Darren Roos. Picture: SUPPLIED
Darren Roos. Picture: SUPPLIED

Darren Roos’s appointment as CEO of Swedish software company IFS adds credence to the theory that SA punches above its weight in the global tech arena.

"I think that in most of the developed world — Europe and the US particularly — there is a very robust social welfare system and because of this, if you don’t get a job and make a success of it after leaving school, you don’t usually end up on the streets," says Roos, who took the helm of IFS — which specialises in enterprise resource planning software — in April.

"As South Africans we grow up knowing that our fate is in our hands, and we are accountable for that. As a result, we develop a very good work ethic early on and have a strong sense of accountability.

Those two things are great ingredients for a successful career."

Roos says he tends to hire a lot of South Africans from IFS’s competitors. This is not by design, he adds, but rather because SA tends to breed strong candidates.

His company, headquartered in Linköping, a small city in southern Sweden, has close to 4,000 employees worldwide. In the three months to September, IFS generated net revenues of about R2.1bn, an improvement of 28% from a year before.

"Running this business is not an individual effort, so having great people around me is definitely vital to success," Roos says by phone from London, where his family is based and where he spends the occasional weekend.

Before joining IFS, Roos was president of SAP’s global enterprise resource planning cloud business.

He’s also held other leadership roles at the R1.9-trillion German software behemoth, including as GM for Northern Europe and as COO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Before SAP, he was a senior executive at German company Software. Not a bad track record for someone who grew up far from the world’s major tech hubs (as did Tesla’s Elon Musk and Mimecast’s Peter Bauer, who were both born in SA).

Born in Cape Town, Roos attended boarding school in the town of Ladysmith before going on to Durban for his high school years. After matriculating, he moved to Joburg to do odd jobs so that he could fund his studies through Unisa.

He then worked for four years for a marketing company in Israel, Spain and the UK before returning to SA in 1999 to join his first soft -ware-related business.

"It was a start-up called Red Flag that ran an electronic Yellow Pages-style operation. The idea was that people would call in and say ‘I’m looking for a plumber’, and then a software engine would help match them to suppliers who had signed up. I ran the sales side of the business," Roos says.

But after the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, funding dried up, the business went under and Roos entered the corporate world for the first time, joining Dimension Data.

"It was a great four years. That is where I got my introduction to the software industry."

In 2005, Roos set his sights on the international market and joined Software in SA in a sales position. He spent nine years at the company.

"I moved very quickly through the ranks at Software. I started as a sales guy and after seven years was on the global board of the company, living in Europe and responsible for all sales operations outside North America — which was about 70% of the business.

"I remain a huge fan of SA. I love the country, I still have family there, but I moved because I recognised that I wasn’t going to get to be the CEO of a global software business if I stayed in the country – that was the reality."

His knowledge of and affiliation to the SA market means Roos naturally sees an opportunity for IFS here. "SA is a small business for us, only a couple of percent of our global revenue, but I feel there is a lot of potential."

He recently appointed a new country manager for IFS’s SA business, and has moved the local unit into bigger, more prominent offices in the centre of Sandton. "And we’re in the process of recruiting to grow that business now," he says. "So I see a big opportunity for us to capitalise on a market where solutions that are quicker to deploy and easier to use would have a great attraction."

Roos says he’s confident that the company can grow the SA business over the next couple of years "to be probably 5% of our global revenue".

At present IFS’s customers in SA include defence company Saab Grintek and hotel and gaming group Sun International.

At group level, Roos says his priority is to standardise IFS’s operating model across all markets. "I took over a particularly good business, but it wasn’t realising its full potential.

"The main reason for that was that we had eight regions — eight businesses — that were all run autonomously. There was no commonality between them."

This deterred some major global customers. It’s a simple fix, says Roos, but one that could transform the operation.