Mike de Kock - Winter School of Excellence Speaker
Mike de Kock - Winter School of Excellence Speaker

Mike de Kock

(Photo : Heather Morkel)


By Alec Hogg

Alec Hogg Moneyweb
Alec Hogg Moneyweb

Alec Hogg

Moneyweb FounderPythagoras, the ancient Greek polymath, is best remembered for our schoolroom introductions to the algebraic theorem involving squares and the hypotenuse. Apart from the maths class, his contribution to mankind was through philosophy. Including a belief that all men fall into one of three categories - they are lovers of either wisdom; money; or fame.

Those in racing who believe they fall into the first pigeonhole now have new dates for the annual calendar. Judging by this year’s debut, the first three weekdays after the Durban July now belongs to Summerhill’s Winter School. Before attending, the idea of blocking out three days for a seminar seemed indulgent. It was, instead, one of the better investments I’ve made in some years - different, but right up there with learnings from annual visits to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

So what of the take-homes? Was it inspiring?

Definitely. But that came with the territory. OK, he’s my good friend. But even those who envy rather than celebrate my neighbour Mick Goss’s achievements wouldn’t deny his ability to inspire. Whether it’s at the daily 6:45am staff meeting; a room of potential horse buyers; engaging with the world’s leading horsemen or just with pals around a dinner table, Mick’s always positive approach leaves you feeling better than when you arrived. His enthusiasm is infectious. So knowing he’s behind the Winter School created the expectation that it would be world class. It was, including his own (always) lengthy rendition of the Summerhill Story, a tale I’ve heard many times, but one that still inspires.

I’ve also got a soft spot for that rough of racing’s diamonds, Mike de Kock (who in SA racing hasn’t?). So to witness his story, in his words, was a privilege. Including the reminder of that secrets of success are universal. The world’s greatest investor, Warren Buffett, advises us just two things are at the root of a successful life - invest in yourself; and stick to your circle of competence. Mike’s story is living proof of Buffett’s thesis. A man who never studied the science of outsourcing, he practices business focus better than many corporations. Obsessed with his thoroughbreds, he stays in his sweet spot - with the more than occasional distraction of rounds of golf (where, he swears, the mind still thinks horses). If a couple of hours listening to MdK doesn’t inspire you, nothing will.

Educational? Absolutely.

If they’d taken a vote, outside of the two Ms, my highest rating would have been for the other of De Kock’s Musketeers, Dr John McVeigh and Jehan Malherbe; and the man many of us in SA honour as our own “Mr Racing”, Graeme Hawkins. Listening to real experts with the confidence to tell it straight is always a treat. Having them discuss your passion without a hint of egg dancing is to be treasured. McVeigh provided more than a few “aha” moments; Malherbe used facts to explain why it makes sense to invest all in quality - whether you’re buying or breeding. And hearing Hawkins’ insights ensures I’ll never participate in an auction the same way again.

Just a notch behind them were the trio of Onderstepoort Prof’s Alan Guthrie and Martin Schulman; and Summerhill’s broodmare manager Annet Becker. After a few hours of absorbing some of their knowledge, you’d fancy making a contribution at the next debate about African Horse Sickness; mare pregnancy and foal birth rates or the critical issue of nutrition. Bio-agric expert John Fair provided more “aha” moments - even for McVeigh - as he explained how years of working with Team Summerhill rebalancing pastures has produced the bigger, stronger, more densely boned animal that now leaves the Champion Breeders. Very different to the experience of many KZN breds in the 1990s. 

Life changing? For me, yes.

Mick is one of those rare people who, well, loves other human beings. Put him in an airport line and by the time you board he’s made a friend of the man behind; take him to a restaurant and he can’t leave without engaging with people at the next table. He’s what best selling author Malcolm Gladwell called a “Connector” in his classic book Tipping Point -one of those rare individuals who act as a hub for the rest of us: a common point for thousands of people. Some do it for profit. Mick interacts widely because he likes people. He can’t help himself.

This is which brought Australian family business professor Justin Craig to Summerhill’s School of Excellence. Typically, they were queuing ahead of this year’s Berkshire Hathaway AGM in Omaha. A chat in the Midwest led to dinner on the Gold Coast during the Aussie Yearling Sales. Sure enough, Justin soon found himself agreeing to present the keynote at the Winter School’s opening session.

It was a talk worth flying to Australia to hear. Everyone takes different things from a great teacher like Dr Craig. For me it provided a well-needed jolt; a reminder that entrepreneurs are made, not born; and for those of us thus afflicted, best we remember this fact. He also emphasised how each of us have resources we often leave fallow. Justin hit the spot. My own now-in-gestation bestseller was born from his guidance.

As a final point, enrolling two of racing’s elder statesmen, Judge Alan Magid and former NHRA chairman Ronnie Napier, to act as introducers and summarisers was a masterstroke. They provided the right blend of fun and decorum, critical factors if a long anticipated event surpassed its billing. They provided the platform for an atmosphere - for the most part anyway - of respectful interaction. Lecturers didn’t duck questions, supporting an open, sharing environment that’s most conducive to learning.

The inaugural event is a tough act for School Principal Heather Morkel and her team to follow. I’m betting they’ll manage. So have already blocked off the second week of July in my 2012 calendar. As, I imagine, all the other outsiders privileged to join the school’s first intake of full-time students at this special occasion.

• Alec Hogg founded Moneyweb and now breeds thoroughbreds. He lives on Summerhill’s northern border at Graceland Farm which he shares with sculptor wife Jeanette and her Graceland Gallery, which focuses on equine and other fine art.

School OF Excellence, South Africa
School OF Excellence, South Africa