Culture matters and that’s the bottom line

by: Paige Robertson and Joanne Marshall

Date: Dec 6, 2018

At RMI’s November Leading Insights seminar, Willem Roos shared his views on some of the aspects that he believes make up a sound and enduring corporate culture.


Willem Roos started OUTsurance, one of South Africa’s first direct short-term insurers, along with Howard Aron and René Otto in 1998. Having noticed a gap in the market while working at traditional insurer Aegis, the trio secured funding for their direct-to-consumer concept from the Rand Merchant Bank Holdings (RMH) group, thanks largely to the interest shown by Laurie Dippenaar, one of the group’s founders.


This financial backing and display of trust in their business plan was what enabled Roos, Aron and Otto to set up what has become a highly disruptive force in the insurance industry. However, Roos insists that it was not the most significant outcome of their relationship with RMH.


“The most important contribution RMH made to our business was the effect it had on our culture”, he said. “While there is no such thing as a right or wrong culture, there are very few successful businesses that don’t have a unique or strong culture”.


Cultural considerations


Roos laid out eight of the most impactful cultural principles that OUTsurance inherited from RMH.


  1. Impeccable ethics and reputation
  2. “There should be no debate around ethics and reputation. You will tarnish the business or shareholders’ reputation at your own peril; Laurie was very clear about that”, he said.
  4. He recounted some words of wisdom from Laurie about running your business as a public company right from the beginning. In other words, even if your business is just starting out, it’s in your best interests to promote the type of culture you can expect to see at a well-run listed company; one that is transparent, principled and trustworthy.


  1. Limit red tape
  2. “If there’s one thing that frustrates intelligent people, it’s bureaucracy”, said Roos. “One of the key things we did well at OUTsurance was balancing proper housekeeping (good governance, systems, checks and balances) with making sure we didn’t become bureaucratic”.
  4. He believes one of the most important jobs he carried out at OUTsurance was to remove the red tape for the “real heavy hitters of the business”, so that they could execute in the best way possible.


  1. Work as a team, not a family
  2. Family-owned businesses have many desirable qualities, not least of which is a long-term view, but there’s a reason many people shy away from working with relatives.
  4. “It’s very difficult when a family member doesn’t perform; you can’t quite get rid of them”, he said.
  6. The last thing you want to do is tear your family apart if challenges arise. That’s why encouraging a professional sports team mentality is an attractive option. The relationships between players are generally less emotionally-charged and are built on appropriate business terms rather than on personal ties.


  1. Employ diverse skills
  2. Related to this analogy is the importance of ensuring you have a wide range of skills in your business. Just like a sports team is made up of people who fulfil different roles in a match (some attack, some defend, some are good at sprinting, others are good at scoring goals), so too should your staff bring complementary abilities and different strengths to the table.
  4. “It takes multiple skills to build a great business, particularly if you want to build a large business”, said Roos.


  1. Owner-manager culture
  2. But you have to trust that your staff can and will use these skills in the best possible way and avoid creating a culture of micro-management. It’s important to allow people to develop their skills by exploring new possibilities, as long as this is done in the best interests of the business and they are acting like an owner would.
  4. “If you can create an owner-manager culture where people aren’t micromanaged, where they are given the opportunity to try new things, to fail, to experiment … I think you have a much better chance of success”, he said.


  1. Take the business seriously, but not yourself
  2. Another aspect of RMH’s culture that worked particularly well for OUTsurance was about making sure everyone has similar priorities.
  4. “We always took the business extremely seriously, but we never took ourselves that seriously”, he said.
  6. “This is also a good filter for when you appoint someone. If the size of the parking space, the thickness of the carpet or the size of your office is a really important thing for you, then you’re not going to fit in at OUTsurance”, Roos said.
  8. He added that it’s not that this way of thinking is necessarily wrong, but that a person who values these factors may find it difficult to be part of an organisation that doesn’t subscribe to this mindset.


  1. Customer service
  2. It’s also crucial that everyone prioritises customer service.
  4. “It’s well known and published but if you want to start a new business, start with a meaningful customer problem to solve”, Roos said. Offering a great product that solves this problem along with great customer service will go a long way to getting you on the path to success.


  1. Driven by data
  2. Another priority should be data and facts.
  4. “Try to be data-driven. We obsessed about data and we obsessed about measuring everything”, he said. “It’s always better to use facts rather than opinion to back up your argument”.
  6. This defining feature of the OUTsurance culture meant that if you wanted to make a case for something, you needed to “pitch up with a big Excel spreadsheet with lots of numbers”, he said.


Learning from mistakes


Roos also recounted some of the key lessons learned from the mistakes they made along the way.


About six months after OUTsurance was started, it was decided that the firm would allow brokers to sell its products, which was not part of the original plan at all; after all, the business model was built on a direct-to-the-consumer insurance offering.


“All of the founding principles almost went out the window when we did this”, he did. “We had far higher loss ratios (the most important measure in an insurance company) than we had budgeted for. We just made a fundamental mistake”.


Working with the “what-must-happens”


It was a costly mistake and threatened the viability of the whole business. Keeping a tight rein on the everyday “what-must-happens” was instrumental in getting them back on track.


“We broke down what needed to happen on a daily basis for OUTsurance to survive. We looked at a whole host of ratios from the number of policies that needed to be sold to marketing, leads and sales targets”, he said.


Fortunately the firm recovered well and Roos stressed the importance of never losing sight of your initial intentions.


The pitfalls of complacency


Becoming complacent with their success was another error he believes the firm made.


“The biggest mistake we made was getting comfortable with our technology, systems and processes because they were dramatically better than the competition”, he said. “We stopped pushing the boundaries for a while. This was about six or seven years ago”.


The danger is that then other firms start catching up and eroding your competitive advantage. It can take a while to reverse the situation. Roos said it took OUTsurance two to three years to overcome the challenges posed by this complacency.


No substitute for culture


It clearly hasn’t been plain sailing all the time, but Roos and his team have built what has become one of South Africa’s most recognisable brands. While there was some good fortune, a pioneering business model and an innovative product offering involved, there can be no doubt that their commitment to maintaining the right culture has played a major role in their success. Incorporating his words of wisdom will go a long way to helping you attract and retain the talent you need to give your business the best chance of success.


About the Author


Paige Robertson

Head of Marketing, RMI Investment Managers


Paige is an experienced marketing professional with a passion for people and corporate culture. She has a demonstrated history of working in the financial services industry and before joining the RMI group in October 2015, held senior positions in both business development and client service for two of South Africa’s top digital advertising agencies.