Sage FD Jordaan Burger shares his passion for collecting cycads

Jordaan explains that remote working has allowed him to spend more time growing and collecting cycads.

Jordaan BurgerSage’s green-fingered financial director – is a sucker for cycads, the living dinosaurs of the plant world. Cycads have been a lifelong love of Jordaan’s, but he says working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown has given him more time to admire and nurture his collection, in between a “daily routine of back-to-back virtual meetings”, of course.

Cycads were abundant during the Mesozoic age (from about 252 to 66 million years ago), making them much older than the dinosaurs – and arguably more resilient, having survived three of the five great global mass extinction events.

Time well spent
Sage staff have been working remotely since around March 2020, Jordaan says. “I am grateful for the opportunity to admire my cycads in my garden during the day. I also enjoy reading up on them. Growing cycads from seeds is a real exercise in the importance of patience. It takes time and effort to prepare seeds for the germination box and to ensure the moisture and temperature are just right.”

He continues:

“Then you have to fight the urge to open the box daily. It’s better to keep it closed for as long as you can. It can take anywhere from several weeks to a number of months before the seeds will start to germinate. Once their roots and first set of leaves are strong enough, the cycads can be planted outside, in pots or your garden.”

Today, he has some 19 of the 40 South African species, “but not the very rare ones”. “It’s not uncommon for the rarer species, such as Encephalartos hirsutus, to be auctioned off for more than R50,000 at Cycad auctions, and that’s for a plant you can take home on the passenger seat in your car,” he comments.

Early inspirations
“I grew up with cycads in our garden as a child and my dad always cherished them… I started growing them in 2014, but I really wish I had started earlier. Cycads take a long time to grow, so the sooner you start the better.”

Other than patience, they don’t require any specific special skills, he says. It is “relatively easy” to grow them, “if you have a strong plant older than two years. They need plenty of sun, soil that drains well and watering once a week.”

Rare beauty
“South Africa is home to the Encephalartos cycad genus, totalling about 40 different species, and it’s every collector’s dream to have them all. Yet that’s by no means easy to achieve. Encephalartos woodii, for instance, is one of the rarest plants in the world.”

Today there are only some 500 woodii in existence, and all of them are male “To reproduce them from seeds, you need a male and female plant,” Jordaan explains. “More male plants can be reproduced from suckers, but the plant is essentially extinct in the wild.”

Under threat
They may have outlived the dinosaurs, but today cycads are under threat. Botanist and conservationist Kirsten Retief is a local expert on cycads. In a research paper, she writes: “Cycads are the most threatened plant group in South Africa… [and] one of the most threatened groups of plants in the world. In South Africa, almost 70 percent of cycad species are threatened with extinction, with four species on the brink of extinction and seven species with fewer than 100 plants left in the wild.”

And cycad poaching is big business. In 2008, over 100 rare cycads (valued at some R10 million) were stolen from the Lilly Cycad Reserve. Then in 2014, thieves took 23 cycads from Kirstenbosch National Botanical gardens.

“The South African species are endangered and protected under the CITES treaty, so each plant requires a permit. My hobby is, therefore, also my contribution to nature conservation,” says Jordaan.

Jordaan’s contribution to the growth of cycads can be likened to his contribution to the growth of Sage. Either way, it’s clear the CFO has green fingers.

Working from home with cycads
Jordaan will have a lot more time to appreciate his cycads while working from home under Sage’s new remote working policy.

“It was initially a rush to get more than 1,000 employees at Sage working from their homes under lockdown. We are busier now than we were before the lockdown started. Our day-to-day work functions seamlessly and our team is generally thriving working remotely,” says Jordaan.

Because of this, Sage exited the leases on its offices in Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria in October 2020, only retaining its head office in Midrand. This bold move will undoubtedly shape the company’s working environment and culture for many years to come.

Jordaan says the response from colleagues to this decision has been mixed, but that the positives of remote working far outweigh any negatives. “Not everyone is well-equipped to work from home. Here, Sage has delivered desks, chairs and second computer screens to support colleagues’ working environments.”

To combat the risk of social isolation, the company introduced a virtual community called [email protected], designed to provide colleagues with peer support. At the end of every week, Sage also encourages colleagues to celebrate one another and their achievements on Hi-5 Fridays. The company has also looked to protect its employees’ mental wellbeing.

“During Covid-19, we promoted our Employee Assistance Programme and invested in a free subscription for everyone to Headspace, the award-winning app and guide to everyday mindfulness. Headspace covers aspects such as meditation and various techniques designed to impact everything positively, from your mood to relationships and sleeping patterns,” adds Jordaan.

This interview was originally published in the CFO South Africa Magazine. Download here