The Genesis of NMG
By Geoff Baars
A fading light
Travel back to the late 80’s and you’ll find Mark Prichard and myself alongside each other at Swiss Re in South Africa working hard with major clients to help them navigate the relatively new market of Health Insurance. That buzz of working on something new and challenging was really inspiring and provided great motivation to us both.
However, after taking on a role in the Zurich Head Office and getting consumed with the corporate and stale way of doing business, that buzz, that spark that I had started to fade. Sure, I still loved my work, particularly when I was travelling to places like Asia and SA where everything seemed possible but I felt like I was losing my mojo.
The dawn of a new age
I was seriously considering quitting work and putting my actuarial studies to use in unconventional ways, such as joining Greenpeace or returning to SA to offer my services to the ANC. Upon returning to SA to present a paper I had co-authored with Mark, I found myself back in the presence of dynamic and ambitious people and I felt like my “old” self. It was wonderful, and when I discussed my options with Mark, he thought I should consider another alternative, viz. something “commercial”. That set me thinking, at least subconsciously.
I remember one day on this trip very distinctly. It was November 1st, 1990, and I was sitting on the side of the road in Johannesburg drinking a soft-drink with Nick Sennett, who’d been my best friend and an unmatched genius at university through the actuarial studies. I was explaining to him the vibe, the optimism and the opportunities that I thought existed in Asia. And suddenly he said, “Let’s go to Singapore to start a business!”. I kid you not… that’s exactly how it happened.
So, we phoned Mark and Mark Myerson – a fresh grad accounts student with entrepreneurial flair who’d been with me in an athletics squad when I was still living in SA – and asked them to come to Nick’s flat that evening for urgent and important discussions.
We spent 6 hours debating our plans that night and we even filmed a lot of our discussion, although I’ve never had the courage to view it and the tape has probably disintegrated by now. But by the end of the evening we made the decision to move halfway across the world, into a region that only I had visited, to a city that none of us had been to and start a business together.
Having made our decision, we encountered the usual doomsayers with people suggesting that “it was a terrible idea”, “Asians don’t buy consulting services”, “You’re too young – no one will take you seriously”, “You shouldn’t start a business with friends”, and so on. Others told us we should go to Hong Kong instead of Singapore, for example. Lots of well-meaning advice, but we were quietly resolute.
We, of course, had our own personal lives to sort out too as moving thousands of miles away from family and friends is no easy thing to do. Particularly not aged 23-26.
In the 18 months that followed our first discussions, we put together our Business Plan, raised capital investment from wealthier friends and relatives, and after investing all our life savings into NMG we boarded those flights to Singapore. I flew from Zurich with Nick and my wife (who was by then 7 months pregnant…), and the Marks flew from Johannesburg.
On September 1st, 1992, we officially opened our doors at #11-01 Odeon Towers and we’ve never looked back or regretted the decisions we made on that November night in 1990, despite the inevitable highs and lows of running a business in rapidly changing times.
No epiphany moment
What’s interesting to consider as I look back on it now, is that we weren’t struck by a sudden bolt of lightning or had the vision of NMG come to us in a dream, but the idea came about due to a combination of circumstances and a realisation that things could be done better. That and the excitement of upping sticks and setting up a business in what was then unquestionably the most dynamic economic region in the world.
Fundamentally, our motivation was to go into business together, to take on the established order and the “same old” way of doing things, in a part of the world where dynamism was respected and new ideas rewarded. We were unashamedly different, not because that was the goal, but because we searched for better ways. Being different was an added plus.
Now, after a quarter century building NMG, I am convinced that the best lies ahead. We have learned so much, our focus and clarity is that much greater, and we have outstanding talent in the organisation, ready and willing to take the reins and drive the business for the next 25 years. I’ve never been more excited or optimistic.