Profile Piece: Servaas du Plessis, CEO XTND

It was as a junior detective in the South African Police Service (SAPS) that Servaas du Plessis, best known these days as CEO of EOH subsidiary XTND, the developers of the ground-breaking ExposeIT App, got his first big breakthrough.

The case involved a stray bullet shot from an old unlicensed Martini-Henry rifle into the air on New Year’s eve in 1986. The trajectory and range from where the shot was fired, suggested that it came from one of about 500 houses, and by sheer chance struck a young boy on the outskirts of the community, severely injuring him. These types of cases are not often solved, as you can imagine.

But for three months, every afternoon after work, Servaas would doggedly go from door to door, trying to find the perpetrator. He eventually did so, making it only the second such case in the history of the SAPS to be concluded, earning him a commendation from the then Minister of Police.

After a 35-year career encompassing many such successes, Servaas’ face still lights up when he talks about a big bust. “I don’t know whether it was tenacity, or the drive to catch whoever it was who shot this young kid,” Servaas recalls. It’s a revealing story. These two traits – persistence, and the desire to bring down wrongdoers – have defined Servaas’ professional career.

After Servaas left school he enrolled in Rand Afrikaans University – now UJ – to study finance, but this was cut short when he was called up for military service.  After the regional Commissioner of Police in the area where he grew up suggested he join the police service primarily due to his success in sports and athletics.  (Servaas played provincial rugby, national athletics and cricket, and still holds athletics records at regional level that have stood for thirty years.)

Servaas joined the SAPS, planning to complete his military service and to resume his studies in a few years.  But he quickly fell in love with the work, and began studying police administration with a keen interest in criminology. He rapidly rose through the ranks, becoming a detective officer in 1990, investigating human trafficking in South Africa. He later established an organised-crime division, specialising in foreign criminal syndicates involved in everything from forgery to trading in endangered species.

It was during this time that he discovered a passion for investigating white-collar crimes – financially motivated, nonviolent crimes committed by professionals in the public and private sectors. “Investigating white-collar crime is very different from investigating contact or violent crimes,” he explains, “because the evidence is more abstract, and the trail is not as direct. It’s a chess game, and that’s what has always appealed to me: the intellectual challenge of discovering the criminal and exposing them.”

Forensic service is a broad term. There are more than 40 forensic disciplines, from post-mortems determining the cause of death, to establishing the speed of impact in motor collisions.  When Servaas and partners founded XTND in 2010, they decided to focus on forensic services as related to white-collar crime. Servaas had been working in insurance industry as CEO of FirstRand Short-term Insurance Administrators, and XTND’s first customers were primarily insurers and banks.

From the outset XTND’s services were sought after.  The company began with 40 employees, and hit R50 million in turnover in the first year. Their offering, after all, was compelling: for every rand a client spent on XTND’s services, XTND would save the client at least four Rand in prevented costs. Similar to insurance, forensic services are typically a grudge purchase – nobody believes they need it until it’s too late and they’ve lost significant amounts of money – but considered in this way, as a cost-benefit ratio, companies were keen to put Servaas and his team to work. The company grew, and eventually attracted the attention of EOH, who bought the company in 2015.

XTND’s work is now focused on three areas. ExposeIT, for which they continue to provide services and support; Enterprise Insights Analytics, XTND’s in-house forensic tool based on the IBM i2 platform, which visualises links and relationships emerging from data; and Veritas, which is XTND’s system for processing claims in the life and long-term insurance industries. They have attained industry acclaim for their work, and have been named Corporate Member of the Year by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) five times over the past six years at the ACFE Africa Fraud Conference.  That’s quite an achievement, considering they’re judged alongside the likes of the big audit firms, law firms and several public service divisions across Africa.

Forensic investigations are time-consuming, exhaustive, methodical processes. Servaas and his team need to sift through unimaginably large data sets, teasing out the patterns and relationships.  A large company might have hundreds of millions of emails stored in its archives, and you need to be able to design advanced, robust heuristics simply to extract the relevant data from them, let alone assemble them into a coherent case ready for criminal prosecution. This is where Servaas’ dogged persistence comes in, as does the technology that makes his work possible.

