Richard Labuschagne: The chief explorer who isn't afraid to chart a new course
Explore Ai CFO Richard Labuschagne explains how spreading his wings powered his abilities and career.
Explore AI CFO Richard Labuschagne, whose title is also chief explorer, grew up in Durban and studied accounting and finance at UCT. He moved to Johannesburg and completed his articles at KPMG, where he obtained his CA(SA) qualification.
Ambitious and ready to blaze a trail, Richard moved to the US in 2014 to work for the Siegfried Group, a move which turned out to be a great experience.
“As soon as I arrived, I found out we had a project in Silicon Valley, and they wanted me to go there first,” he recalls. The client was Symantec, a global leader in web and information security. The client was going through a big demerger and they needed extra skills. “I was meant to be there for three months, but it kept being extended, and all in all I ended up spending a year there.”
Upon returning to Los Angeles, he was pulled into yet another high velocity, dynamic project, this time with Activision Blizzard Inc. (ATVI), a leading global developer and publisher of interactive entertainment content and services. It was a year immersed in the gaming world, and he was kept busy updating the company’s accounting system, running cash flow, reporting and other finance responsibilities.
After finishing that project, he travelled a bit and picked up work in Seattle and San Diego. After those stints, he decided to come home to South Africa for a holiday, but met his wife here and decided to settle back in the country.
Flourishing and expanding
Richard says the exposure to these giants of industry allowed him to access opportunities that would be hard to find in South Africa: “The companies are bigger, the projects are unique and you get to work with a wide variety of people from all around the world. There is a dynamism in working with people in numerous countries trying to co-ordinate schedules, outputs and work seamlessly as a team.”
He says working in an environment like Silicon Valley, which is pulsating with creativity and innovation, was a formative experience. ”It was an extremely important part of my development. Personally and professionally, I grew by leaps. I was thrown in the deep end when I went to the States: I had no support structure, and it was an unfamiliar work culture with foreign reporting frameworks and regulations. It forced me to learn and adapt quickly, and developing that muscle of being a quick thinker has been pivotal in my current role.”
Growing in a start-up
Richard has now been with Explore AI for more than two years, and he joined when it was a small start-up. ”We have grown tremendously, but that growth hasn’t been without its challenges and hurdles. My previous experience, ability to think creatively and solve problems has set me up to succeed now.”
In 2019, the company was tasked with delivering the analytics involved in monitoring the water flow within British utility Thames Water’s vast distribution piping network.
The partnership with Thames Water began during Cape Town’s 2018 critical drought conditions and resultant water crisis. Data science students at the Explore Data Science Academy, an offshoot of the Group, were tasked with creating a database using historical water consumption data by suburb, available on Cape Town’s open data portal. It was here that the data analytics insights and analytical tools were developed. The ultimate goal of the project was to provide insights into the city’s water shortages and provide recommendations to alleviate the crisis.
The project is currently the company’s largest, and while based out of the UK, it uses resources from South Africa to run it.
“My role is broad,” he says. ”I run all the financials from invoicing, reporting to taxes and compliance for both UK and South African entities. I have to keep abreast of all the applicable laws in the UK, South Africa and Mauritius. I also oversee legal and operational matters, whether that is restructuring the business, buying or renting property,” he explains.
With a fast-growing business, there are lots of moving parts and Richard reflects that as a business leader, “iIt's important to have your priorities clear daily.
However, you have to have a plan, but also be flexible because something can pop up and you just need to put your head down and solve it.” As a technology-driven company, he says they are looking for efficiencies in process-driven tasks and many will be automated going forward.
Ramping up with agility
The Thames Water AI partnership has grown exponentially in two years. The company now has more than 70 data scientists and engineers working specifically for Thames Water across 10 product squads. These teams deliver products that reduce leakages, respond quickly to supply interruptions, and prevent blockages and flooding, thereby saving money, reducing wastage and eliminating environmental pollution.
He says the impact of Covid-19 has been challenging, but as a company, they have handled it well. “What was interesting was that during the lockdown, we had to more than double our headcount because that’s when the water utility project went into full swing. We hired dozens of people without meeting them face to face. It was a unique experience, but has turned out to be a great success,” he says.
“As we have grown, we have spent a lot of time in face-to-face meetings and weekly check-ins. All accounting and operations staff report to me, and I have put in place tons of systems to make sure all the work is getting done and things are running smoothly."
Alignment with long-term ambition
Talking about why he thrives at Explore AI, he says, ”We are trying to modernise utility tech and bring the industry into the 21st century. The people I work with are extremely smart, driven individuals who are trying to solve complex problems; it’s a dynamic workspace that is a great place to work at.”
He describes his leadership style as democratic and says, “I like to hear other views and perspectives before making final decisions. I have become more agile in my career as I have become more confident and experienced, and I’m willing to do the best to get the best out of our talent.”
In the last few years, the company has demonstrated that South Africa now possesses the skills, dedication and aptitude to compete in the technology field with anyone in the world.
And Richard says its trajectory aligns with his aspirations: “When I was looking for an opportunity, I was looking for a company I believed in and could be a part of. I have joined a company that is exciting, growin, with a bunch of people I admire and a vision that matches with my personal aspiration.”