Dieter Nolte, MBA, 1977

At age 36, I was the oldest member of the 1976/77 full-time MBA class. What I lacked in youthful energy, I could make up with some 15 years of work experience. Two outstanding lecturers in particular come to mind.

One was the Accounting lecturer Mr McGregor (I think his first name was Ivor) who came from the main campus and had the reputation to be quite a tiger. To the class he was of an advanced age, probably in his late fiftie,s and it was rumoured that he had been working on his doctorate for years. Whether in the end he obtained it, I cannot say. He had the habit of passing caustic, cynical comments in class about students who, according to him, had performed badly in the regular homework tutorials, which he used to collect daily and return the next day. After introducing himself, he forewarned us, that at the bottom of the marked homework he would make comments in abbreviated form. One of these possible acronyms was I.U.D. He said, if this ever appeared on someone’s script, the student concerned need not bother to ever come back to his lectures. He then informed us that it stood for “Inane Utter Drivel”. I doubt though, whether he ever used this and in the end, virtually everyone passed his examinations.

The other lecturer I remember very fondly and with a lot of respect was Prof Herbert Sichel, who was a statistician of world renown. For those of us who needed or wanted an update on mathematics, he offered a free maths course, which then helped with the statistics and quantitative methods courses which followed. One anecdote which he told about one of his private engagements comes to mind. He had been appointed by a diamond mining company to predict the distribution of large diamonds in the ore body, based on prospecting samples that contained many small diamonds, but few, if any, large ones. The reason, of course, was that the commercial value lay in the large diamonds which were very scarce and therefore almost non-existent in the prospecting samples. The decision whether or not to open the mine hinged on Prof. Sichel’s statistical predictions concerning the likelihood of finding larger diamonds. Later I heard that his predictions had indeed given the green light for the mine to be developed, but that after a while it did not prove profitable after all – which just go to show that even with the best scientific help, starting a new business is risky. It also brings to mind Disraeli’s assertion, that “there are lies, there are damned lies… and there are statistics”. Of the students, I fondly remember, inter alia, Denis Sacks, who throughout the course never tired of trying to promote a team spirit in the class.

He had a newspaper background, having written articles in the business section of a daily paper; was it the “Rand Daily Mail”? One of his achievements during the MBA was to organise guest lecturers, who came to add another perspective on the qualification we were trying to obtain. Amongst these were a visiting professor from Tuks Business School – I forget his name – and a former Wits MBA graduate, Robert Johnson, who had excelled in his studies a few years earlier and then later did very well in the business world. Fairly soon however, he emigrated to Australia.  Towards the end of the MBA course Denis Sacks married his girlfriend Sue and they too, soon afterwards emigrated to Canada. There he quite quickly climbed the corporate ladder. The last time I heard from him he was, I think, a Vice President of Pepsi Cola Canada. Unfortunately, I have lost contact with him and his family.

Another fellow student I met up with again much later was Sidney Place, with whom, as I only then found out, I share a common interest: music. Sidney became Chief Organist of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and became instrumental in bringing visiting musicians and organists to South Africa. Others I remember include Michael Been, who I think became a Senior Executive of a major Furniture company. Dr. Ivan May, who already had a Ph.D. in botany when starting the MBA, also comes to mind, possibly because Mr. McGregor secretly admired the fact that this younger man had already achieved what he was still attempting to complete. This did not however, prevent Mr. McGregor from picking on Ivan in class and exposing his weaknesses in the discipline of accounting.

My Research Report raised a few eyebrows, as I chose a topic which did not typically fall within the ambit of business and MBA studies. As someone with a metallurgical background I decided to investigate trends in the ferrous casting industry, essentially an industrial marketing investigation. The supervisor I chose was a metallurgy professor from the main campus, Prof. F.P.A. Robinson. Subsequently I heard that when Prof. Robinson awarded me a high mark for my research report, there were some dissenting voices at the Business School. He stuck to his guns however, and I ended up with a distinction.

These then resulted in problems for the company and its employees, incl. myself. One of my employers, a highly diversified group, was targeted for a takeover, another simply closed down, a third also became defunct. Being a casualty more than once, and having the responsibility of a family, prompted me to look for somewhat more secure employment. This I found at Technikon Witwatersrand, where I spent the last 20 years of my working life, happily lecturing and doing some research. I don’t know, whether it was a question of “those that can, do, those that can’t, teach”, but I can truly say that I enjoyed my years in academia more than the preceding years after finishing the MBA. Somehow I belonged in this environment, more than in the pressurised business world. I dare say and sincerely hope, that what I had learned during my MBA, together with more than 20 years of experience in the engineering and business world, enabled me to pass on something of value to my National Diploma, National Higher Diploma and M.Tech. students. One of these, when I last saw him, had made it to Associate Professor at your very institution: Prof. Boris Urban.

I set my sites on an MBA before I had decided on my undergraduate degree. On receiving my BSc I chose to continue directly to an MBA as I was concerned that if I left university I wouldn’t return to study. My mum wanted me to study at Wharton Business School in the USA, but I had met a young lady (we are still together) and didn’t want to leave her behind in South Africa, so decided on the WBS. The MBA had a major and defining influence on my life.

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