Life & Style | People

Business school director leads by example

Nick van der Walt believes people can achieve great things if they take advantage of opportunities

  • By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Friday magazine
  • Published: 00:00 July 1, 2011
  • Friday

Nick van der Walt says his bike reawakens his sense of adventure
  • Image Credit: Silvia Baron/ANM
  • Nick van der Walt says his bike reawakens his sense of adventure.
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As executive director and dean of the Hult International Business School, Dubai, Nick van der Walt's ability to combine erudition and adventure is a textbook case on how to achieve a balance in life.

On campus, he dedicates his time to the welfare of his students - organising events that help them gain knowledge via international seminars and workshops, striving to get the right placements in appropriate fields and constantly working towards maintaining a vibrant campus life.

Off campus, loves deep sea diving, exploring the marine world. He also enjoys riding his motorbike and playing squash. His greatest hours of happiness, however, are spent with his wife and five children. Of course if there were more hours to his day he would probably pack in more. He quotes a saying he holds dear, "Inside every 50-year-old man is an 18-year-old wondering what really happened!"

Work

I feel absolutely privileged to have had the best opportunities to pursue my studies and the right breaks that defined the trajectory of my career. I believe God offers most of us a lot of opportunities but in some cases we may not be able to see and seize them at the right time.

My career has taken me to many continents and given me the chance to meet people of different nationalities and cultures. I grew up in South Africa, did my higher studies in the UK and chose New Zealand as home and I have, in many ways, got the best from all three countries.

In New Zealand there is a Maori saying: "It's people, it's people, it's people". In the end, it is the interaction you have with the people around you that has the deepest impact on your mind and life.

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Mine started in South Africa. I did my postgraduate degrees in Business Administration, and Economics and Law in 1977 and 1978 at Rhodes University. Then I wanted to earn a degree in another continent and experience another culture. So I moved to the UK in the early 1980s and was admitted directly into a PhD programme at the University of Bath. I began working almost immediately as a part-time lecturer at Bath, tutoring younger students and earning a modest sum for myself. I fell in love with teaching and I am still passionate about it even today.

My qualifications gave me a good break - I got a job as a lecturer at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand in 1986. From there on, life got even better, of course I was working very hard. I moved first to Deloitte Haskins and Sells in 1988 and then on to Price Waterhouse Coopers in 1989 in the field of strategic management, which was the subject of my doctorate. At the same time, I took up a night teaching job with the Executive MBA programme in the University of Auckland's Graduate School of Business and later joined Massey University as a full-time professor holding the chair of International Business.

It was during that time that I connected with the immigrant community in New Zealand and began doing a lot of social work. I was also keen on doing my bit in developing bilateral trade relations between South Africa and New Zealand and to my good fortune, in 1999, I was appointed by then President Nelson Mandela as the Honorary Consul for the Republic of South Africa. It was my responsibility to look after the welfare of South African citizens living and travelling through the Auckland region.

The year 2005 marked a great shift in my career as I moved to Dubai. The Hult International Business School is based in the US and is ranked among the top business schools in the world by publications like The Economist and the Financial Times. Based in Boston, and formerly known as the Arthur D Little School of Management, it has campuses in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai. As the dean and executive director of the Dubai Campus, I love to build rapport with my students.

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Africa is a part of me as I spent my childhood in Johannesburg and lived there until the age of 21. I speak English, Afrikaans and Zulu. I have great memories of me and my dad out in the bush, camping, shooting, keeping ourselves warm at night around campfires. My father, Nick, who worked for the South African Electricity Supply Commission, was a bushveld expert with an endless supply of tales. We used to camp near the Botswana border along the Limpopo river or on the other side of the border near the Kruger National Park.

My never-say-die spirit comes from my father who, incidentally, also lives in Dubai. At 88, he still reads books on pure mathematics and learns ancient Greek while continuing to hold on to his incredible enthusiasm for life.

If Africa has had a strong impact on me politically and socially, the UK shaped my career and New Zealand gave me my best friend and wife, Margaret. So all three places hold a special place in my heart.

In the UK where I did my PhD in International Strategic Management at Bath University, I met my mentor in Professor Ray Thomas. They say there are people with whom you spend five minutes and come away a changed person. Prof Thomas was one such man. He deeply cared for his students, enjoyed an excellent rapport with all of them and was ever-willing to help them.

After my studies in the UK, when I went to New Zealand, its pristine beauty made me fall in love with it instantly. My seafaring disposition helped me meet Margaret, who had virtually lived all her life until then on yachts. Her parents had built their own yacht and sailed around the world.

My wife had lived and worked in Bahrain before I met her in New Zealand and she encouraged me to seek a career in this region. I came to Dubai in 2005 as CEO of the University of Wollongong and later moved on to Hult International Business School in 2008 following a meeting with its president, Steve Hodges, who captivated me with his vision of management and leadership education.

The three loves of my life are my wife, my family and deep sea exploration. When I am not at work, I divide my time between these loves.

Even today, Margaret and I love spending time together. We have coffee together every morning, go for walks, visit the gym and on weekends spend a lot of time together. I have five children - three boys and two girls and two grandchildren from my elder daughter. I consider family to be the absolute core of my life.

My third love, deep sea diving, is something I have enjoyed for more than 30 years. I am a member of the local branch of the British Sub Aqua Club and also of a technical diving group in Dubai. I am fascinated by the maritime history of this region and passionate about exploring shipwrecks. People think Dubai is new. In fact, it is a civilisation that dates back more than 8,000 years as the archaeological findings reveal. There are a lot of shipwrecks to explore here. I go deep sea diving with my friends to the east coast of Fujairah, to Musandam right up to the Strait of Hormuz. The marine life out there is beautiful.

I used to dive in the UK and remember this absolutely incredible experience near Cornwall - we were down exploring a shipwreck when my friend swam into a gap and pulled out two beautiful hallmarked steel platters and many china plates, which were intact, complete with the ship's logo! We were the first ones to touch them since the ship had foundered. When I am not deep sea diving, I love riding my BMW motorbike. It reawakens my sense of adventure.

Dream

I dream of giving my children, besides love and strong values, the power of choice. I want them to have the privilege to make their own choices. Family values are their moral compass, but I want them to be able to choose what they want to do in life. Choosing your path in life is not about making a convenient decision, it's about picking what is right for you.

I try to show my children, and my students, what they can achieve if they put their minds to it. I dream of working towards another degree and studying theology after retirement. If my father can study Greek and mathematics at 88, I am sure I can emulate his spirit.

I would also like to give back to the community and do some social work. In New Zealand, I worked with a lot of charities and trusts to help fund education for children within the immigrant communities. I hope to do something of that sort here in Dubai.

Finally, I dream of sailing around the world.

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