Curro Founder Chris van der Merwe thanks accountants for expansion

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Financial Minds Blog: Chris van der Merwe

Curro Founder Chris van der Merwe thanks accountants for expansion

Dec 9, 2023 | Interviews

Dr. Chris van der Merwe tells me his father died when he was three and so he grew up with only a mother and one sister. He had a wonderful childhood in Goodwood Western Cape despite what he describes as abject poverty. His mother really believed in him and inspired a lot of confidence in his ability to make something great out of himself.

‘I was determined to make enough money to buy her a car,’ explains Chris. ‘That was my only motivation back then.  I had a thirst for knowledge and a good mind for money management. When other kids would be given 10 cents to go buy toffees, I used to save mine to have about R20 which was enough to get myself a rugby ball. Looking back, I also demonstrated that I had an entrepreneurial spirit and that I had the mentality to set goals and the discipline to pursue them.’

Chris was no A student but when he set a goal, he had the grit to achieve it. He set out to become a teacher and pursued a Master’s degree with a thesis on using electronic learning modules, graduating in 1992. Whilst being a teacher in the state sector, he obtained permission from the Inspector of Education to set up a private company to write modules for children. Together with 60 other teachers they managed to run this venture which improved his business skills including managing cash flows. The business was not profitable as the goal was to provide a service.

After graduating with a doctorate at Stellenbosch, he applied for a job at the Western Cape Department of Education.

Founding Curro

‘Unfortunately, I was not successful,’ Chris regrets. ‘I sat with Stephanie my wife and we decided that the only way I was going to live out my dreams was by starting our own school. And so, I resigned from my position as a Deputy Principal at a primary school and took out my severance package of about R240,000. On 15 July 1998, we launched the first Curro school on church leased premises in Durbanville with only 28 children.’

Chris says he never would have started Curro if he hadn’t been rejected for a state job. He was a bit disappointed because he was a young educator with a doctorate ‘on top of his game’. He was only 37 looking to have a senior role in government and perhaps they thought he was too young. He is grateful that he didn’t get appointed because the Curro dream would have never manifested if he was comfortable in that role.

‘My mother was a widow who relied on a small pension my father had from the police force before he died,’ narrates Chris.  ‘That definitely thrust me into a position where I had to acquire leadership skills quite early. I think my studies also helped with the development of leadership principles and ethics. I had a drive to create something for the nation; in fact, I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that I never started Curro with the intention of making money. I wanted to serve the country by initiating affordable private education. Ultimately, I became CEO and was paid good money which made me feel like I had been rewarded for my hard work.’

The good thing about the teaching business is that it made many good mentors available along the way who Chris benefited from. He was also a Captain in the Defence Forces during mandatory military service in the 80’s which provided him with leadership lessons. Having never had formal business studies, Chris had to learn on the job when he set up Curro. In the first ten years, he was responsible for financial planning and the business model while his partners handled the academic department.

Expansion and listing

As Curro got bigger, Curro ended up engaging with investors at PSG including the founder Jannie Mouton from whom he learnt a lot. When PSG purchased 50% of Curro, they provided him with a cohort of good Chartered Accountants who gave him great business insights. They gave me some wonderful business insights.

The first four schools in order of establishment were Curro Durbanville, Curro Langebaan, Curro Silver Lakes and Curro Roodeplaat. For each new school, Chris had to tote a begging bowl to the banks for finance. The founders had to put up their personal assets as security for the hefty loans. Eventually, Chris had to explain that this capital model was not going to help South Africa.

‘We needed to scale the business in order to make meaningful change,’ Chris asserts. ‘Today Curro has 180 schools on 75 campuses. We just did not have enough money to achieve this and so when PSG came to see us, we proposed a 50-50 partnership which would help pay off our debt and built many more schools. I was also behind the idea of listing the company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) because being listed on the bourse would give us even more access to capital.’

Being listed also helps market your company as people start believing that you are a solid business. Today at the age of 60, Chris looks back and is proud of Curro because it is a relatively young company that has achieved so much and with potential to do even more. They have already expanded to form Stadio Multiversity which has about 40,000 university students.

This article is an extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – available here https://www.takealot.com/the-ceo-x-factor/PLID92980382

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