He’s owned steakhouses, been the drummer in a rock band, worked his way through Shakespeare (as well as Terry Pratchett), been a corporate executive, built up a lockdown-resistant business and is literally constructing his own house right now. He is, of course, Tony van Niekerk, owner of COVER Publications and publisher of COVER magazine.

“I do a lot of meetings in the car,” Tony tells me via Zoom. (In fact, he is in his car as we speak, so there is empirical evidence of this. See photo above.) “It’s quiet in here. The seat is comfortable. There are two cupholders, the Wi-Fi works, and nobody bugs me. What more could you ask for?”

There is actually an ulterior motive to running his life from his car, and it all started around 14 years ago when Tony decided to leave his corporate life in Joburg and move down to Cape Town. 

“In 2006 we made the decision to buy a house in the Cape,” he explains. “I had a job working at a large corporate but was looking for something else. I wanted to spend more time with my family and working on my own personal pursuits. We wanted to be out of the rush and the hustle and bustle, so we settled in Simon’s Town, just outside Cape Town.”

Tony didn’t have anything lined up in the Cape, but he knew that was where he wanted to start his new life.

“I had all the qualifications, the experience and the contacts, but I didn’t want to simply replicate my life in Joburg. I wanted something new that would allow me the freedom to work from home and on my own terms.”

Tony has always loved reading and research and so when he heard that COVER Publications was up for sale, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I was doing some work for COVER magazine and sat on the editorial board, and that led me to think, why not buy the company? David Alston, who was the publisher at the time, was ready to step down. So I sent him a proposal. Two weeks later the deal was signed and within a couple of months I was the new owner!

“It was a very easy transition to allow me to work from home in Cape Town and do a bit of travelling – and that’s how I ended up with COVER.”

COVER Publications in 2006 was a very different environment to what it is today.

“I remember there was a little cubicle the size of a small bathroom. In this room was a computer that probably wouldn’t even run a lawnmower today. This was the email computer. Three times a day the sub-editor would go and check for new emails, print them out on an old dot matrix printer (‘tzeek-tzeek-tzeek-tzeek-tzeeeeeeek’ – that sound always made me laugh!) and take the printouts to the editor, who would write his replies on the pages. Before his next trip to the cubicle, the sub-editor would collect the pages and respond to the emails based on the editor’s comments.

“That was the extent of digitisation in the company. Everything else was paper – the magazine was printed on paper, it was proofed on paper, the subscriptions system was run on paper – cards that were marked when somebody paid. This was in 2006, so the business was very, very much not in the modern world.”

Tony ran the business with a team of seven people for the first five years. Since then his staff complement has increased to around 12, but now it’s back down in the single digits. 

“We used to work out of an office,” he explains. “But at some point I realised that working from home was a viable option. And so in about 2010 I sold the office building and relocated everyone to work from home. And that’s the way we still work to this day.”

So for the COVER team, not much has changed under lockdown.

“Except the way we interact and engage with people,” says Tony. “In recent years we have been running a couple of conferences, namely the African Bancassurance Conference, which we have subsequently stopped doing, and the Insuretech Conference, which was held this year in March in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“Since the Covid-19 lockdown, though, we have branched out into webinars and held our first successful online conference at the beginning of May this year. It’s incredible how so much has changed in such a short period of time.”

In the same year he sold his office building, 2010, Tony started doing a lot of travelling in Africa with COVER. He has since attended events in 27 countries on the continent.

“COVER now has strong connections and a growing reader base in 13 African countries,” he says. “I love travelling in Africa and always stay AirBnB, which I could only once not use. That was in Sudan, years ago, for the AIO conference.

“Africa travel is exciting. A few times I have spent up to 36 hours, ONE way, in transit, literally had my shoes melt on my feet in the desert and once even slept in the same double bed as a soldier who had nowhere else to sleep. All to attend events, meet people and for the love of travel.”

In May 2019 Tony decided to take on a whole new challenge. He would, he decided, build a house. From scratch. With his own hands.

Tony’s cottage during and after construction

“The idea was to build the first part of the house and move into it. Once in, we would start with the second part. So I built what will ultimately be the garage and we staged it as a cottage and moved in. Then, just as I had started on the second phase, the Covid-19 situation arose and building work came to a halt.”

So Tony and his wife, Lindi, are basically living in a garage on a building site – which is where the story loops back to Tony working from his car.

“According to Lindi, I project my voice too well,” explains Tony. “So in the confines of our cottage, my conversations can be quite invasive. She is working on a research thesis as the final step in qualifying as a clinical psychologist – her lifelong dream – so I have to respect her need for silence. And that’s the reason I initially started having meetings in my car.

“But it’s worked out really well, so I am not complaining at all! Plus (and I am not saying this too loudly) it’s a great place to catch a power nap!”

In his younger years, Tony’s sleeping patterns were far from regular.

“At one stage in my life I was the drummer in a rock band,” he says. “What with rehearsals and gigs, you rarely got a good eight hours.

“After that I ran two steakhouses in Joburg. We would often close at midnight, and then I would head to Hillbrow or Rockey Street to meet up with friends. Often I wouldn’t get to bed before three or four, and then I’d be up again at eight-thirty to go back to work.

“To this day I battle to get a full night’s sleep, and end up doing all sorts of things to keep myself busy.”

These include walking his dogs on the beach, listening to jazz, swimming and snorkelling, watching war documentaries on YouTube and reading.

“I’ve got quite a nice collection of books,” he says. “My interests lie mostly in three areas – history, classics and fantasy fiction. It’s an interesting mix, but I think the genres play into wherever you are at any given time. If I’m very tired, like when I come back from a trip, I will read some Terry Pratchett. When I go on holiday, I take Shakespeare – I have been reading Shakespeare since I was 12!”

As far as the history goes, Tony’s fascination lies in the two world wars and the Boer War.

“I supplement my reading by watching war documentaries online. There is some absolutely fascinating material on YouTube put together by independent filmmakers who have a real love for the subject.”

Tony says that, while he still enjoys listening to rock now and again, his taste has strayed over to the jazz side of the music spectrum.

“I love going to small jazz concerts with a group of friends. The music and the intimacy really fill my soul!”

And, of course, he’s building a house.  

“It’s very difficult to focus on one thing,” he admits. “There’s so much stuff out there that’s really great, and so many people who are passionate about what they do; you can just hook onto their passion and share it and, if you’re lucky, some of it will rub off on you.”

The Company We Keep is a column on the CN&CO blog that profiles some of the most interesting people in our networks. Here we share the details of the lives of people we know, showcasing the extraordinary diversity of our society and proving that people truly are at the heart of everything we do.

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