Monday, January 30, 2012

MBA Global Trip: South Africa

As part of our Meet Our Current Students series, first-year real estate MBA student Andrew Toby reports on student real estate activities and life in general. Also, news stories such as this are available in our monthly newsletter, which you can sign up to receive via Constant Contact.

Each year, the Wisconsin School of Business provides students the opportunity to take an international business class that focuses on a specific country. In this class, the economy and business environment of the particular country are researched and discussed in anticipation of actually traveling to the country and visiting local businesses.

I, along with fellow Real Estate student Jay Jambor, joined 8 other WSoB students in one of this year’s International Business courses: South Africa. Each week in October and November we met for an hour and took turns educating each other on the pressing issues that the South African economy currently faces: post-apartheid racial segregation, unemployment, educational barriers and disparity, distribution of wealth, crime, AIDS epidemic and other healthcare issues, etc. These classes enabled us to having a better foundation of knowledge prior to visiting local companies and allowed us to ask more pertinent, focused questions during the presentations.

The trip to South Africa (“SA”) began in Johannesburg. During our 3 days in SA’s largest city, our company visits included Eskon (the dominant electricity provider for the country), Munich RE, the American Chamber of Commerce, and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Each organization began with a comprehensive overview of their operations as a preface to the most pertinent question: what are the challenges of doing business in SA? We found it very insightful to hear the opinions of the executives that we spoke with (which included both men and women of different ethnic backgrounds). In fact, most of these viewpoints on the pros and cons of their country’s economy were drastically different from one executive to the next. While opinions on certain issues remained consistent (the fact that near 40% unemployment is unhealthy and the AIDS presence is overwhelming are facts that are pretty easy to agree upon), other topics brought on entirely different perspectives.

This however, in reality, doesn’t come as a surprise. As time passed in Johannesburg, I became more and more acutely aware of how divided the population is. Joburg seemed to function as a relatively normal city would (with perhaps an even greater amount of expensive cars on the highways – another thing I discovered is that the South Africans opt to display their wealth in the form of a BMW or Audi). However, when traveling to the nearby town of Soweto to visit Nelson Mandella’s old home, we were amidst a sea of shanty towns, a level of poverty beyond anything I had seen. Our driver put it into perspective when he said this: “Take this man here [pointing to a black man sitting in the back of a pickup truck driving down the street]. I know nothing of this man’s life, his background. I have no idea what he does to operate in this country, to make a living for himself, but I can be almost certain that the way he operates in this country and the way that I operate are entirely different, even though we live in the same city. We speak different languages. We both exist here, but we exist separately”. A fact to consider here is that South Africa has 11 official languages, which doesn’t even include a plethora of local dialect differences. This, coupled with decades of legal racial segregation that just ended in 1994, create a divide that makes it no wonder why the population disagrees on political issues.

Johannesburg served as an extreme juxtaposition to our next destination within the country: Cape Town. In between cities, however, we made a quick weekend trip to a game reserve in Kruger Nation Park, or “The Bush” as it is known locally. I suppose a trip to Africa isn’t complete without seeing the “Big 5” - the elephant, leopard, lion, rhino, and buffalo. Our adventures out on the jeep provided us with up close interactions with all of these animals and many more.

With its stunning beaches, beautiful landscape, and expanding vineyards, Cape Town easily draws tourists from around the globe despite its remote location. Although too far for many to have a weekend getaway home, we found that many of the rich and famous of the world opt to buy a second home in the spectacular Clifton area of the city (pictured). I asked around to get an idea of what some of the prime pieces of real estate cost in that location, and was given the answer of about R30-R40 million (The “R” stands for Rand, the local currency which trades at about 8:1 with the US dollar currently). Still pretty pricey, but given the fact that the cost of living is far cheaper that in America, I can see how it is an appealing option for those who can afford it.

Our main company visit in Cape Town was Lomold, the largest plastic recycler in the country. While plastic recycling may not seem all that interesting, what sets this company apart is what they are doing with the recycled plastic. They’ve spent over a decade pumping their earnings into the research and development of a machine that will create complex long-fiber plastic palettes. The longer the fiber, the stronger the plastic, and according to the company founder, Lomold is the first company to be able to produce such a strong plastic in a complex form (that is, rather than just sheets of plastic or other basic molds). It will be interesting to continue to follow this company as it hits the global markets with its revolutionary product.

Further highlighting our stay in Cape Town was a boat trip out to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandella was imprisoned for about 27 years. Similar to Alcatraz but on a larger scale, Robben Island imprisoned the individuals whom threatened or otherwise spoke out against the Apartheid government.

Adding in some leisure time for beach lounging, wine tasting, fine dining, and even a cage dive with great white sharks, the trip really rounded out to be an amazing experience both personally and professionally. A big shout out goes to our class advisor, Assistant Dean Blair Sanford, whose steadfast leadership kept us organized and was key in the trip’s success.

Andrew Toby is a first-year MBA student in the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate. A CPA from California, Andrew hopes to utilize both his accounting background and the knowledge gained in the MBA program to pursue a career in private equity investments in real estate.

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