of hostage negotation. Did he learn anything there that he can apply in the field of insurance sales?
“Plenty,” laughs Jaco. “The key to being a hostage negotiator is being able to listen, not just talk. You can’t just barge in. It comes with experience.”
Jaco switched careers to insurance because he was “intrigued” by the industry and its possibilities, and he still remembers his first sale: to a butcher in Pretoria. “We’re still good friends today,” he says.
The industry has evolved over the years, and the thing he enjoys most about BrightRock is the opportunity to evolve it even further. “We’re changing the life industry, and in our own way, we’re changing the world.”
Inquisitive and free-thinking by nature – “I’m not necessarily a rule follower,” he says, “I question everything” – Jaco has found a niche for himself in a business where change is part of the scenery.
He admits he doesn’t have too much time for outside interests, but when he has a moment to unwind at his home in Pretoria, he can always ask Mauri to put on one of his favourite operas.