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Henning Rasmuss

The PARAGON GROUP was founded in October 1997 and is now an internationally active African group of design companies.


The group includes Paragon Architects, delivering commercial architecture for all property industry sectors; Paragon Interface Architects, offering interior design and strategic space planning services, and due diligence studies; and Paragon Architects South Africa, the South African business unit. All the businesses have a generalist ethos, and actively promote and build a broad skill base for all team members. The firm works with local design businesses in every location where they have projects.


Since 2012, the Paragon Group has completed projects in 18 countries on the African continent. The company is currently in the construction phase of projects in South Africa, Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Congo-Brazzaville.


The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to one of the  Founding Directors at Paragon Group Henning Rasmuss about his personal and entrepreneurial journey thus far.


Tell us about your brief history and your role TODAY, how was your training like?


I was born in Johannesburg. Influenced by the building boom in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, and fascinated by the energy of large building sites, I chose to study architecture – graduating cum laude from Wits in 1994. My training at Wits in the last years of apartheid was flavoured by politicisation, conflict, and lots of questioning around identity, appropriateness, and the necessity to design for what were then new contexts: community-based work, ‘township’ projects, and socially responsible architecture. Our mentors were people like Peter Rich and Jo Noero, and Kate Otten.


It was a time of upheaval in the Department of Architecture, and I engaged in curriculum change, student, and exhibitions, and faculty committees that grappled with the issues of the day. I interrupted my training to work and travel in Europe, spending 1991 and 1992 both travelling all over Europe and working in Germany.


The working and living experience in Berlin profoundly influenced me, and the experience of living in post-Wall Berlin was invigorating and totally liberating. After that, coming back to pre-1994 South Africa made a whole lot of sense, as history was being (re-)written. After graduation, I worked in Johannesburg and Hong Kong for three years, and in late 1997 I co-founded Paragon Architects with Anthony Orelowitz. We are both founding directors of all companies in the Paragon Group. Since 2012, I have been responsible for the entire Group’s International Projects, and for Business Development in Africa.


What does it mean to you being Founding Director at Paragon?


I guess being a director has ‘come naturally’, but as the business grows and evolves, I have had to ensure that I am seen to be leading and in fact ‘directing’. It makes me aware and self-aware, and it means that I have an obligation towards others, not just to me. It means that people around me are entitled to demand that I lead and direct. It means that they have a right to be able to rely on me. Not for everything, but for things that I am particularly good at. It means also that I have to inspire and motivate. I can be inspired and motivated by people around me, but in 90% of all situations, I believe that directors have to inspire and motivate first. Furthermore, they should show direction, movement, and create momentum. That is what directors do. Managers do other things.


What would you like to have achieved when you retire?


Our companies should be strong and all-round good at what they do. Not just good at one thing or one type of building. I want to leave behind a generalist company that is strong and can deliver specialist services – as it already does. I want to leave behind an African business that is global in outlook and reputation. I want to have in place a culture of mutual respect, and a company in which people say ‘thank you’ to each other often. I want to have initiated, designed and helped to construct a handful of substantial projects in at least five continental capital cities, outside of South Africa, to the ambition and quality that Paragon Architects is known for in South Africa. I want to have the company already properly in the hands of empowered younger directors, who already guide it, so that my departure as director is not a hiatus for me or for the companies. And I want to leave being happy.


How would you describe your management and leadership styles?


I am not a micro-manager, and I believe in team autonomy. I create spaces for inspired design and inspired project work by making people feel excited about the projects they are working on. I love sharing knowledge through anecdotes and stories. I love honesty – sometimes too much of it – and I do not shield people from the real flux behind, around, under and over projects. I overshare, and I immerse myself and people in the full reality. I like building a full picture in people’s minds, so that we are all washed by all the waters of a project. That is my working style. Sometimes a bit corrosive, and too honest. I do not believe in taking prisoners. I lead neither from the front, nor from the back. We are in one line, and we take on the projects. And we make the steps up as we go along.


What keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?


PASSION is my driver, and I love my work and I love the responsibility.FEAR keeps me awake at night, and is a big driver of my life as a director. If you can face your fear, you can act strategically and you can intervene to protect your company and your teams. PLEASURE is what I get out of working with both my fear and my passion. Pleasure for its own sake. That is the payback. Simple hedonist pleasure. Moments of it, days or it, slices of it.


