Willem Roos is South African business royalty. After growing two start-ups in different industries to multi-billion-rand valuations, he is as bankable as Tom Cruise in the movie industry.
To understand why Roos is so highly regarded, you have to go back to the mid-nineties, when he was a recently qualified actuary working at insurance company Aegis.
There he met Rene Otto, and they saw an opportunity to do insurance differently – cut out the middleman, improve customer service, and use a sophisticated underwriting system.
They presented the idea at the Aegis shareholder conference where it caught the eye of RMB Holdings chairman Laurie Dippenaar. He was keen to know more.
Tech expert Howard Aron joined Roos and Otto to present their business plan to RMB, and it was an immediate hit. Roos, Otto, and Aron received funding from RMB, and OUTsurance was born.
Interestingly, the initial business plan did not include the famous OUTbonus. This was added later when the founders were looking to differentiate themselves from other insurance companies.
Otto served as OUTsurance MD when the company was launched in February 1998 but resigned three years later.
Roos took the reins with co-founder Aron after Otto left. At just 29, Roos was one of the youngest leaders of a large financial institution the country has ever seen.
Roos was up for the challenge. Under his leadership, OUTsurance blossomed and rapidly grew its car and household insurance market share in South Africa. It also launched operations in Namibia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Through innovative marketing campaigns and fresh product offerings, OUTsurance became the best-known insurance brand in the country.
It also continued innovating and launched many new products, including business and life insurance.
Roos’ achievements were recognised when he and his business partner Howard Aron won the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Award in 2009.
After two decades at OUTsurance, Roos was ready for a change. But instead of enjoying his success and kicking back on a wine farm, he moved to an even bigger challenge.
In October 2017, Rand Merchant Investment Holdings announced Roos has resigned from OUTsurance to join mobile operator Rain as CEO. This surprised the market.
Rain operates in one of the most regulated and scrutinised industries in South Africa, with tremendous pressure on top executives. Why jump from the frying pan into the fire?
Roos downplayed the pressure he would face at Rain, saying both the insurance and telecommunications industries are heavily regulated. “That aspect did not feature in my decision,” he said.
“I felt it was an appropriate time to leave OUTsurance, and I was very excited to join Rain to help the business to scale,” he said.
As for Rain’s decision to recruit Roos to run the company, it was not as surprising as it may seem.
Rain director Michael Jordaan said Roos is an exceptional entrepreneur and it made sense to put him in charge of the new start-up.
“Willem has an exceptional intellect and that was needed to formulate a new telecoms company using first principles rather than copying the competition,” Jordaan said.
Roos loved the change from running a large established organisation to managing a business that was still in the start-up phase.
“It is a lot of fun being part of a fast-growing start-up business,” he said.
Under Roos’ leadership, Rain launched innovative new products which resonated with consumers, including unlimited fixed and mobile data packages.
Rain also launched South Africa’s first commercial 5G products in Gauteng and Cape Town ahead of rivals Vodacom and MTN.
These products were perfectly suited for working from home and it was an instant hit when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown in March 2020.
Orders for Rain’s 4G and 5G products quadrupled in a matter of days. This growth helped the operator to comfortably exceed its financial targets, but it came at a price.
The rapid increase in subscribers put immense pressure on Rain’s network and its support channels struggled to cope. It was a tough time for Rain.
Roos said dealing with this explosive growth and lagging service levels were by far the biggest challenge during his tenure as CEO.
The good news is that Rain has made good progress in recent months and service levels are now much better than what they were last year.
Apart from providing unlimited data products which consumers wanted, Roos also added value to shareholders.
He significantly de-risked the business, clarified the business model, and set it up for significant future growth.
This has helped to increase Rain’s valuation to R15.03 billion, making it one of South Africa’s top telecommunications companies.
Roos has therefore achieved the same at Rain as what he did at OUTsurance – grow shareholder value by offering disruptive products which consumers love.
Looking back over the last three years, Roos said he is particularly proud that Rain connected thousands of people to the Internet where it was not previously affordable for them to do so.
Rain has come a long way in its goal to democratise the Internet in South Africa by enabling more people to have an unlimited broadband connection.
Roos is now in the process of handing over the reins to Rain co-founder Brandon Leigh in what Jordaan describes as an “exceptionally seamless” process.
“The future is bright for Rain. It has a talented and motivated team of people that will take the business to the next level,” Roos said.
Roos will maintain his close ties with Rain. He is retaining his shareholding in the mobile operator and he will also remain on the board.
He is, however, looking forward to having a less hectic schedule compared to a full-time operational role.