The Graziadio School’s new dean reflects on his corporate odyssey and the future of business education
Take one look at Deryck J. van Rensburg, installed last November as the ninth dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management, and you immediately see the personal trappings of any corporate executive turned business school dean—a man tall in stature, affable in a nature, impeccably attired, and flashing a million-watt smile that would give even Julia Roberts pause. Confident, stylish, and charming, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where he becomes affectionately known as the debonair dean.
But as soon as Van Rensburg delivers his congenial greeting, you realize there is more to this man’s story. Betrayed by an inviting, if not slightly enigmatic accent, the 58-year-old South African native speaks with casual elocution, occasionally softening his voice as he reflects on the milestones of his life and the journey he has traveled to be where he is today.
Born in 1959, Van Rensburg was raised in South Africa when Apartheid was the law of the land. His story truly begins, he says, at age 4 when his mother walked out on his family, a moment he characterizes as the most formative event of his life and one that—even at his young age—would shape his ability to trust and believe in people.
“It was a defining moment in my story,” shares Van Rensburg, “and one that would sound pretty bleak if it weren’t for God.”
Growing up in a large blended family following his father’s remarriage, at age 18 Van Rensburg began two years of compulsory military service, assigned to the police force in Johannesburg during the time of the Soweto uprising in 1976. With no particular ambition to go to college up to that point, he says his perspective on a college education changed as he faced the prospect of a life in the South African police force. Soon after he enrolled at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, where he encountered his “Damascus Road” experience.
“As I was sitting in one of my first-year classes, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and this marketing professor walked in and changed my life,” says Van Rensburg. “He was so into his subject. There was chalk flying. He was really living it, and it exuded out of him. And I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ He changed me.”
At the encouragement of his professor, Van Rensburg took the first step into his career in business and marketing, qualifying for a position in a highly selective entry-level program at Unilever, the premier consumer package goods company with offices based in Durban, South Africa. His first foray was in the food business on the company’s brand management track.
While at Unilever and living in Durban, Van Rensburg shares that God had started calling him to make some tough decisions about the direction of his life. “We were in the middle of Apartheid and were wrestling with questions like, ‘What’s our role and responsibility as Christians in the context of a nation that is characterized by policies that were so anti-biblical?’”
In 1988 Van Rensburg and his new bride, Rozanne, felt called to leave South Africa and relocated to the United Kingdom. Van Rensburg first earned his MBA while in England, followed by a training and development company in Brussels, Belgium, and assumed his final post at Unilever in London, working for another six years in Elida Faberge.
And then Coca-Cola called. “At that time, Coca-Cola had a chief operating officer who had a very ambitious growth vision for the company and felt the talent bench needed to be strengthened with 50 additional managers,” explains Van Rensburg. “I was a marketing person but wanted to be a general manager, so I went for the interview, got the job, and started in the London office with Coca-Cola as the customer strategy director for European retailers.”
But that assignment wouldn’t last long. Just eight months later, Van Rensburg began something of an international tour with Coca-Cola, accepting a new role as region manager in Vienna, Austria. Two years in, he was then approached about another transfer—this time to Bucharest, Romania, to run five East European countries.
The decision would be among his hardest yet, especially as he considered the impact relocating to Romania would have on his family. “I wanted to go west, not east,” says Van Rensburg. “But sometimes the doors in life aren’t the doors you think you should go through. They’re not attractive; they don’t look right. If God is in it, though, he knows what’s next.”
Van Rensburg’s business prowess was tested as soon as he landed in Bucharest, just days before the 1998 Russian financial crisis that rocked most of eastern Europe. “There I was, this young general manager now, responsible for five countries in an absolute crisis, and I had no clue what to do,” says Van Rensburg.
In an unusual move, he reached out to one of Romania’s independent franchise bottlers for advice. “The onus is on the Coca-Cola Company to provide strategic leadership, so it was unusual from someone on my side of the franchise to approach the bottler for direction.”
Van Rensburg’s humble request, however, was the beginning of a constructive dialogue between company and partner, and with some creative thinking around pricing strategy and the consolidation of Coca-Cola’s franchise bottlers in the country, he was able to right-size the organization and return its revenue stream to a sustainable level.
