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Howard Blake, Chairman of Blake Holdings, discusses how the age of digital disruption is changing the way businesses view risk.

‘Risk’, it’s become a dirty word in the business world, something we take great pains to avoid. We hire risk management companies and take out risk insurance to help us tame the beast.

The problem is that many enterprises take an extreme approach to minimising risk, pigeonholing themselves in the process. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the benefits of constantly moving out of your comfort zone and taking calculated risks. Rejecting the status quo is one of the main reasons that Blake Holdings has grown from a one-man show to a R350-million business over the course of 26 years. Despite this success, I believe taking a proactive approach to risk is more important than ever.

The young and the restless

Risk-taking is often seen as the purview of bold start-ups with more ideas than capital. That was my experience when I began Blake & Associates out of my kitchen in 1990. Previously, I’d worked with a firm of attorneys, but the rigidness of the profession was what caused me to take a leap.

It was at once exhilarating and terrifying. All I had to my business’s name was a scooter and a typewriter. Like many successful start-ups, it was a willingness to try out new models and look beyond the conventional wisdom that paid off. In Blake & Associates’ case, it came down to identifying the need for a debt collection services, without the high legal costs normally involved.

As the skeletons of many failed start-ups can attest to, it’s all about calculated risk. From the start, we employed a scientific approach to the collection business in order to create better default prediction models. This approach saw us secure important clients like Foschini and Truworths.

The other big risk we took in those early days was the talent we sought out. We recruited high-potential school leavers who were struggling to find employment. For a business so centred on technology, employing unskilled people isn’t necessarily the obvious route to take. In our case, it was a major factor in our growth, and over the years, we have been able to secure employment for more than 17 000 employees across three continents.

Staying hungry

There’s something magical about starting a new business. There’s a hunger, a desire to innovate that tends to fade into the background the more resources a business has access to. What happens when you reach that stage where the hunger isn’t there anymore?  What happens when the thin line between financial stability and failure keeps broadening?

It’s at the established stage that we often find businesses falling into comfortable patterns and losing their edge. One way that companies can avoid this trap, is by habitually reviewing their strategies, even when business is good. I previously had a policy of revisiting my business strategy every 18 months and seeing how it can be improved. With the advent of the digital world this has shortened dramatically to every 6 months.

Another important piece of advice I’d give, is to venture into other focus areas and see how these can be integrated into your existing business. While Blake Holdings may have begun as a collections company, it utilises its technology, alongside our already existing databases, to render services across the verticals of contact centres, customer service, customer analytics, Wi-Fi, marketing and data analytics, to name a few. These specialties all build and feed off each other, making it easier to not only launch successful new ventures, but also honing the innovation capabilities of the existing ventures. With the advent of the digital age, previously distinct verticals have now become converged business solutions.

Take the latest member of the Blake family of companies, The Virtual Agent. It’s a realty solutions company that has emerged from our experience in database services. And, like many of the successful ventures we’ve undertaken over the last decades, it wouldn’t have come to be, if not for a curiosity to seek out new ways of making things better and improving industries.

Blake Holdings has come a long way since its birth, but I believe that the need to innovate is just as crucial today, as it was all those years ago in my kitchen. As technologies become a bigger and more critically intertwined component across all industries, the ability to take risks is going to become more important. As technology marches onwards at a breakneck pace, today’s stability can quickly become tomorrow’s irrelevancy.


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