Former QASA CEO Ari Seirlis shares his life story and some great business advice for entrepreneurs and business owners
From a young age, I enjoyed fishing. I grew up in Ladysmith in the late 60s. My father befriended some of the farmers through his architectural work. Soon, I was invited as a laaitjie to fish bass on their farm while my parents sipped gin and tonics on the porch planning developments, debating politics and arguing about sports with the farmers.
The dams were so full of bass that anything you threw in the water worked as bait from bread balls with Bovril, earthworms, crickets and grasshoppers to a rubber lure. I am not sure whether we could not afford Rapala or if it was unavailable, but everything seemed to get the attention of the Nambiti bass. I caught many, kept them all; filled up the deep freeze and never embraced the concept of “release”. It was the greatest fun I had as a kid – equalling the guinea fowl shooting on Sundays.
In 1972, I was sent off to Highbury Preparatory School in Hillcrest and I was sure that my fishing days were over. But the journey was only just beginning. I still fished on the various farms during school holidays as it helped the farmers to cull their fish. The dams were always brimming.
In my senior year at Highbury, I joined the fly-fishing club under the stewardship of a Mr Pennington and the expertise of the maestro, Jack Blackman. The same year, my grandfather and granny Daph bought me the kit I needed, which also turned out to be the most expensive birthday gift I had ever received at the time.
Suddenly, I was a fly fisherman and the bass fishing was but a lowly sport for mudrats; for fly fishing was a gentleman’s sport – or young gentleman in my case. Through the club, we were taught to tie flies, understand their purpose, to cast, how to navigate rivers and look for trout in various hot spots in a river section.
We learned the different traits of rainbow versus brown trout and how to address each. We understood the difference between flashing a dam and stalking a river. Trout fishing became an art, a science, a sport, a mystery, a challenge and bloody difficult, but intriguing and fun. Being part of the fly-fishing club was beginning to have status and meaning.
One incident I vividly recall was the annual Highbury fly-fishing club casting competition when my parents drove all the way from Ladysmith to see what I could do. Sadly, I came last. I was terribly embarrassed and got teased for years. It was a huge blow to my ego but goes to show that the longest cast does not always catch the biggest fish.
The fly-fishing club helped to form strong friendships between us eager fishermen – invaluable friendships I cherish to this day.
In my teens, fishing became more of a hobby. There was no fly-fishing club at Hilton College and my high school years were consumed with sport and a dozen other societies and activities. During my holidays in Ladysmith, I’d wield my fly rod to catch bass again but there was no challenge or stalk. As soon as my fly landed, there was a squabble over it.
When I focused on trout, my whole outlook and philosophy changed. I wanted the adventure of luring the most stubborn of trout. When the hunt was missing, the penny dropped. I finally understood the purpose of fly-fishing.
It is about assessing the conditions on the day; understanding the prevalent bugs and baits on the water; and simulating these conditions in fly choice, line and depth placement, casting techniques, retrieving methods; and then how you treat the fish when it is on the hook.
After school, I spend two years at the University of Cape Town before I was drafted into the infantry division of the army for my two years of national service. I trained in Echo company and qualified out of infantry school at Oudtshoorn as a second lieutenant. I completed a parabat course and was deployed to a specialised intelligence unit reporting to Pretoria.
For part of my service, I was deployed close to Ladysmith. I was fortunate that this part of my past was overlooked. On many a day I dreamt of cutting loose and fly fishing, but all I had was an AK47. My military days and training directly impacted on my rehabilitation and brought me back to fly-fishing.
“Fly-fishing club helped to form strong friendships between us eager fishermen”
In August 1985, I broke my neck in a diving accident at Durban’s Waterworld. To accept the consequences of a spinal cord injury, apply myself in rehabilitation and face the world again, I needed the business acumen that I acquired at UCT, the strategic planning that I learned from my family, the discipline that I gained at boarding school, and the fox mentality that learned in the army, as well as the resilience needed to complete a Comrades marathon. In hindsight, I was grateful for all those experiences.
There were three discussions quite soon into my rehabilitation that were very significant to me. The first was with the orthopaedic surgeon who informed me that I was a quadriplegic and that certain activities would be impossible for me to do again.
I couldn’t spell the word let alone understand what it meant in terms of recovery, future agility and lifestyle choices. I wanted to walk again. Let’s be honest, all of us with spinal cord injuries want that.
The second was with an occupational therapist who said: “You are going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.” I almost immediately decided that quadriplegia was not going to define me. It needed to fit in with my goals. Using a wheelchair would not imprison me, but allow me to participate and be a force in society. This is the mindset with which I began my rehabilitation.
