Réan van Niekerk interviewed by Evans Manyonga
A colourful childhood, a true passion for electronic engineering and computational devices and a career in the navy culminating in establishing a modern tech juggernaut, is the backdrop of Metacom’s Managing Director Réan van Niekerk’s intriguing story. “Born in Johannesburg, I grew up in Cape Town, Worcester, England, Pretoria, and Johannesburg; eleven schools later, I matriculated at Bergvliet High in Cape Town. My parents taught me tremendous values, from hard work and ethics to dreaming big, and so much more, for which I shall be forever grateful,” he explains.
The continuous change during his childhood made him adaptable and fiercely independent. While the close bond he shared with his siblings – younger brother and older sister – added to a close knit family structure. “This continuous change during my childhood certainly presented some challenges, but made me very adaptable and fiercely independent. “From a very young age, I loved electronic engineering, and lived for computational devices the moment I learnt about them in the 70’s. I built some of the earliest computer kits in the country, and cut my teeth on programming assembler and machine code after school, long before PCs were available,” he explains.
A stint in the army and six years in the Navy instilled discipline and the value of teamwork. Van Niekerk also studied computer systems and programming while enlisted and subsequently entered the world of entrepreneurship thereafter. “I ventured out on my own in 1987, driven by my extreme desire for independence and the ‘can do’ attitude. My first companies were mostly successful, and after years of experience, loads of self-study in engineering, technology and entrepreneurship, I founded Metacom.”
A firm believer in the value of family, Van Niekerk has two children from his first marriage and two more with his wife Alice. “We have an incredibly special relationship with our children and live our lives for our family. Alice has always been extremely supportive of my ambitions and especially building Metacom. Without her support, constructive feedback, wise counsel and love I would not have achieved what I have,” he explains.
What inspires you and what keeps you awake at night?
I am hugely inspired by the current trends in communication technology and the future possibilities this brings to seamlessly integrate the power of various technologies and automation into our lives. I often lie awake at night dreaming of these possibilities, but specifically how to ensure perfect uptime, reliability and system integrity at present and more so in the future. I am always keen to explore more technologies, but must simultaneously stay focussed on that which is most important today.
Stepping out of your comfort zone amidst the existing tech giants 16 years ago was a brave move. What drove this decision to “build it better”?
I simply love a challenge and stepping way out of my comfort zone! Starting out on my own gave me the freedom to re-think my contribution to the future of technology and especially information and communication technology. One of the core pillars when creating Metacom was to provide exceptional service and support to our customers, something which is sorely lacking in the industry. In technology, things can and do go wrong. You need a team of dedicated and highly committed individuals to jump into action immediately and resolve the issues as they occur. This is core to our philosophy of being customer focused and passionate about service excellence and system reliability.
Who is Metacom and what have your customers come to depend on you for over the past 16 years?
Metacom is primarily a managed, high availability point-to-point network communications provider, integrating all types of connectivity into one unified and very secure infrastructure. Our customers require extremely high levels of network reliability and our track record bears testament to the fact that Metacom can deliver.
Although we cannot prevent or plan for all problems, the entire team at Metacom is completely focussed on reliability of communication and everyone jumps into action if or when a problem is encountered. Our customers expect us to stay at the forefront of technology, as we already do.
Metacom now operates in 22 countries, 18 of which are in Africa. What have been the challenges since inception?
Metacom developed what many consider to be the most reliable failover communication technology and algorithms, tested in-depth and perfected over many years of service. This is ideal for South Africa and the African continent where reliability of communication systems are questionable at best. Our large South African customers, with outlets across Africa, therefore opted to use our routers and infrastructure at their international branches across the continent. Our reputation in this arena expanded, and we now supply our services to other organisations across Africa and abroad. Our exponential growth has required significant resource planning, especially technology, people and finance. This has certainly presented its fair share of challenges, but with careful planning and excellent execution Metacom has consistently delivered superb technological and financial results.
Africa is a tough market to get right. How did you achieve this?
You need to be very flexible and adaptable when doing business in Africa. Yes, Africa is tough and the business and regulatory landscape changes from country to country and month to month.
Metacom fortunately has a very strong and flexible operations team, with the authority and leeway to ‘make a plan’. For example, in some African regions you cannot simply plan an installation that is only 100 km from your technician’s base in one day. Sometimes, you must use a 4×4, and with terrible road conditions that trip may take a day just to get there, then a few hours on-site, and another day to get back. Numerous factors must be taken into account, but you must simply make it happen.
