ALWAYS CONNECT:  Former Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig... 'It took hard graft, day in and day out'. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
ALWAYS CONNECT: Former Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig... 'It took hard graft, day in and day out'. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

ALAN Knott-Craig is in no hurry to get back to work. He's one of the hottest properties in the global telecom munications industry, the engineer who built Vodacom from scratch to a brand leader worth R150bn in 15 years. But it cost him two heart attacks and his first marriage, and currently his intensity is contained by stamp collecting and wildlife photography.

At 57, however, he has many corporate suitors lining up with job offers. He admits there are several letters on his desk at home in Pretoria's tranquil Waterkloof that focus more on his resume than his pin-sharp images of birds in flight. He's even met an overseas visitor or two lately to talk about potential career moves.

"My restraint of trade lapses in 2011," says Knott-Craig. "Right now they're paying me more not to work than any position which might become available."

Some offers come from abroad but he prefers to work in his own country. "Banking might offer a viable new direction," he suggests, "but right now I'm happy in my space. I've never been wealthy so I'm used to living within my budget, and I haven't been bored for a second. What else do I want?"

Downtime is vital in every sense for the one-time Post Office technician who was deployed by Telkom in 1993 to launch Africa's first cellular telephone business.

As Vodacom's first CEO, Knott-Craig kept the assignment as simple as possible: set up the network, make the phones affordable, target the growth markets and develop them with constant marketing.

Today, cellphone penetration in SA is more than 100% - that is, there are more SIM cards out there (an estimated 50-million) than consumers.

In his autobiographical Second Is Nothing (Macmillan), Knott-Craig relates with remarkable candour how he played his part in creating this cultural phenomenon.

As a hands-on visionary under relentless pressure from the conflicting agendas in his own boardroom, he describes in a recent interview how it nearly killed him. "The biggest battles I had were with my shareholders, not government or my competition," he says. "One of them was Telkom. The more successful we became, the more they hated it."

Knott-Craig walked away last year without ever holding a share in the multinational giant he'd led. Vodacom wasn't listed when he left, but when Telkom sold 15% of its equity in the company to Vodaphone last year, the deal placed a value on Vodacom of R150bn.

Yet he has no regrets about leaving as he'd begun, as a salaried employee. "It was the best thing for me," he reflects. "Having shares aligns your decision-making. As a non- shareholder, you don't give a damn about the bigger picture; your only agenda is to build the company. I had no interest in what might or might not happen on the JSE: it meant I never took my eye off the ball."

It was the only game in town as the communications industry leapt from sci-fi fantasy to the supermarket shelves.

Knott-Craig's family had been in the local newspaper business from the days when Cecil Rhodes would drop by his great-grandfather's office to pick up a copy of the Diamond Fields Advertiser.

Hooking up the country to a new media generation seemed no more fanciful than connecting a railway from the Cape to Cairo.

All it required was absolute commitment to the task.

"Lots of things in my life stopped short as telecommunications took hold," he says. "The reason I'm getting so much joy today in my leisure pursuits is because I put them all on hold when I joined Vodacom. For example, I was learning to play the saxophone at the UCT school of music; now I have time to get back to it."

The main purpose of Knott-Craig's studies at UCT on a Post Office bursary was a BSc degree, which culminated in his thesis on integrating digital technology with analogue systems. It was a specialised field in the decade when George Lucas was drafting the first Star Wars movie, and Knott-Craig was on the small task team developing the Post Office's first data communications network.

He completed a four-year MBL degree in 1988 through Unisa, ahead of Telkom being established as the state telecommunications provider.

Heading into the 1994 elections, SA had only 5-million telephones; extending the landline infrastructure was not economical so Knott-Craig was assigned to find a viable option in the overseas cellular market.

Be careful what you wish for. "It took us seven years to achieve a positive cash flow," he grimaces. "Banks wouldn't even see us. The notion of walking everywhere with a phone in your hand was unacceptable. A picture I offered of a black child outside a hut in a rural area, answering a cellphone and taking it to her mother - it upset many people. I was accused of misleading the masses. Today it's a way of life, but in 1994, after the first democratic elections, it was seen as subversive. Raising the hopes of the masses to ludicrous heights."

Unversed then in politics and marketing, Knott-Craig stuck by that single vision. Put a phone in everyone's hand, he vowed, and you'll have an industry with unlimited potential.

"I learned from Telkom," he says. "They were particularly dismal at providing telephones. Not because they didn't want to; but because folk couldn't afford the installation cost. Their first account would have that R200-R300 charge, which they couldn't pay, so the service was cut after one month. That R300 was the barrier to entry for millions of low-income consumers. Make the installation free and the market is wide open."

Knott-Craig applied that logic to pricing Vodacom's cellular phones. In a business that depends on its customers communicating with each other, you make the phones affordable by subsidising them on a two-year contract.

He spotted the growth potential of the youth market as the PlayStation craze took hold. Developments such as prepaid airtime and multitasking phones were tested specifically on teenagers. "Every ad I ever made had to work for kids under the age of 15," he says. "They were the growth market, user-friendly with every technical development. I wanted to get a phone in those kids' hands before mom and dad could get in the way of the next generation of communication."

He did the same with 3G technology, slashing the rates by 99%. "That was only five years ago," he smiles, "but it turned data traffic into a R6bn business. Today, we have more 3G users in SA than there are straight broadband users."

It wasn't an easy ride, through monthly board meetings comprising billion-rand shareholders with agendas that Knott-Craig frankly admits were far above his pay grade. He survived, he says, with the formidable backing of chairs such as Jack Clarke (former Telkom chief), Wendy Luhabe (Industrial Development Corporation), and industrialist Johann Rupert (Richemont, Remgro, VenFin).

Rupert once jokingly got down on his knees to thank Knott-Craig for the R12bn he made from selling his Vodacom shares. "Johann was a super shareholder," he says. "He never ever interfered in the business, and if the pressure from the other shareholders became too much for me to bear he would let rip. Without that shield from Rembrandt, I'd have been in trouble. I don't remember a word of criticism from Johann at any time; only encouragement. There were times it was a lifeline."

So was recovering from that second heart attack. Given a life or death option by his doctor in 2006, choosing photography, philately and family was a no-brainer.

His new book is the inside account of a revolution in our telecommunications industry, but Knott-Craig himself sees it more as a human interest story.

"I worked extremely hard for everything I achieved," he says. "I was born without a silver spoon to provide career momentum and open doors. It took hard graft day in and day out and the biggest sacrifices were made by my family. The time I now have with them and for myself is more precious right now than any job proposal on my desk."

Not that relaxation means taking it easy. Knott-Craig tackles even his hobbies with the dedication of a Victorian bridge-builder. He hadn't picked up a camera three years ago: now he happily spends a dozen hours in a hide deep in the bush to capture the picture he wants at 11 frames a second. His lifelong interest in genealogy resulted in his son receiving a thoroughly researched, bound family history going back 400 years for a wedding present.

Even his passion for collecting rare postage stamps becomes a metaphor for the cellphone industry. "Stamps became prepaid in 1856," Knott- Craig muses. "Before that, if you received a letter you had to pay for the delivery. When people saw a postman coming they'd run away; it could cost them a fortune to receive a letter.

"Prepaid cellular is exactly the same, a business run with low profit margins on huge volumes. What I helped to change was the system of delivery."

A picture I offered of a child outside a hut in a rural area, answering a cellphone and taking it to her mother - it upset many people