The third resulted from the media attention my accident received and the number of people who took particular interest in wishing me well. The support was quite incredible, but overwhelming. I decided to ask for space and time to rest and rehabilitate. It worked!
“I almost immediately decided that quadriplegia was not going to define me.”
I managed to retain my friend-base, or most of them, for all of these years, and our visits continue. I have achieved most of my goals, travelled to most places on my bucket list, worked for myself as an entrepreneur, for a company as an employee and for an NPO as the CEO. Moreover, I know there’s still much more to come and be done.
It took me a few years to settle – then I yearned to fly fish. I knew that the calm of fly fishing would be the perfect remedy to recover from war and injury. Whether I liked to admit it or not, post-traumatic stress existed. There was no demobilisation process from the army and there is no quick fix for the trauma of the spinal cord injury.
There needs to be a place where one can find calmness; that allows one to meditate and make sense of the senseless. For me, that place is in fly fishing!
There were, however, some physical elements with which to deal as I have no triceps muscles, very little agility in my fingers and limited wrist movement. With rod in hand, I went to orthotist and prosthetist, Heinrich Grimsehl, at his practice in Durban, and asked him to offer a solution whereby I could hold and cast the rod.
With his ingenuity and some reel engineering from my good friend, Brett Bakke, I was soon ready. The first fish that I caught with my new rig I presented to Grimsehl for his pan in gratitude. Since then, I have not intentionally taken another fish out of the water.
I took a few casting lessons at Blue Lagoon with Mike Harker. After achieving 50 feet of line on the water, I knew it was time to visit the mountains again. So, the analogy of fly fishing to good business strategy and market penetration was born.
When anybody hears that I fly fish, I know they are wondering how I access the dam or river. Yes, as a wheelchair user, I need to have accessible water (a groomed dam or river), but it boils down to having the wallet to rent out accessible facilities for a day. That is how fly-fishing is sustainable in commercial waters.
If a farmer makes his water available for guest fishing and the facilities are groomed, then they get my business. Fly-fishing is common at tourist resorts mainly in the Berg areas of South Africa with more than enough accessible waters.
When I get to the water’s edge, I find a level position for my wheelchair and lock myself in. I’d hate to be pulled into the water for the embarrassment, the inconvenience, and the guaranteed freezing thereafter.
So, in business language, you need to be close to the marketplace (the water), but far enough away to be able to make essential and important observations. Establish yourself. Lock yourself into the community. Make sure your company not only trades in the area but supports and invests in the local community.
Probably the most important element of market assessment is to spend some time looking at the conditions of the day. Is it windy or quiet? Is the water warm or cold? Is it quiet or abuzz? What sort of structure is there around the dam?
In trout fishing terms, structure is defined in trout fishing terms as the availability and position of shade, rocks, weed, water flow in and out of the dam, varying depths. Once you identify all of these, you have various options in terms of what fly to use and where you want to place it.
If you are selling goods, products and services, there are many markets with different structures. Each market needs a different strategy and possibly different products and services that are packaged and priced accordingly.
With fishing, you need to study all the bugs on the water. This is potential food for the trout and your competition. You want your product to attract the attention of the customer.
Look at your fly box or “catalogue”. Is there something there that can compete with the bugs on the water? The green woolly bugger? A walker’s killer? Or do you need to repackage? Do you need to pull out your fly-tying equipment and material to be replaced by a better product?
“Spend some time looking at the conditions of the day.”
Tie your fly on well, secure it, choose your correct line. Decide on floating, intermediate, or sinking, depending on the conditions of the day and then get your cast out. Remember, most people identify fly anglers as those people who are whisking a line up and down in the air looking well-coordinated, gentlemanly, and professional. However, you can catch the fish only when the fly is on the water.
The furthest cast does not always catch the biggest fish. It’s all about making the correct assessment of the water, the structure and what you observe about the fish if you have had a sighting. The same applies to your market. Do you pester a customer for an order or patiently present your offer? If you do get a fish on a fly that is not tied securely, you will lose your catch and reputation. The same is true for business.
When casting you need to be aware of what is behind you as well. What obstacles are there that will snare your fly before it lands on the water – or your product in the market. This is the blind spot. I can assure you that it took me a long time to get it right. I have spent some time in the embarrassing situation of my rod being flexed in the wrong direction.
These are good photo opportunities for your worst enemies and best friends. In business this could equate to staying abreast of technology changes (for example, streaming platforms like Netflix sinking the video rental business) or shifts in the consumer sentiment or the competitive landscape.