How do you take part in mentoring others?


I teach and lecture by invitation at various South African universities, from time to time. This also includes external examinations, which are in a remote way ‘mentoring’. Mentoring is more personal. In the office, I share and tell stories all the time. I transmit my personal insight and knowledge and passion through stories and anecdotes. I am a storyteller. And there is never a short answer to a question.


What would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?


The first high was probably when I worked in Berlin as a student in 1992. My director sent me out to run the (then) only site in the office on my own, because I was the only one who had the humility and patience to communicate with the mostly East German and East European construction workers on site. My German colleagues were too arrogant and too ‘educated’ to talk to the perceived ‘primitive’ East Europeans, and so I was the only one who could get the work done without conflict. As a South African, that made me very proud and powerful in my own world. It also made me believe in the validity of my education, which most of us were questioning in the early 1990’s for good reason.


A more recent high was probably the work for four years of my life on the roof structure of the Cape Town Stadium. Standing on that massive roof at the end of the project, in a high wind, feeling those thousands of tons of steel and cable and glass flexing and flowing under my feet, was breathtaking.


The biggest low would be the closure of our Brazilian business (Paragon Arquitetura Limitada) in 2013 – we misjudged the market, and we failed to build a sustainable business after a good start in 2009. The most recent low would be having a client ask me to be removed form a site in Johannesburg after an argument I had with the main contractor, for the client’s benefit. I was convinced that I was fighting ‘the good fight’ for the client’s interest with a singularly obstructive and deviant contractor. The client however interpreted that as ‘not being a team player’.It is a tough game and every day is a day for learning.


What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?


In2 017, the African Property Awards voted our project for Crystal Rivers Mall in Mavoko, Kenya as ‘Highly Recommended’ for Retail Architecture in Kenya. In 2016, my partner Anthony was awarded ‘Architect of the Year’ in the 2016 SAPSA Awards, and our practice was voted ‘Architectural Practice of the Year’ at the same event. Also in 2016, the practice won the 3rd prize in the Casagrande Grande Prix in Venice, Italy for our project at 115 West Street. In 2015, we won the South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA) Award for ‘Commercial Office Developments – Merit Award’ for Alice Lane Phase 2.


How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?


Paragon Architects has grown organically through hard work and good clients and consistent delivery, and through an inquisitive mind and nature. The DNA of our company is the condition of being hungry; for work, for knowledge, for newness, for challenges and for technology. What is now known as the Paragon Group has grown by acquisition of existing companies, and by the finding of new ones. For example,we decided to find a new B-BBEE company and to bring it into life through its own funding, its own efforts, and its own completed portfolio of work and buildings, rather than diluting shareholding in Paragon Architects for opportunistic reasons. We have always believed that future co-owners of our businesses need to be hard-working entrepreneurs, and it has not been possible to buy shares into the existing businesses. What we have done, is to create new businesses in different sectors or countries. We now target profit, and we are successful at being a profitable business, but we can’t determine turnover targets in the current South African economy under the current leadership.


How does the organisation ensure and maintain high level of ethics and integrity?


We lead by example through telling stories. We freely share stories of compromising discussions and situations. We take immediate action against employees who are dishonest or who are tempted to beneficiate themselves through project work or project situations. We counter-message corrupt behaviour. We do not take mark-ups on materials and furniture and supplies from companies that supply our clients. This sets us apart from many competitors especially in the Interior Design and Space Planning field, who augment their turnover with commissions from manufacturers and suppliers in addition to the fees they earn from clients. We lead by example!


Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?


South Africa is our home base, and we are heavily invested here. While we have global ambitions, we are not the emigrating types. We love this continent and we understand that our business in South Africa has to be a leading company in bringing about a transformed South African economy.


In 2016, we achieved one transformation target: exactly 50% of our total staff complement is female. We are very proud of that in the construction and professional services industries. We drive the careers of women in exactly the same way as we drive careers of men. Three out of seven directors in the Paragon Group are women. Our Brazil office was run and co-owned by a woman partner. Three out of five Associates and Senior Associates are women.


On the Black Economic Empowerment front, we created Paragon Architects South Africa in 2006. Thulani Sibande is a 51% majority shareholder and is the de facto day to day director. The team is entirely comprised of Black South Africans, and training is heavily invested into: software training, project management and autonomous teams training, and business and efficiency training.



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