By: Stef Terblanche
Ever wondered about those crazy men and women who compete in gruelling triathlons such as Ironman – successively swimming, cycling and running impossible distances with their veins bulging, muscles pumping, eyeballs almost popping out and sweat spraying in all directions?
Well, perhaps they are no “crazier” than people who leave their steady, well-paid jobs because they are driven to pursue their business dream – often with no money or even an office to work from, and with little more than an idea and a plan. However, with lots of guts.
Just ask Cape Town-based Carrick Wealth’s Group Operations Director, 42-year old Mike Fannin, who has completed some 20 triathlon endurance races including two Ironman 70.3s (half- Ironman to the uninitiated) and one Ironman 140.6 (full Ironman).
Three days before his first full Ironman event in Port Elizabeth he learnt that colleague, mentor and manager Craig Featherby was leaving the company they were working for at the time to start a new business venture.
“Management was approached by the CEO and was given the option of going with Craig or staying. I had 15 hours to decide the rest of my life,” Mike recalls. And that is just what he did while swimming, cycling and running the tortuous, life-sapping distance.
Not only did Mike complete his first Ironman in good time, but by the end of the race he knew he would join Craig, now group managing director of Carrick. That was the start of another gruelling race. Craig and his initial team began with no registered company, no licence and no premises. “But I had a dream,” says Craig.
Their race, and the dream, paid off beyond all expectations. They had initially hoped to build three offices with 50 staff, managing R500-million in assets in their first year. But just one year into building their dynamic wealth management company they had more than doubled that target and initial expectations. As at 30 September 2015 they had already opened fully regulator-licensed offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Harare and Mauritius with partnering arrangements in London and elsewhere. The founding directors built a team of 127 advisers and support staff, and had over R1.308-billion invested funds under management on behalf of 429 clients. A true gold- medal achievement.
So what makes for achieving success on this scale? Is there any analogy to be drawn between preparing for, and competing in, an event like Ironman and achieving success in business?
“Yes, absolutely,” says Mike. “Although I am not always sure if it was business that prepared me for triathlons, or the other way around.”
It’s hard to believe that the super fit, trim and muscular Mike was once, by his own admission, a chubby, 13-year-old bookworm with no interest in sport, whose mother talked him into swimming, found he loved it and never looked back.
While participating in triathlon events has taught him more about skills such as planning, focusing, preparing and strategising, Mike believes it was his 15 years of being an entrepreneur that prepared him mentally for triathlons.
“I had been in so many dark places. When I started my first business I was so broke; I owed so much money and the only thing I could do was borrow more money. But you back yourself and you never give up. I absolutely refuse to give up, in business or when competing in a marathon.”
While the analogy of the similarities between being successful in business and in one of the toughest athletic events in the world may sound like something of a cliché to some, his view is fully supported by many top professionals and successful businesspeople who also happen to be top triathletes.
Such triathletes include the likes of Jack Daly, a highly successful American entrepreneur and CEO who has completed 15 Ironman triathlons on five different continents and 60 marathons in 33 different US states; the successful Jordan Waxman who is managing partner of a top US advisor-owned financial services company serving high-net-worth and institutional clients and who has found the time to compete in numerous triathlons over the years, including seven Ironman 140.6s (full Ironman); Sami Inkinen, founder and president of Trulia, the fastest-growing online real estate company in the world and a triathlete ranked second in the world for competitors in his age group; or regular triathlon competitor and successful hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, who runs Third Point LLC; or Melissa Putzer a patent facilitator for Kimberly-Clark who has competed in a number of Ironman events; or top South African Ironman athlete Stuart Marais, winner of this year’s Ironman 70.3 Durban.
There are many more, and all of them will tell you how one can apply the Ironman mind-set to business. In fact, this very physical endurance sport seems to have become the sport of choice for successful executives and professionals around the world–some already well into their fifties and still extremely fit, focused and driven.
Mike believes the single most important quality required for business, as for Ironman, is to believe in oneself; to believe that anything is possible and to never give up. Underpinning this is focused preparation, consistency, steady growth, the ability to endure, having a game plan and to pursue the big dream no matter what.
These are certainly qualities that Mike and the rest of the team at Carrick have applied to their business as it raced its first “Ironman”. He compares Carrick’s first year in business to being in the triathlon swim when thousands of competitors storm into the water, thrusting, shoving, kicking and churning up the water as they try to get into a good position for the next two stages.
“It’s like trying to stay alive in a washing machine out there. It’s the most terrifying part. But you calm down and when you come out of the water you are in the leading pack. Now it’s onto your cycle for 180 km and as you change into cycling gear, you take stock of where you are and where you are going. Most Ironman races are won or lost in the cycle stage.
“Carrick has just completed the swim – its first year. We have survived the washing machine, put ourselves in a good position, and now we are going to race. We have a big race starting in 2016. Our goal is to become the top firm in Africa over the next two to three years – that’s Carrick’s ‘cycle event’,” Mike says.
It is perhaps no small coincidence that so many top business executives are also outstanding Ironman athletes, for the Ironman competition has become a global brand and a highly successful, multi-million-dollar enterprise.