After one year in Romania, Van Rensburg accepted his next assignment in Athens, Greece, running 20 countries for Coca-Cola as the company’s president of the Southeast Europe and Gulf Division, before heading to Berlin nearly four years later to lead the Germany and Nordics Division. As the biggest market in Europe, that division was also the most structurally challenged. While huge and profitable, it hadn’t grown in nearly a decade, pushing Van Rensburg to examine the culture and capabilities of his team, as well as his own leadership style.
“It was phenomenal what we accomplished just by the team re- appreciating it had the capabilities and ideas,” explains Van Rensburg, acknowledging the pitfalls of organizations deadlocked by corporate culture and structure. “And I realized we were the people we had been waiting for. There was not going to be someone to walk in and save the day for us.”
Employing his team’s feedback, Van Rensburg spearheaded a new vision and strategy to grow the division and in the process began the monumental challenge to consolidate 21 long-time bottling partners into one.
His division was shortlisted as one of the best performing divisions for Coca-Cola two years in a row.
In 2007, following more than a decade with the company, Van Rensburg finally crossed the pond to serve as Coca-Cola’s president of venturing and emerging brands, a new corporate venturing group at the company’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Developed in response to the stagnation of Coca-Cola’s core businesses, this group was charged with discovering innovation in the entrepreneurial community that was introducing new beverages and new product categories.
“We figured out a really good formula to retain the strengths of entrepreneurialism, and the passion and inspiration of each founder, while leveraging the scale of a large company,” he reveals. That post evolved into his work as president of Coca-Cola Global Ventures, his last position with the company, which looked at new disruptive platform technologies for the beverage giant.
Van Rensburg’s introduction to Pepperdine came—as introductions to universities so often do—through one of his children. Despite all four of his children being born and raised in Europe, certain hobbies seemed to be ingrained in their South African DNA, including a love of surfing by oldest son Joel (’12), which ultimately led to his discovery of Pepperdine. Following in his brother’s footsteps, second son Micah (’14) enrolled two years later, and daughter Bethany has just completed her first year.
One day while Van Rensburg was still working in Atlanta, he met with former Pepperdine vice chancellor John Miller, who asked him whether he would ever consider heading the Graziadio School. After 32 years in business and more than two decades with perhaps the most recognizable brand in the world, Van Rensburg already knew the answer to that question.
“It came at the right stage of my life as I was thinking about Deryck 2.0 and doing something that would develop the next generation of leaders,” explains Van Rensburg.
Now more than six months in as the school’s chief executive officer, Van Rensburg is already leaving his mark on Graziadio as he considers the kinds of disruptions needed in business and academia. “Business is one of the most powerful social institutions of our age,” says Van Rensburg, who interviewed 26 deans and former deans of business schools before beginning the role. “And we’ve seen what happens when you decouple an ethical framework from a leader in business.”
Pepperdine, he contends, can uniquely speak to that opportunity. “While many business schools encourage their graduates to be the best in the world, I think the next generation of leaders will be the best for the world,” Van Rensburg says. “We have wonderful values-based faculty with great experience and scholarship. It’s not a stretch at all to imagine us being at the forefront of developing best-for-the-world future leaders.”
Like any good business executive, Van Rensburg has framed out a strategic plan to build the Graziadio brand, starting with the formation of additional institutes for the school. He identifies these initiatives as premium experiences that will allow Graziadio to implement its vision for a more cross-sectional, multidisciplinary approach for research and scholarship.
“It’s that structural innovation that allows you to pour innovative ideas and different levels of funding, expertise, programming, research, and outreach to the business community,” he says.
Van Rensburg also plans to introduce the doctor of business administration (DBA) degree to the Graziadio School, a doctoral program he himself completed from the University of Manchester in 2014.
“I think the next frontier is the DBA, and we have always been pioneers in taking education to working adults at Graziadio,” explains Van Rensburg. “By offering a higher level of qualification for accomplished executives who are looking for significance in their own personal development and intellectual quests and business challenges, we can pioneer in a new way.”
Through all of his efforts, Van Rensburg is committed to enrolling the highest caliber of students, creating a truly transformational learning experience, and incubating the next generation of business leaders at Graziadio. And as he refines his vision and strategy for the school, he’ll continue to push his faculty, staff, students, and alumni to challenge the status quo and approach him with their own innovative ideas.
“It’s imagination that unlocks the future,” Van Rensburg says. “If you can get people to imagine again and dream again, it’s limitless what can be done.”