When Nick Binedell was outlining his vision for the University of Pretoria’s soon-to-be-created Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) in 1999, his proposal gave company-specific programmes only the briefest of mentions.

Seven years on, executive education has become one of the main activities of the school, which provides customised in-company programmes for more than 40 corporations.

Gibs counts among its clients many of South Africa’s top blue-chip companies, including resources group Anglo American, cellular telecoms companies Vodacom and MTN, and the “Big Four” banks.

The school has built up this lucrative franchise at a critical time for local business. A decade after their formerly sheltered economy was opened to world markets, South African companies are confronting the challenges and opportunities of globalisation.

As the white minority’s traditional predominance continues to erode, they are also embracing racial transformation as a political necessity and business priority.

“South Africa has to fast-track years of development so as to catch up with developed economies,” says Karl Hofmeyr, Gibs’s head of company-specific programmes.

Companies often use the school’s programmes to support their employment equity targets. A growing proportion of classes are made up of blacks, Asians and women.

Sasol, South Africa’s leading fuels and chemicals group and one of Gibs’s clients, offers a typical example.

Established – and until recently dominated by – Afrikaans-speaking white men, it is aggressively promoting non-white and female executives under the watchful eye of the South African state, which owns nearly 22 per cent of its shares.

Meanwhile, with oil above $70 a barrel, it hopes to capitalise on its position as the world’s leading producer of synthetic fuel from coal and natural gas.

The company’s first foreign gas-to-liquids plant is due to open in Qatar in June. Sasol is also exploring coal-to-liquids ventures in energy-hungry China and the US.

Gibs, which offers executive courses for junior, middle and senior managers alike, recently designed a high-level programme for Sasol.

Tailored to serve its increasingly international strategy, the four week-long blocks are split between South Africa and abroad. The executives recently returned from a visit to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and will spend their fourth and final block in Dubai, Qatar and London.

“The group travel together and think about South Africa in a different way, while immersing themselves in a fascinating part of the world,” says Mr Hofmeyr. Foreign travel is also a central component of Gibs’s executive MBA, which regularly takes students offshore, notably to Asia.

In keeping with Gibs’s focus on “action learning”, Sasol’s employees participating in the executive course are being asked to tackle one of five key projects.

Although designed for learning purposes, the projects are in some cases real and could make returns for the company.

Gibs’s ability to attract clients such as Sasol shows how quickly its renown has grown.

While older rivals such as Johannesburg’s Wits Business School or the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business may sometimes outclass it on conventional academic criteria, Gibs stands out for its engagement with business and the broader South African community.

Colleagues attribute this success to the energy and focus of Mr Binedell, whom one calls a “detail-oriented perfectionist.”

When the University of Pretoria first approached him about establishing a business school, he managed to negotiate a level of autonomy unusual for a South African institution of higher learning.

Gibs prides itself on an entrepreneurial, customer-focused style that brings it closer than its rivals to the needs of business. The modern campus, which hosts frequent roundtables and other public events, looks and feels more like an office park than a conventional university.

“Most schools are rooted in traditional thinking,” says Raj Raina, an Indian business veteran who teaches strategy at Gibs. “We have succeeded in meeting the needs of the business community.”

Across its programmes, Gibs is trying to help companies cope with what Mr Binedell calls “bottom-of-the-pyramid” issues – the social obligations and market opportunities that arise as the black underclass enters the economic mainstream.

Gibs’s showcase effort in this area is the Dialogue Circle, a network of programmes that aim to bring South Africa’s diverse citizens, sectors and age groups together.

Under apartheid, people of different backgrounds underwent separate development, and in many respects South Africa remains a segregated society. Gibs’s Dialogue Circle brings people from business, government and the non-profit sector together for monthly meetings to share insights and experiences in a semi-structured environment.

The programme covers age groups ranging from senior leaders to school students, the latter grouped in a “Spirit of Youth” forum.

Groups discuss issues ranging from economic growth to the impact of HIV/Aids, and might be taken on a study visit to Alexandra, a poor Johannesburg township, to provoke discussion.

While the programme has lofty social aims, its organisers say the focus on leadership and dialogue is directly relevant to business.

“In South Africa, if you don’t understand what’s happening around you – outside your business – you’re not going to be successful,” says Anthony Prangley, the programme’s acting manager.

While opening students’ eyes to developments in the fast-growing economies of India and China, Gibs also keeps a focus on the poorer countries to South Africa’s north.

The school was a key driver behind the Association of African Business Schools. The continent’s first such grouping will aim to improve standards at business schools.

The school chose 14 members from six sub-Saharan African countries at a meeting in Johannesburg in March.

“We think business schools can make some impact on the private sector, government and civil society,” says Mr Binedell, the new group’s chair.

“Because of the focus of the G8 and others on capacity building, we think that business schools are underleveraged and could be further developed.”

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