Please explain the move to Belgium and why it makes strategic sense to service North Africa from Europe?
We opened an office in Belgium as an opportunity arose in the region, and it has always been in our growth strategy to expand internationally, especially in Europe.
Marius Visser, Business Development Executive at Metacom, immigrated to Belgium in early 2017 and is actively setting up business in Brussels.
Belgium is not only central to the European region, but has a very strong financial sector, which will be to our advantage. As experts in the African communication industry, we believe Metacom is ideally suited to assist European companies wishing to expand into Africa, not only with our exceptional products and services, but also consulting, our expertise and regional knowledge. Metacom employs a team of field technicians in all major centres throughout South Africa, ensuring technical support and expertise on the ground across the country. We also have strong relationships with technical contractors in most African countries that are ready to attend to our installations and field maintenance equipment.
Can you share critical milestones in the company’s history? Moments that made you realise that you were doing the right thing.
1. Developed the first GPRS based EFT communications equipment in South Africa,
2. Developed the first GPRS based SCADA communications equipment in South Africa,
3. Pioneering GSM based routers in South Africa,
4. Creating a sophisticated communications infrastructure,
5. Signing deals with some of the biggest corporates in the country,
6. Expanding into Africa,
7. Expanding into Europe.
What would you attribute your success to?
Hard work, focus, total commitment, exceptional people, passion in everything I do and attention to detail, while always remaining vigilant, and a huge dose of “can-do” attitude. Building Metacom over the last sixteen years has been the greatest joy of my life. With all the stress, late nights, eighteen hour days for extended periods of time, not to mention the shortage of skills and expertise in South Africa, I am satisfied that we have created a business engine that will continue to grow and provide excellent products, solutions and services to our customers, for many years to come. I have been most fortunate to meet and employ an incredibly talented team of people, without whom this would not have been possible. The commitment of each Metacom employee is paramount to our success, and I work very hard to ensure that each person is valued and respected for their contribution.
You work with various cross-border African retail stores, banks and other notable blue chip companies providing critical solutions for their operations.
Why do customers choose you rather than your competitors? What truly sets you apart?
Metacom has a reputation for getting things done. Using our locally designed and engineered routers and network infrastructure, we have repeatedly impressed our customers with our ability to solve some of the most complex communications problems when necessary. Due to the fact that we design every aspect of our routers and equipment in-house, we can implement new features fast and ensure the very best and most reliable communications solutions for our clients. The added benefit is we can do all this at an incredibly competitive cost!
Can you explain the ‘Metacom Way’ and how you use this strategy to draw talent to match your work ethic and culture?
As one of our employees recently said, “Most of the Metacom staff have been working for the company for more than five years. This is a great testimony of a business working together like a family and one of the key factors in our success.” The “Metacom Way” is an ethos that has permeated throughout the company, and is something upheld by every employee, leader and a factor in every decision we make. A can-do attitude is part and parcel of Metacom’s service delivery, as is the commitment to solving a problem, no matter how complex it may seem at first. Teamwork, brilliant engineering, innovation and a massive dose of can-do attitude is what it takes to sometimes move mountains for our customers. This philosophy and approach extends to attention to every detail, especially in the design of our equipment and infrastructure.
I firmly believe that collectively these are the reasons why our customers often refer to us as their business partners, instead of just being another supplier. We really work hard to collaborate with our customers to make their business a success. As one of our employees recently said, “Most of the Metacom staff have been working for the company for more than five years. This is a great testimony of a business working together like a family and one of the key factors in our success.”
Metacom designed and developed the most advanced/sophisticated enterprise router in Africa, which was recently featured as the product of the week on Gadget Magazine. Tell us more about the MC6000 Enterprise Router and why customers love this home grown product?
With sixteen years’ experience in the African market, and a large portfolio of corporate customers, we certainly have the exposure to some of the greatest business thinkers in the country. We have collated all this information over time to design and build incredibly reliable and feature rich routers which are mission critical to our customers’ businesses.
Two years ago I decided to embark on our most ambitious project yet, to design the hugely powerful and flexible MC6000 Enterprise Router. This router integrates most services required by retailers and banks, such as communication, video player, internet radio, WiFi, LTE and ADSL into one beautifully integrated unit, with expansion slots to add anything your remote site requires. The unit is built on proven expertise and technology and is already proving to be a great success.
How important is reliable communication in the internet age? Explain the risk of failure or the impact of unreliable solutions on businesses.
Reliable communication is of the utmost importance and cannot be overemphasised. When communication systems are down, companies can lose millions per hour, and so much more in brand and reputational damage. In some cases loss of communication can be life threatening.
Metacom has engineered reliability and failover communication algorithms into the very fabric of everything we do. I can confidently say that our customers can depend on our connectivity, knowing that their data is in the best hands possible.
Metacom is also a multimedia content distributer, what does this mean?
Metacom is fundamentally a high availability networking, information and communication technology company. We embarked on a strategy to develop and implement various products on our network, tightly integrated into our current services and monitoring systems. We believe that by providing these services in-house, our customers can rest assured they’ll have the best and most reliable service imaginable. The various products work and are tested as one unified solution, thus preventing the inevitable finger pointing between a host of unrelated suppliers. One of these solutions is the distribution of multimedia – video and radio content – as well as media streaming for online radio stations. This gives our customers the ability to distribute advertising media, and internet radio, at a cost point that is causing quite a disruption in the industry!
Annual growth of 40% is something other specialist companies could only dream of and all credit is due to your integrated in-house solutions development and passion to find a reliable solution every time. Please share why you believe you are the only company in SA currently able to provide this.
I love this question! Metacom is the only company that has the full spectrum of engineering and operations expertise to:
1. Design, develop, manufacture and maintain sophisticated routers and equipment,
2. Build high availability networks,
3. Install and maintain our equipment in the field,
4. Proactively monitor and control all routers remotely,
5. Provide all connectivity to third parties, all under one roof!
Adding to this our exceptional focus on customer service and attention to detail, makes for a winning combination!
Metacom also works with financial credit providers and credit bureaus to provide retail analytics focussed on demographic and psychographic analytics. As one of our senior software engineers says, “Metacom is acompany of dynamic problem solvers.”
What value does this offer your clients?
Metacom provides private and public Wi-Fi hotspots or access points to our corporate customers. This is a fantastic service to customers, but costs the retailer money. Permission based retail analytics is an incredibly powerful tool to ascertain who your customers are, and to design marketing campaigns that are carefully crafted to reach your target market. In conjunction with Wi-Fire of the Blake Group, Metacom is investing heavily in this competency, as I believe that this will be a massive growth area.
The Internet of Things is evolving and rapidly advancing across the globe, what are your thoughts on the influence and power of this technology in the near future.
Although Metacom has actively been involved in the Internet of Things since inception in 2001, I believe that there are massive opportunities in this space. Internationally, research and development will continue and the product and adoption curve of new technologies will be exponential for a significant period of time, or at least until the singularity occurs.
I am fascinated by the possibilities of hyper-connectivity. It is, however, concerning that humankind will have to manage the effects of this as there will also be a downside, as the continued growth of technology will be faster than people’s ability to adapt. This may also cause a further bifurcation in society, those that ‘have’ and those that ‘do not have’ this technology at their disposal.
What would you consider as your most notable accomplishment to date?
Growing Metacom organically without venture capital has been a fantastic adventure and achievement. Metacom is privately owned but managed as a corporate, allowing us to continuously re-invest in technology, systems and processes while operating in a structured manner. We have numerous corporate customers that have trusted us with their mission critical communications for more than 10 years. We have always regarded this as an honour and taken this huge responsibility very seriously, keeping us on our toes and preparing for the next challenges and trends. I have the privilege of leading an incredibly strong team of people, creating tens of thousands of products, interconnected across 22 countries, all monitored from our International Operations Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, and all doing something useful for our customers. This is awesome!
What is your dream for the future Metacom?
Metacom will continue to focus on engineering and developing state of the art information and communications equipment and related technologies. I am on a mission to add at least one new product range annually. Metacom shall continue to build its position as a leader in our interconnected world.
What do you hope to be remembered for?
Being a decent human being, caring for people, passionate about engineering and technology and caring for my family, the arts and the finer things in life. I take the time to get to know people, listen carefully, pause and reflect every day. The opportunity costs of entrepreneurship are potentially very high and one needs to carefully assess your priorities every day to ensure that your business success doesn’t come at the cost of the other components of your life that matter too.
30 Second Bio
Favourite Quote: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
Favourite Book: The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
Favourite Destination: Where my family is. Ashford Castle, Ireland
Favourite City: Cape Town
Favourite Tech gadget: My iPhone
Ideal Day: Work, exercise, family, music and a good book.One day, flying through space listening to Beethoven.
How do you unwind and relax: What’s that?
Biggest inspiration: My family. Meeting Alice, my perfect wife.