Forensic investigations these days deal with such vast amounts of data that they would be impossible without a way of processing that data and interpreting its interrelationships, and XTND is currently working on artificial intelligence add on for its platforms through IBM’s Watson, which will extend the capabilities of the advanced software platforms they’ve set up.

But despite the automation and intelligent tools available to forensic investigators these days, Servaas believes there is still room for individual intuition. “I think we’re all born with a kind of sixth sense, by which I mean an ability to synthesise information and draw conclusions that are somewhat subconscious. People with children will know this sense well: small children are master manipulators, but parents know when they are fibbing!  People are not born unethical, they lose it over time and because most people don’t grow up being suspicious of the people around them all the time, this deceit is often overlooked. Forensic investigators are instinctively switched on to detect deceit, but it is also one of the biggest challenges for a forensic investigator – to be able to switch this sense off so that normal relationships don’t get affected by this heightened level of suspicion. It’s a different way of looking at the world.”

A big part of the work XTND does is veracity testing – detection emotion which is indicative of lying – for which the company predominantly uses a technology called Layered-Voice Analytics, which analyses speech against 120 emotional parameters.  XTND uses veracity testing in investigations as well as pre-employment and employee integrity vetting. No veracity tests, including polygraphs, are 100% accurate, but after performing more than 200 000 tests, Servaas says that Layered-Voice Analytics comes close. And the results, to someone who is professionally suspicious, reveal a worrying reality: of the 200 000 odd people tested, around 23% were exposed as being fundamentally deceitful. This isn’t a matter of one or two ambiguous answers. Nearly one in four South Africans failed these veracity tests, in Servaas’ word: “dismally”. It can be disheartening to know this about the people we come into contact with every day.

This disappointment in the moral failings of others is perhaps especially acute in someone like Servaas, who has lived with a strongly articulated moral code for his entire life. “Integrity is something that is important to me professionally, but it’s also something that in my personal life, and as a family man, I aspire to. I’m so proud of my kids: from a young age they’ve spoken up when they’ve seen something that doesn’t sit right with them. I think values are instilled in the home, and that’s true in my case, but I also learnt a lot from being involved in sport. In sport there are always adjudicators around you, so the idea of fairness is ingrained. The other value that sport teaches is discipline: you can’t succeed without it.”

As well as being an investigator, a father and an entrepreneur, Servaas has been the chief executive of several organisations, and has clear ideas of the two traits in particular that are required in order for a leader to be successful. Firstly, consistency. ” You don’t have the luxury as a leader to have mood swings “bad hair days” he quips. “You need to be consistent, because you set the tone for the rest of the office.” Secondly, and unsurprisingly, integrity. “You have to say what you mean, and you have to do what you say. When it comes to integrity there are no half measures. There’s no grey area. It’s binary: you are either ethical or you aren’t. And one bad decision can ruin that for you.”

Servaas has been closer than most to the efforts of EOH’s new leadership to purge unethical behaviour from the group and usher in a new era for the organisation. As someone who’s been intimately involved with the processes he sees both a microcosm of the issues facing society at large, as well as good reason for hope.

“It might not always be obvious to everyone just how far we’ve come. When I first joined EOH I was as disconnected as a lot of people are now. We knew something was wrong, and we couldn’t see a way forward. But with the new leadership – and I’m speaking here particularly of Megan, Fatima and Stephen – we’re seeing two things which have given me hope. The first is their unwavering sense of ethics and integrity. And the second thing is their dogged determination. There aren’t many people who would have stuck around over the past year, but they’ve all shown their commitment to fighting for EOH and its staff to come out stronger on the other side. And that commitment, from principled people, speaks volumes. We’re not quite there yet – It’s going to take more guts and more determination – but I’m very positive about the future.”

With Servaas, his team, his decades of experience and his unwavering ethical sense on our side, we can all be a little more hopeful.

Click HERE to view more EOH articles in our Quarterly magazine.

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