When Rob Shuter left Nedbank earlier this year, he went for a walk. A very long walk. He needed time out to think and reflect on his future. So he trekked 760km across the northern part of Spain.
He was on a pilgrimage of great significance to Christians, the El Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James. It’s a pilgrimage to a cathedral where it is believed the remains of St James the apostle are buried.
Shuter had been short-listed for the top job at Nedbank, to replace Tom Boardman as CEO. But the job went to the bank’s chief financial officer, Mike Brown.
He says that after five years of running Nedbank’s retail business, he was in need of a new challenge. “I was finding it hard to stay motivated and fired up.”
When he didn’t get the top job at the bank, he realised it was time to move on.
So, after a month trekking through Spain – and blogging about it from his BlackBerry – he returned to SA and was interviewed for operational roles at a number of large companies.
None of them were quite what he was looking for, though. When Vodacom came calling, he says he jumped at the opportunity. The culture of the company felt right to him. He joined the cellphone group on 1 July.
Shuter has always been something of an over-achiever. Born in Johannesburg, he was head boy at Hyde Park High School and also captain of the school’s athletics and swimming teams. He excelled not only at sports – he also won best actor award in the school play!
“I’ve been like that all through my life,” he says. “I like to give things a full go.”
After school, Shuter went to the University of Cape Town to do a BCom. He had wanted to study medicine, but his father talked him out of it. “My dad had studied medicine for four years and hadn’t passed, so he had a bit of a jaundiced view.”
After completing his degree, he moved to Durban – his family had relocated there – and began his articles at Deloitte.
He soon found himself back in Johannesburg, though.
Once he completed his articles, he decided to pursue a career in banking. He joined BoE and, two years later, joined Standard Bank, where he specialised in mergers and acquisitions. While at Standard Bank he worked with Phuthuma Nhleko, who, ironically, would later go on to head up Vodacom’s biggest rival, MTN.
In 1999, after six years at Standard Bank – and with dot-com mania reaching fever-pitch – Shuter left and, in what he readily admits is a period of his life he’d rather forget, joined Computer Configurations Holdings (CCH), one of the tech stocks that was riding high during the stock market bubble.
But CCH’s foundations were built on sand and cracks were already appearing in its walls. Shuter spent seven months at the company before bailing – CCH was later acquired by another listed IT company, MGX, in a deal that eventually proved to be the latter’s undoing.
“It was a famously terrible career move,” he says.
Shuter quickly went back to the safer world of banking, as head of mergers and acquisitions at Nedbank.
But Nedbank also proved to be a challenge. It had got into a precarious financial state and Shuter became intimately involved, with Boardman, in efforts to turn around its fortunes.
In 2004, he was appointed to run the retail bank, a position he held until he left Nedbank. “I absolutely loved that job,” he says. “I enjoyed the people I worked with in retail. You’d give someone a R16 000 annual bonus and they’d send you a thank-you card. If you give an M&A guy a R2m bonus, he’d be in your office complaining that it’s not enough.”
So, when he left Nedbank, he wanted to go stay in a retail consumer-focused business. And he wanted an operational role.
He admits taking on a finance role was not his first choice. But, he says: “If you’re going to jump industries, you’ll battle to find a better way to get a quick understanding of that industry than being CFO.”
He says Vodacom is entering a new phase in its history, especially in SA where the cellphone market is fast maturing. Part of his new role will be ensuring that Vodacom SA is “leaner and more efficient”. “There must be a big focus on efficiency to drive earnings growth as revenue growth moderates,” he says. Being the largest player in mobile in SA makes that easier because of economies of scale.
Shuter, who is married with three children, has lost none of love for sport. He’s done 10 Dusi canoe marathons, enjoys cycling and recently completed the Cape Odyssey, a gruelling, 230km off-road runners’ marathon over five days.
No doubt, he’ll get on famously with his new boss. Vodacom Group CEO Pieter Uys, a keen cyclist and kite-surfer, is also sports mad. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral