An unsung hero and eternal entrepreneur

His name is probably not familiar to readers who began their careers after 1987, but Werner Sievers is a pioneer of the South African ICT industry.
1 March 2011
Photo: Suzanne GellWerner Sievers started Dimension Data in 1982 and went on to found and run a number of other interesting technology companies in South Africa and the US.

Ask any employee of Dimension Data today who founded the company and you’ll probably get the company party line taken from the website: “Three young, ambitious South African men left the comfort of salaried jobs to start their own business.” That answer would be wrong, but the man whose brainchild the company was appears to bear no grudge against those who erased his name from the record books.

The truth is that Werner Sievers founded Dimension Data in 1982 – not 1983 as stated on the company’s website – and moved on in 1987, which is the year the firm was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. But this is not the story of Dimension Data. It’s the story of the man whose vision began it all.

Werner Sievers entered the South African job market in 1975 after completing a Telecommunications diploma at the University of Johannesburg (or Witwatersrand Technikon as it was then). As with so many ICT people of the time, his first job was at Telkom, followed by a stint at Eskom, where he was attracted by the parastatal implementing the country’s first packet-switched network to carry both voice and data.

As a born entrepreneur, it didn’t take long for him to become disenchanted with the high levels of bureaucracy prevalent in such large state-owned organisations and he soon made a move into the private sector by signing on with Grinaker Data Systems. He credits Graham Bell, Don Smythe and Fred Phillips among the people at GDS who helped in his development and, unknowingly, helped him formulate his vision for Dimension Data, which he started when he left GDS in 1982.

Readers who were around at the time will remember that data communications in the early ‘80s was a rapidly developing and fast-growing field. And as Sievers says, there were very few or no books and the manuals were, for the most part, still to be written. When he founded Dimension Data, he did so, in part at least, to prove his theory of how events in the voice and data communications space would unfold – something that the subsequent success of the company and the people he brought into it tends to bear out.

According to Sievers, the company was a one man show for the first few months, until he managed to convince Peter Neale to join the fledgling operation. Within a couple of months, Sievers and Neale were joined by another former GDS staffer, Kevin Hamilton. Around the same time, Wayne and Roger Reece also left GDS to start their own company – Data Systems Design. Sievers quickly formed an alliance with the brothers under the terms of which the two new companies would cooperate by representing one another’s products where it made strategic sense.

Within about 18 months, the cooperative agreement had evolved to the point where it made sense to merge the two companies under a single banner. Dimension Data had now grown into a five-man business and, according to Sievers, revenue was beginning to grow at a healthy rate. The time was ripe to start bringing in dedicated sales people – enter Jeremy Ord as sales director.

By the end of 1986, revenue growth and prospects had put the company into position to list on the JSE. It had zero debt and its products were beginning to dominate significant ICT deals awarded in South Africa. Ever the entrepreneur, Sievers chose this moment to leave the company and the country to pursue other interests.

He explains: “At the time, DiData wasn’t a core technology company; it was a very good, very capable, and very smart systems integration house that took technologies from … all over the world … and integrated these systems to meet the requirements of local customers, among them government departments, banks and industrial enterprises. That was great … but I wanted to get into core technology; I wanted to be part of developing something from scratch.”

So Sievers packed his bags and headed for the US to follow his dream. He joined a company started by an associate. About a year-and-a-half later, that company was acquired, at which time Sievers decided to come back to SA and to form another startup: Architectured Network Systems (ANS). ANS then became the genesis of reshaping GDS into Grinaker Network Systems, which ultimately became Centera, a company Sievers ran for about four years before he decided to head back to the US to follow his development dream.

On his return to the US, he founded a consultancy practice that assisted venture capital firms in identifying and maximising their return from startups. At the turn of the 21st century, he joined Zyray Wireless as CEO and presided over development of a 3G semiconductor product that was so successful, the company was acquired by Broadcom in 2004.

After about a year with Broadcom, Sievers was again free to resume pursuit of his dream and took the helm of a fledgling startup called Nextivity, where he is today. Focused on the cellular industry, the company develops indoor coverage technology that optimises the experience of wireless subscribers and increases RF network capacity for mobile operators.

By all accounts, Nextivity is successful at what it does but if history is anything to go by, it won’t be long before it becomes a target for acquisition. If that happens, Sievers will probably hang around long enough to ensure a seamless handover and find something new to occupy his time. Such is the lot of the eternal entrepreneur.