The idea of the Ironman was born in 1978 when, during an awards banquet for the Waikiki Swim Club in Hawaii, John Collins, a US naval officer stationed there, and his wife Judy, discussed the idea of combining the three toughest endurance races on the island into one race. They decided to issue a challenge to see who the toughest athletes were: swimmers, cyclists, or runners. On 18 February 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, took on the first-ever Ironman challenge.
By 1980 ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and Sports Illustrated were covering the event, bringing worldwide recognition to it. Soon Ironman became a global company – World Triathlon Corporation (WTC). In 2008 Providence Equity Partners bought WTC, resulting in a sevenfold increase in its annual revenue to more than US$150-million. Then, in August this year, the Chinese Dalian Wanda Group, headed by billionaire Wang Jianlin, acquired WTC and Ironman for US$650-million. By then it was staging more than 130 races worldwide with over 230,000 competitors.
In the full Ironman, competitors swim 3.9 km, cycle 180 km and run 42 km, all in under 17 hours; in the 70.3, or half event, they swim 1.9 km, cycle 90 km and run 21.1 km. The 17-hours cut-off is based on John Collins’ official finishing time in the very first Ironman. In that first Ironman there were no winners–just those who finished it, and those who didn’t.
In his personal race Mike has come a long way. He grew up in Port Elizabeth, started a series of entrepreneurial ventures including a clothing company, a night club and sold fuel-saving devices door to door. After meeting a former Wall Street adviser who taught him about finance, he completed a B Com. degree at the University of Port Elizabeth, majoring in accounting and economics. He also holds various diplomas in Equities and Risk Management.
Upon graduation he left for London where he worked for some of the large banks redesigning fees, billing and accounting systems. Fifteen months later he and a partner set up business advising South Africans about tax-structuring their offshore assets. After some time he sold his shares to his partner and, with new partners, started and built Principia Group – a holistic financial services company that incorporated financial advice, mortgage procurement, corporate finance, venture capital, tax and estate planning divisions. It grew into the third largest independent financial adviser service in London, with 50 advisers and managing over GBP100-million a year before they sold it to the Montpelier Group in 2007.
Mike returned to South Africa in 2010 to work for one of the industry’s largest financial consultancies, before teaming up with Craig and the rest of the Carrick team to lead the charge into the African wealth management and investment landscape.
During his time in London he joined a local triathlon club and a gym, but on his return to South Africa he got out of shape. While his mother had talked him into swimming as a teenager, it was his PA who now talked him into doing a half marathon.
“I said to her she’s crazy, I’ll have a heart attack if I attempt to do a triathlon. She countered that I’ll have the heart attack if I don’t do it and remain out of shape, so I did it,” he recalls.
He soon joined Embark in Cape Town, an organisation that does triathlon coaching and training, and entered a triathlon race which, he says, “decimated” him. He had become involved in a new business venture at this time.
“Looking back, whenever I started something in business – getting really involved – I would get involved in a sport alongside it. I always like being in a business where there is a problem or a challenge that needs a solution, where we can do something different and innovative; where the game changes. All the businesses I have been involved in, including Carrick, are like that – there are game changes.”
Mike believes that, while you do need the shining stars – those who win and triumph – in business and in sport, an important aspect as a leader is to help uplift others for the benefit of the whole.
“What is important is the multitude of people who all achieve across the breadth of the business. If you run too far ahead, you lose touch with the people behind. To lead you actually need to be in the pack,” he says.
This is a role he extends to a more charitable level, such as assisting a blind athlete in a triathlon for instance, regardless of whether or not he will make the race cut-off time as a result. That awareness, Mike says, gave him a whole new perspective on life. It is also a feature found in Carrick where the directors and staff are passionate about the company’s philanthropic endeavours through its Signature of Hope Trust.
Mike says that in triathlon, as in business, it is important to have a dream, the ultimate goal. But one should know that, when setting goals or targets, unforeseen changes may be necessary along the way. Therefore, you always need to be prepared for such eventualities and be flexible, able to change direction without giving up.
“Preparation and training is key, being 90 per cent of what you do, while the actual competition is only 10 per cent, both in Ironman and in business.”
For this he joins a training programme in preparation for a race; has the help of several different types of coaches; follows rigorous physical, nutritional and other regimes, and works on his weaknesses.
“The hard work is the preparation. I do set personal goals I’d like to achieve in the race, but, generally, during the race I just try to have a good time and to enjoy myself while doing the very best I can,” he says, a philosophy he also follows in business.
Just as John Collins and his wife set out to invent the ultimate physical challenge with Ironman, Mike says Carrick came about in much the same way.
“When we left to start Carrick, Craig said he was sure we could, as a financial services provider, do things in a better way. We sat down and asked ourselves what characteristics we would like for our company. We decided a key aspect would be that we wanted to be an employer of choice. We wanted to be the best advisers possible. We wanted our clients to see us as partners, providing the best advice possible. Integrity, transparency and professionalism were big issues for us. We laid out all our goals and principles and that was the start of our race as Carrick.”
And it has been an excellent race thus far, but what about the prize at the end of it?
“The prize is about being able to challenge ourselves – to go out and do our best, not about the purse or the medal”, he says.