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23 April 2012 23:01

Special Report Podcast: Stephen Saad - CEO, Aspen

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Alec Hogg is a writer and broadcaster. He founded Moneyweb

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    Stephen Saad cycles to raise paediatric healthcare funds.


    ALEC HOGG: It’s Monday April 23 2012 and a different Boardroom Talk special podcast today, Stephen Saad, chief executive of Aspen Pharmacare, is taking on something completely different. Stephen, well, let’s just go back a little bit, are you a mountain biker?

    STEPHEN SAAD: I am, I am a mountain biker but more a social mountain biker.

    ALEC HOGG: All right and you’re not going to be terribly social then in five days’ time when you’re going to be riding for 240 kilometres. It sounds like a tough challenge, what put you up to this?

    STEPHEN SAAD: Well, it’s, ja, it’s 240 kilometres off-road and it has to be done in less than a day I think, got 18.5 hours, so it’s a non-stop ride. I think it always takes an event or something like that to drive you. I didn’t quite realise what I’d entered into until I had to start training for this. Judy Dlamini is the chairlady of Aspen and herself and her husband, Sizwe, tragically lost their son and when I was going across the Durban beachfront and I saw the Addington Hospital, the children’s hospital, still it required a lot of work and we looked into what was going on with the Nelson Mandela Paediatric Hospital. I just thought, I pieced it all together and I thought there is no way…it’s fine for people who have kids and can afford to give the best healthcare but there must be a way to try and facilitate healthcare for children who don’t have all the advantages. Certainly some of these paediatric hospitals this is their aim, their aim is to try and use technology to keep specialist skills in one place and then people from the districts can phone into these hospitals or scan in the scans that they have and be told please bring that kid here right away or this is the diagnosis we get from here. But we have a limitation of skills in this country, most countries have specialist skills in short supply, so keep them in one area and to use technology seemed like, to me, like the right thing to do.

    ALEC HOGG: It was the death of Sifiso then that got you thinking along these lines, you’ve also got something called the Long Ride for Sifiso, which is integrated into this whole mountain biking challenge that you’ve taken on. Just take us through that, where that idea came from?

    STEPHEN SAAD: Well, it’s easy enough to reach in your pocket and put money in but I mentally had to get myself around the fact that I was going to ask people to sponsor me for this and I was hoping that with the profile, our involvement in healthcare, I’d be able to get support per kilometre cycled. But I just didn’t want to send a bland please sponsor or please get into this paediatric hospital, I really thought that it was important that I make some sacrifices too and they’re fairly large sacrifices in time and pain and all the rest but it just seems that if what it can do is galvanise this movement, it will be to paediatric care, it would be a real positive. We’ve got, as a country, we’re the great talkers, we’ve got everything, Constitutional Courts and we talk and talk, and we don’t deliver a huge amount. So when you look into what the private sector and healthcare says about the public sector they say they’re inefficient. When you look at the public sector’s comments on the private sector they say they’re too expensive. So I was really, really hoping that this could try and galvanise that we don’t talk solutions but we actually get together and fix solutions. So I was really pleased that two ministers have committed to certainly starting the ride with me, one being the Minister of Health and the other one being the Minister of Sport. So it’s really a positive and I’m hoping that together we can actually galvanise something between the public and private sector, so we work towards a common goal.

    ALEC HOGG: That’s interesting Stephen, did you pick this up from someone else?

    STEPHEN SAAD: No, no.

    ALEC HOGG: I ask that Steve, you would know Bill Gates’ philosophy; after he built Microsoft and became the richest man in the world he decided to become a social entrepreneur rather. So it’s a strange thing that people look at business executives and believe or perceive that entrepreneurs like yourself, like Bill Gates, are in it for the money but, in fact, it’s a lot more than that, isn’t it?

    STEPHEN SAAD: I haven’t met a lot of entrepreneurs who are in it for the money, maybe that’s where it started but I think entrepreneurs like to build things, they like to see things work and they like to make a positive influence on the environment. I think this is broadly…I think because you’re a CEO of a listed company doesn’t necessarily make you an entrepreneur, so I’m speaking about entrepreneurs in general, not whether they’re listed companies, there are many unlisted. But I think many just get a satisfaction out of getting it right, delivering on what they hoped, delivering  into their people that worked with them and trusted them, so I don’t think that can be defined. I think the entrepreneurs that I’ve met would like to make a positive impact on the environment that they work in. South Africa has got so much to do, which is so positive, it’s not like there’s nothing to do here so you get bored, there’s a lot to do in every angle in society.

    ALEC HOGG: So it’s like a natural progression I suppose, you’re building your business but you also want to do good.