Each fly in your box should have a different retrieval method. Two short jerks of the line and the halt … or a low stroke and wait. There are so many ways to present your product to the market.
Each time you fish, whether in the same or new water, you learn more about trout and their eating habits. Similarly, you should understand the buying habits and needs of your customers. Take copious notes, dig deeper into your fly box, understand retrieving methods, and try putting your fly into a different structure on the water.
Is this the most delicious and best fly on the water? If so, you are going to have a lot of fun and many relationships with plenty of trout. If not, do not despair. Back to the drawing board. Should I use a different fly? Should we improve our pricing? Should I change retrieving methods? Is our advertising method appropriate to the market? Questions for the angler and the sales team or marketer.
Occasionally nothing comes to light in your search for the right fly to cast and, in this case, I tie on my “tried and tested” green woolly bugger or take a chance on something that I haven’t used before. (I actually feel sorry for the dozen flies in my box that haven’t had a dip in the water.) And so too, in the market, present something with a gut feel and confidence or test a new product.
There also comes a time when there is a nudge on your fly. Do you retrieve quicker and expect a chase? Or strike like hell? Or lie still and wait for a second look-in? There is no definite answer. You should know the water and your market by now. You should know your customer (or trout) and decide in a blink. Malcolm Gladwell will tell you this in his bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.
The term “fish on” refers to when you have the interest of the trout … your customer. Now, you need to reel in gently. Do you let the trout run a bit or just robustly reel in and maybe lose the catch for a light breaking strain leader?
Allowing the trout to run is a lot of fun and you will really enjoy the fight and achievement when it’s over. It gives you an opportunity to learn about the resilience of your catch. Or maybe you prefer to reel in as fast as possible to satisfy your hunger or basket? I seldom see that business strategy working. Nevertheless, people do it.
Eventually when you hold a beautiful trout in both hands. I can guarantee that you will have a big smile on your face. You chose the right fly, you cast the right length and you lead the fish into taking a look at you. Do you take the fish out of the water or do you give this beautiful trout a soft peck and reintroduce it back into the water to live another day?
That decision is yours to make. Some businessmen will take everything they can get and eat as much as they can. Others will be selective as to what they keep out of the water, taking stock of age, length and weight. Then, there are those social entrepreneurs and strategists who realise that the kinder you treat your trout, the more often you will catch the same fellow.
Is the cost of securing a new customer much cheaper than servicing all your existing customers? If that’s the case, then keep all of your fish. But if not, then catch and release to grow your business.
Many fly anglers are happy with nothing in their basket but many a trout at the end of their line, which they released to catch another day. Every time I go fishing, many people ask how many fish I caught. A more appropriate questions should be: “How many did you want to catch?”
There have been times when I did not catch a single trout even though the water was teeming with rises. Maybe I did not assess the demographics of my market correctly or I’m fishing in the wrong dam. Maybe the market has dried up and I need to look on another farm.
Recently, I fished a dam for hours from sunrise to sunset without even seeing a “rise”. I felt too awkward to ask the farmer when he had last stocked this dam as he bragged it was a trophy dam and charged accordingly.
“I feel sorry for the dozen flies in my box that haven’t had a dip in the water.”
I will take the blame and return one day when word gets out of a trophy catch. Maybe this dam or market had limited potential, or I need more skill to fish in this technical water. In the meantime, to keep my interest, I will choose more productive waters.
In the last few years, I have loved my time back on the water with my fly-fishing rod, my friends and a single malt. It has given me many solutions to strategic and operational dilemmas. It has also given me the calmness I needed in my life to heal, reflect and understand.
Fly-fishing still remains an art that not everybody finds interesting or are successful at; however, I’ve never seen an ugly outlook or unwise fishing buddy. I’ve always enquired about the fly that works or the condition the trout is in. Those are the two most important elements to balance, besides rhythm and patience. I’ve learned this: “It’s not how you get there, but it’s how and what you do when you’re there.
Ari Seirlis is the former CEO of QASA and a member of the Clinical Advisory Panel, a research division of Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation. He is a lobbyist for the rights of people with disabilities. He advocates for catheter users and their right to refuse to reuse their catheters.
Seirlis often leans on the South African Best Practice Recommendations for Bladder Management, which states that single-use catheters are the gold standard for intermittent catheterisation as it decreases the risk of infection. In many of Seirlis’ public appearances he compares the reuse of catheters to the reuse of a cooldrink straw, asking audiences whether they would reuse their straw from yesterday? It is inconceivable that quadriplegics and paraplegics using intermittent catheterisation are expected to reuse!