Insights from a CEO
by Marelise van der Merwe
By any standard, Hugo Nelson is enormously successful. In 2013 he stepped down as CEO of Coronation Fund Managers at the age of 42. And yet, he says, this career path happened “slightly by accident”.
If you’re one of the many who aren’t sure of your niche, Hugo Nelson’s story may give you some comfort. Raised by entrepreneurs, he had planned to join the family business in the liquor industry. His father, however, suggested he study for a profession, so he chose medicine. But he didn’t share his classmates’ passion – instead, he read about the stock market on weekends.
After he graduated, hoping to work in public health or health policy, he completed his MBA. “It was a breath of fresh air to work with numbers again,” he says. So what can you learn from the highly successful Dr Nelson?
Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom
Nelson began working at Sanlam, where his career advanced rapidly. But medicine taught him that practical experience is crucial, so he pressed pause and took a job at Coronation that would a) take him back to his beloved Cape Town, and b) give him more foundational learning. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are no mistakes
Don’t worry about studying the “wrong” thing, advises Nelson. Even if you change careers, no knowledge is wasted. “Working in emergency medicine gave me a calm temperament that others perhaps experienced as dispassionate,” he says. “When you are in Accident & Emergency and the consequences are dire, panic contributes nothing.
“When I moved into finance, I just thought: nobody is going to die. My colleagues found this hard to relate to at first.” He believes South Africa is too focused on narrow vocational training. Instead, he argues, post-school should further one’s education and broaden one’s thinking, laying a foundation for career development. “In any case,” he says of technological progress, “our children will have jobs that have not yet been defined.”
Don’t worry about studying the “wrong” thing. Even if you change careers, no knowledge is wasted.
The average person changes jobs twelve times during his or her career
The best of us fail – keep trying
“I read an obituary in the Financial Times that I loved,” says Nelson. “Peter Mansfield, credited with developing MRI technology, failed his 11+ exams and dropped out of school. He became a metalworker, doing his A-levels in the evenings.” A schoolteacher told Mansfield science wasn’t for him. He achieved his PhD in physics, became a professor, and won the Nobel Prize.
Be open to learning, always
Nelson initially struggled to transition from a scientific environment. “There’s an order; it’s very directive,” he explains.
Finance was a grey area and decision-making is handled differently. He says he didn’t appreciate the relational aspect of business operations. “My assumption was that if you do analytical work, compile it and submit the report, the job ends. But that’s a very science-based way of looking at outputs. In finance, you must communicate the conviction of your ideas.”
We all need support
Nelson is involved in a post-matric mentorship programme through his church, and his wife has founded an NGO working with teenage girls on the Cape Flats. He says his parents’ expectations were high, and it was understood he would live up to them.
Unfortunately, many young people he and his wife encounter lack support or financial means, and view Matric as their ultimate aspiration. “Developing passions and growing resilience are important,” he says. “Your environment either enables or undermines that. Human potential is susceptible to the quality of human relationships.”