    STEPHEN SAAD: Ja, ideally what you’d really want to do here is when you look at what’s missing in many of the public sector institutions, it’s really ability to pay top people to manage situations. So if we can create a fund that is large enough to be able in time to just…the interest income or the income of that fund to be able to fund specialists and top people to run hospitals then you’re going to make positive influence. It’s not very different to education, we talk so much about education but you need a couple of thousand principals to be well trained and to be rewarded on their results. This is where I battle sometimes in a public sector environment, if you’re going to pay a headmaster R20 000 a month or whatever it is and the private sector is going to pay that same headmaster R80 000 a month you’ve really got to focus on how do I change this gap and I think it’s very important to start with the top. So you start either with the principals or the people that run the hospitals because they will manage the nurses, they will manage the doctors but those top people are critical to be in place and to be properly paid.

    ALEC HOGG: How successful are you being so far, Stephen, in actually getting support for the Sifiso Nxasana Trust?

    STEPHEN SAAD: It’s something that started relatively low profile, the profile’s raised and we’re getting…this is the last week that we’re expecting the responses but to date it’s been incredibly successful. I think we could be approaching R10m or so already in sponsorship, so it’s been a very worthwhile…that’s assuming I cover the distance of course [laughing] but it’s been very successful to date.

    ALEC HOGG: So you have leveraged your involvement?

    STEPHEN SAAD: Definitely.

    ALEC HOGG: Through who? What kind of people have you been tapping?

    STEPHEN SAAD: So we went into the healthcare, to some of the suppliers into healthcare, some of the broader large companies, the banking community. So we’re just waiting for some of the responses from many of those and hopefully it’s… From the international community some of the big international pharma companies, so we went…it was more a targeted approach. I was just hoping, really what I’m hoping is that it creates momentum of its own and then can create its own heart and lungs, and hopefully there’s something here where skills, where skill trustees are put in place who can deliver on the promises that we all hope, as country, we can deliver onto the kids in the country.

    ALEC HOGG: You really can make a difference in South Africa, that’s well known but in this particular space how well is South Africa served?

    STEPHEN SAAD: Well, it’s beyond…the Nelson Mandela Hospital, for example, this was Nelson Mandela’s living legacy is how we look after our children. As a continent we’re not well served, there’s only a few hospitals around this continent with over 400m kids and there’s no way you can set that infrastructure up overnight. So I think you’ve got to hit the big ones where you can make an immediate difference quickly. So the trick is really to get these top people in one place with the top equipment and to be able to specialise, and to have access because there are links into American hospitals and American paediatric wards that are all prepared to link in and with technology today this is what I think you’ve got to take advantage of.  

    ALEC HOGG: You mentioned earlier that you hope you’re going to finish the distance, how much training have you been putting in?

    STEPHEN SAAD: It’s all relative because last week I was in New York, so I’m travelling quite a bit too but when I’ve had the opportunity I’ve literally left at six o’clock in the morning and I’m back at two or three in the afternoon, which is very exhausting just pedaling leg over leg [laughing], the first time you see the view of the sea and it looks very nice and after four or five hours it doesn’t quite have the same allure. But I have put in a lot of training, it’s been, ja, a lot of training.

    ALEC HOGG: Has it helped to clear your mind? Has there been maybe a fringe benefit of doing this training?

    STEPHEN SAAD: It’s not something I’d volunteer to do again, to be very honest [laughing]. Look, in life you don’t get anywhere or do anything you hope to without some form of sacrifice and this was all part of, I suppose, where I was mentally on this and ja, so Alec, it’s been tough but yes, there are times when it clears your mind but I must tell you my mind was quite clear after a couple of hours on the bicycle, I didn’t need to go much beyond that.

    ALEC HOGG: Is 240 kilometres that’s the limit, you can’t do more than that, so if the guys are sponsoring you they know that’s their outside but how would you rate your chances of finishing that in the 18.5 hours?

    STEPHEN SAAD: I’m absolutely determined to finish, I’m absolutely determined to finish. They say that this becomes 40% physical and 60% mental. So lots of things can go wrong, you can have a malfunction on your bike and that’s the end of the race, you can cramp, you could…all sorts of things could go wrong but I’m really going to give it an absolute best shot, Alec.

    ALEC HOGG: Have you tried anything this physical or this physically tough before?


    ALEC HOGG: So you’re not an iron man or…?

    STEPHEN SAAD: No, no, I’ve done nothing like that. I go and ride my bike in the Argus and I rode a 100 kilometre road race off-road that’s as far as it’s ever got.

    ALEC HOGG: Stephen, look forward to this and for the example that you are setting. Anybody else from Aspen going to be following you in this race?

    STEPHEN SAAD: I’ve got one of our non-executives, who is an original iron man, riding. He’s not riding with me, he’s riding by himself because I don’t want him with me, I don’t want somebody showing no pain next to me. So I’ve got Chris Mortimer, one of our non-executives, he’s riding but he’ll ride independent of myself.

    ALEC HOGG: And Judy?

    STEPHEN SAAD: Judy will be at the start, she’s certainly going to be at the start together I think with the ministers, so we’ll take it from there.

    ALEC HOGG: Stephen Saad showing the good side or the happy side of business. He’s the chief executive of Aspen.

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