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10 October 2023

Adapting Leadership: Ari Mervis’ Journey from Profits to Poly Crises

If career success is marked by scoring reserved parking spots Ari Mervis has picked up a fair share over the years – including one on the Wits campus when he was RAG chairperson.

It’s a joke, but it is a way to mark the many milestones in a career that has seen Ari oversee key international business operations in diverse geographies over the past three decades. Work postings have seen him live in six different cities around the world. And since 2011, he, his wife and three children, have called Australia home, even though he still identifies as a proud South African.

The professional company director is currently chairperson at McPherson’s, the health, beauty, and wellness supplier. He was previously executive chairperson for Accolade Wines and CEO and managing director for Murray Gouldburn. Before that, he worked 27 years for SAB Miller, based across the world.

Ari’s business life though got its start when he realised, he was not going to be a chartered accountant or a lawyer.
“We had a lecturer who said if the numbers speak to you then you know accounting is for you – the numbers never spoke to me. I was interested in law but even though I never intended to emigrate I did want to study something that would allow me to have international exposure, so it was going to be a general BComm,” he says.

Completing his Bachelor of Commerce degree at Wits he started his first full-time job at a company called National Beverage Services. The story of National Beverage Services though would reveal for Ari some important first lessons about the complexities of a business beyond income statements and its public profile.

He tells how he took two years off backpacking after graduation but returned to South Africa with loans to repay. So he responded to an advert in what in those years was The Star Classifieds. The job specs were for a “young, ambitious male – salary negotiable and company car.”

He says: “The year was 1989 and it was only when I got to National Beverage Services did, I realised it was Coca-Cola in South Africa. Coca-Cola had agreed with the government that the company would stay in apartheid South Africa as this would help preserve thousands of jobs from bottlers to factory workers and even the corner café owners. However, profits would be reinvested and go into helping the country as it transitioned to democracy.

“All this was happening behind the scenes but if you asked anyone, they had never heard of National Beverage Services,” he says.

The lessons were about how business is not separate from politics of the day or its impact on society. In turn business leadership comes down to responding to the broader environment it finds itself in, the need to develop intuition, be open-minded and anticipate the next move – “beyond the first signals,” Ari says. He stayed within the Coca-Cola system till after South Africa’s democratic transition in 1995.

“There is a responsibility of business; in this case, it was to be part of an orderly transition and to help ensure stability and sustainability of employment. This ensures a flow of income and society would benefit society,” he says.

Ari’s next career move was to SAB (South African Breweries) which became SAB Miller in 2002. He would spend 27 years with the company, overseeing operations in a clutch of countries and seeing set up homes at various times in Eswatini, Russia, Hong Kong and also Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.

It was his four-year stint in Russia that was a particular eye-opener, especially for “us from the southern hemisphere.” It was everything from the strangeness of ice cream never melting because of sub-zero temperatures to the unexpected vibrancy and energy of a country that had been isolated from the West for so long, he remembers.

Gaining a global perspective has been a key strength for Ari throughout his career. He says though that it has also taught him humility.

“You don’t know all the answers and you should also never assume. I remember in one of the regions where I was based, I assumed that one of the marketers would not be good at their job because the person couldn’t speak English. They turned out to be an absolute star. We were not in an English-speaking country so why should they be fluent in English? You must learn to look past your assumptions,” he says.

Ari’s numerous business achievements have seen him be recognised for steering businesses to profitability by narrowing the focus to match the market and achieving key mergers that allowed his South African company a foot into global markets. But he also counts success as being in the toughest business scenario of a company buy-out and being able to ensure banks and creditors were paid back, that suppliers were not done in, and employees did not lose their jobs.

Being stands out at what it does is for Ari is resilience, prepared and also being curious and open having diverse talents to his teams.

And then there is education. He calls it the cornerstone. His passion for education led Ari to serve on the board of the Melbourne Business School for four years. He quips that he had parking access on this campus too.

But he says the role was not just him helping the school to internationalise its curriculum and learn from his vast experience – it held lessons for him too. There were reflections on the role of committed pro bono work as part of shaping a professional life; also rethinking the different meanings of value when it’s not tied to generating profits and wealth. For an academic institution, it’s about rankings, the calibre of the graduates and lecturers and the reputation and role of a university as an academic citizen in society.

It harks back to his days at Wits. Student life, he says, was about getting a degree to one day get a job. But it was also about shaping values and perspectives. He considered joining the SRC but “went the route of RAG (Remember and Give)” he says. For him as chairperson, it was about a way to support and contribute to society, especially charities outside the segregation zones under apartheid. RAG was also about harnessing the power of collective action and celebrating too that the spirit of youth.

“There were so many terrific memories – from my card games at Senate House to the RAG parties and just hanging out at the Boz,” he says. And of yes, there was that cherry on top of the reserved parking spot on East Campus too!