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Taiwanese no show aids SA

“Laptop King” sends representative, boosting SA chance to win World Entrepreneur of the Year. Alec Hogg reports from Monaco that lively threat comes via seeker of sunken treasure on 1872 Grosvenor shipwreck.

If bets had been laid on the 2006 Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year competition, punters would be in a funk right now. The effective withdrawal of hot favourite Barry Lam has thrown the contest wide open.

Lam’s company makes 14m laptop computers a year, one in three worldwide. In terms of scale and global impact, none of the other contenders comes close.

But the Taiwanese entrant, CEO and founder of Quanta Computer Inc, might have misunderstood the stature and nature of the competition. Lam is otherwise engaged, having sent one of his executives to Monaco to represent him.

Although he is still officially a contender, a critical part of the competition is the interview sessions with judges drawn mainly from past years’ national and global winners. These interviews are conducted during the two days ahead of Saturday’s crowning at a Gala Dinner.

As was the case in 2004 two when Indian giant Tata’s chairman Ratan Tata unwittingly ruled himself out by not attending the Monaco showpiece, “Laptop King” Lam’s failure to pitch in effect takes him out of the running. He is the only one of this year’s 35 national winners who didn’t make the trip.

The surprising approach adopted by the computer maker is only part of the reason why the event now looks wide open.

Talk within the US camp low expectations of victory by the competition’s other obvious contender, American winner Arthur Blank. Reason is twofold. The US entry won in 2005; and Blank retired five years ago from Home Depot, which he co-founded. Either could make the difference between winning and losing. Together they look like a deathblow to his chances.

These impacts on the Taiwanese and US entrants means the race has now become wide open with the already strong South African challenge taking on the look of a potential winner. Outside of Lam and Blank, Imperial Holdings CEO Bill Lynch is ranked right in front in terms of size – R32bn market cap, 36 000 employees – and personal involvement – turning a loser into a big profit maker.

Lynch is happy with the way his interviews with the judges went: “They had obviously done plenty of homework – each of them had wads of information about myself and Imperial in their folders. I’ve given it my best shot.”

Apart from achievements on hard business issues, Lynch says he was provided space to explain Imperial’s innovative and far-reaching empowerment initiatives. Specifically the Ukhamba Trust through which 16 000 previously disadvantaged employees are likely to end up with a nest egg approaching R40 000 each in a few years’ time.

That enabled Lynch to address the social responsibility aspect of his entry; a factor becoming increasingly important in judgment of entrepreneurial success nowadays.

And were he to win? Says Lynch: “It would be a great thing for South Africa as winning here would be recognition of the entrepreneurial talent in our country.” Victory would not be out of turn for South Africa after near misses in 2004 and 2005 by Bidvest’s Brian Joffe and Aspen’s Stephen Saad.

With Lam effectively out of the running and Blank seemingly hamstrung, the biggest threat to Lynch’s hopes could come from Hungarian Sandor Demjan.

Momentum and fashion certainly seems to favour the chairman of TriGranit Development Corporation. There has been intense focus at the pre-award Entrepreneurship Summit on investment opportunities in Central and Eastern Europe.

Demjan, reputedly the second richest man in Hungary, also possesses the type of serial entrepreneurial record which appeals to the Ernst & Young-sponsored competition’s judges.

Last year’s winner, American Wayne Huizenga, has often been referred to this year. He is the only person to ever start six Fortune 500 companies. Huizenga’s presentation, in which fellow entrepreneurs were taken through his buy, build and sell process for those vastly different businesses, was among the highlights of the high profile Summit.

For the Hungarian’s part, before starting the property development business which has transformed city centres in numerous East European cities, Demjan founded and ran successful retailing and then banking businesses.

Demjan also has an interesting connection to South Africa. For the past five years he has funded a 15-person team searching for the wreck of the Grosvenor, an English merchant ship which sank in a deep gully near Lwambazi on the Transkei Coast in 1782.

At the time, the Grosvenor is reputed to have been carrying the Peacock Throne of Persia (made of solid gold surrounded by patterns in precious stones) together with a fortune in gold bullion and silver. Demjan has made a deal with the South African Government to share the booty if the wreck – and its treasure – eventually were found.

On Saturday night in Monaco, though, he’d settle for the far less financially rewarding but more prestigious honour of becoming the 2006 World Entrepreneur of the Year. This time there can be no deal with the South African who looms as an obvious obstacle to his dream.

Because of the subjective nature of some judging criteria, while Lynch and Demjan could now have a slight edge, no other contenders can be ruled out. Mega-wealthy Indian Kumar Birla (worth $4,4bn) of the family-owned and named conglomerate is among others to stand out, as does Indonesian media mogul Jakob Oetama.

Depending on who you bump into at the numerous networking functions, cases can also be made for the Irish, Brazilian, Israeli and Japanese contenders. But in a wide-open race, one thing is for certain. Like his predecessors, Imperial’s Lynch has done South Africa proud at this celebration of entrepreneurship.


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