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An interview with Ralph Mupita

RALPH  Mupita, CEO of Old Mutual Emerging Markets: Life and Savings, is a civil engineer by training, and a graduate of Harvard Business School.

Outside of Old Mutual, he is a member of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business advisory board, and is involved with the Leap Schools, that aim to give disadvantaged children life skills, and a quality education in maths and science. He tells Mandy Collins how he combats ‘time poverty’

What was your earliest ambition?

My aim as a child was to be a test cricketer.

Any reason why you’re not one today?

Life happens. When I was studying civil engineering at UCT, all our practicals were late in the afternoon, and I was just too tired to make it to cricket practices.

So how did a civil engineer end up at a financial services company?

Well, serendipity. There wasn’t some grand plan. I was involved in building a lot of bridges and roads along the Garden Route, and then I got a bursary from Old Mutual when I decided to do an MBA. One of the conditions of the bursary was that I had to work for Old Mutual for two years. Twelve years later, I’m still here.

How does a typical day start?

I get up at around 5am. I generally don’t sleep more than five or six hours a night, and then I go for a run. During the week I do about 10km daily, and on weekends I do much longer runs — 21km or so. And then I’m in the office by about 7.30am or 8am

What work stresses do you face?

My job involves a lot of travel because I look after our South African business and the rest of Africa, Latin America and Asia. So within a short space of time I might travel between Johannesburg, Harare Mexico and Mumbai, for example.

How do you deal with the inevitable toll that kind of travel takes on your body?

I try to get into the time zone of the place I’m visiting as soon as possible, and sleep at the right time. I also find it really helps if I can get some exercise as soon as I get there. The nearest available treadmill usually achieves the desired result. It helps you to sleep.

Any other stresses?

Well, like any executive, I find there’s always a lot to do in a short space of time, so time poverty can cause some stress. Most, if not all, executives are time-poor.

How do you manage your stress?

One way is running — that’s the best way for me. As the day builds up, I tend to park certain issues in my brain, and solve them on my run the next day. I also don’t sweat the small stuff. Often the things that trigger stress don’t really matter. And then I have three young kids. Playing with them reminds me of what’s important.

How’s your anger management?

I don’t really have a temper. I put anger in the same space as stress, and I deal with it in much the same way. I don’t worry about the small stuff.

How healthy is your diet in general?

It’s quite healthy. I do mind what I eat.

Do you take vitamin and mineral supplements?

No. I try to eat in a way that gets me all my vitamins and minerals.

What’s the least healthy thing you do?

Probably indulging my sweet tooth, which I do at least once a week. I do have a weakness for dark chocolate and red velvet cakes.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

Watching test cricket — it takes so much time.

How often do you take time to get away?

My time out tends to be fashioned by the school holidays, but we try to take a break every two months or so, even if it’s just a long weekend. You need time to gather your strength — you can’t keep running and still be effective.

What kinds of places do you visit?

The bush or the beach. I like the beaches around Durban — the water’s warm there.

Have you ever read a book that changed your life?

None changed my life, but one that stands out is Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements.

What did you get out of it?

It helps to frame how I think, how I live my life, and I often reflect on it.

What are you reading now?

I tend to read more magazines these days. Vanity Fair is my favourite, but I also read the New Yorker, Business Day, Financial Times, The Economist — those kinds of publications. I think it’s important to get a more worldly view on things. Great newspapers and magazines present you with a balanced story, and leave you to make up your mind and figure out where you stand on something. They’re thought-provoking.

And when you do have time to pick up a book?

I tend to read books by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is on my bedside table at the moment, or books by Peter Godwin, Niell Fitzgerald and Paulo Coelho. I only really have time to read books when I’m on holiday.

Have you ever done anything crazy or dangerous?

No. I’m quite danger averse. I once drove to Bloukrans to bungee jump and when I got there I decided it wasn’t for me. I think running ultra-marathons is a different kind of danger. One day I might do Comrades, but I tend to stick to marathons of between 42km and 60km.

And you use your running to good effect to raise funds for the LEAP programme — what is that?

LEAP Science and Maths Schools take (children) from disadvantaged backgrounds, and puts them through rigorous maths and science tuition — and life orientation skills. They improve the maths and science matric results of (children).

What is your involvement with the schools?

My involvement has mainly been to support their efforts through fundraising so that the schools can be taken to provinces such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. This year we had fundraising under the “Run for more than Yourself” campaign for the Old Mutual Two Oceans marathon. We also raised funds under the Ride for more than Yourself campaign in the Joberg2c cycle race. A new school has been opened this year in Jane Furse in Limpopo. More needs to be done, and we don’t have the luxury of time.

Why are you so passionate about promoting the study of maths and science?

I was a beneficiary of great maths and science teaching at primary and secondary school, and much of what I do today, I couldn’t do without that educational base. SA needs to become a more competitive nation if we are to solve the challenges of unemployment, inequality and low growth. Great maths and science education will be crucial to our country being competitive in a global context.

What was a defining moment in your life?

Becoming a father. I think it’s the most important job I will ever have, and the greatest responsibility. It’s another level completely.

What’s the best health advice you’ve ever received?

Everything in moderation. I’m not one to follow fad diets. I eat healthily and I believe in moderation.

What’s the best general advice you’ve received?

“If it is to be, it’s up to me.” I’m not sure who said that, but essentially, you are in control of your own happiness. And then my mother always said: “This too, shall pass.” It seems like a problem now, but it will pass. You will get through it.

If you were president, what would you do for SA ?

As a country, we need collective leadership from business, government and civil society. I think we need to get on and do it now. We need the action orientation required to make us a great nation.

Who would be on the guest list for your dream dinner party?

They’re all sportsmen: Ayrton Senna, Muhammad Ali, Sir Viv Richards, Roger Federer and Haile Gebrselassie. I met Gebrselassie at the New York Marathon in 2010. He’s a special guy.

If you could edit your life, what would you change?

Nothing. Everything happens for a reason and purpose. There’s not a single thing I regret — even the fact that I’m not a test cricketer.

If you were a comic superhero, what would your superpower be?

I’d have two. First, the ability to get needed textbooks into all classrooms at the start of the year, and second, the ability to get our maths and science education to a world class level in our public school system.

Where is paradise?

With my family in the bush somewhere.

Any pet peeves?

Taxi drivers in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and people who ramble when they’re talking, and don’t get to the point.

What activity is most likely to make you lose track of time?

Being in the bush — you drive and drive and before you know it three or four hours have passed. Also, playing with my kids, and reading a good book.

What are your hopes and dreams for SA ?

That we would realise our potential to be a great, competitive nation, where my kids will want to live one day without pining for a different home.


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