Is this SA’s dodgiest chief executive?

2015-03-08 15:00

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She made up her qualifications one by one, and landed plum jobs as a result. But Saxen van Coller, AKA Yvette Coetzee, has finally been caught and exposed and her career as a con artist is, hopefully, over

Suspended Dube TradePort CEO Saxen van Coller not only faked her qualifications to climb the corporate ladder, but once duped one of South Africa’s wealthiest men, Johann Rupert, into giving her a job.

Van Coller – who was suspended by Dube TradePort two weeks ago for allegedly faking her academic qualifications – was in fact born Yvette Coetzee in Rustenburg, North West, in June 1963.

Saxen van Coller

In October 2003, Trevor Woodburn, one of the country’s leading corporate head-hunters, introduced Coetzee, as she was then known, to Rupert. He was searching for an experienced candidate to run the Sunshine Golf Tour, an international tournament Rupert chaired.

Woodburn, chairperson of Woodburn Mann Executive Search Africa, was briefed to find a chief executive for the tour.

Woodburn told City Press this week that Rupert offered Coetzee a job before Woodburn Mann could verify her qualifications.

Woodburn would not say why Coetzee left only a few weeks into her job but hinted that Rupert’s decision to axe her came after Woodburn Mann examined the legitimacy of her claimed degrees.

Duped: Johann Rupert

“The client [Rupert] made a formal offer to her before we could conduct a verification of her qualifications,” was all Woodburn was willing to say.

In a 2003 press statement, Rupert announced that Coetzee had “resigned” and a replacement would be announced soon.

But sources close to the Sunshine Golf Tour told City Press Coetzee had allegedly threatened to sue Rupert after he asked her to “disappear”.

Instead, she went on to become more visible than ever.

“He [Rupert] was furious?...?he reminded her who she was dealing with and told her to disappear quietly,” said the source, who recognised Coetzee in last week’s City Press article on Van Coller’s suspension.

Van Coller was suspended after “anomalies” were found in her claim that she held a BA, an MBA and a doctorate. One of her qualifications was allegedly found to have been obtained from a university that had closed before the date on which she claimed to have qualified.

Coetzee did not respond to numerous voice messages and emails this week. Rupert also failed to comment.

However, City Press has established that Coetzee’s allegedly false qualifications seem to have been working in her favour long before her encounter with Rupert.

Between 2000 and 2003, Coetzee was chief executive of Special Olympics SA (Saso), a paralympics organisation that stages sporting events for the mentally disabled. Igna Steyn, Saso’s CEO today, confirmed Coetzee had been their CEO but said she didn’t know why she had left.

During her time there, Coetzee invited Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger to South Africa in 2001. The actor lit the Paralympic flame with former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island to promote the Special Olympics.

After she left Saso, Coetzee became president of the SA Masters Swimming Association in 2007. During this time, she also participated in weightlifting competitions in Gauteng.

The first time she appears to have changed her name to Saxen van Coller was in 2008, when she joined pharmaceutical company Ranbaxy as CEO. The Centurion-based company produces generic drugs in more than 50 countries.

Friends and former colleagues have described Van Coller as a “hugely ambitious person with a chip on her shoulder”.

She left Ranbaxy in 2011. People who worked with her there – who declined to be named – said she had left “in a huff”.

Ranbaxy CEO Desmond Brothers declined to comment on Van Coller or the reasons she left, saying only that Ranbaxy’s Indian headquarters had “handled” the matter.

In 2013, Van Coller was appointed CEO of Dube TradePort – from which she was suspended recently.

Announcing her appointment, which was also supported at the time by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government’s executive council, Dube TradePort board chairperson Dr Bridgette Gasa had extolled Van Coller’s credentials.

She said: “Van Coller has held many senior management positions, serving as managing director, chief executive officer or chief operating officer for a number of organisations, and has developed a strong operational background.”

She added that Van Coller “has also been actively involved in highly strategic environments?...?[her] strength lies in her ability to turn around battling businesses or in taking thriving businesses to new levels of success.

“We feel that her past experience has equipped her perfectly for her role within Dube TradePort Corporation and we look forward to her guiding this organisation to becoming a serious player and key stakeholder in KwaZulu-Natal’s business environment.”

Many acquaintances and business associates of Coetzee’s asked not to be identified when contacted this week.

Outside of the office, Coetzee participated in and helped organise a number of weightlifting, squash and swimming competitions.

A friend who used to play squash with her for the then Transvaal in the early 1990s said: “I know her very well. Everything seemed fine with her until she started telling people we met at games that she had an MBA.

“Everybody in the squash team knew she wasn’t telling the truth but nobody said anything.

“Then she started telling people she had an MBA and a BCom, and then she added the PhD – but we still didn’t say anything.”

The woman said she was “surprised” to see Coetzee in City Press last week going by the name of Saxen van Coller.

The woman said that, in the early 2000s, Coetzee “went from driving a beat-up Honda Ballade to a new Mercedes within a month, because she said she was making a lot of money”.

Another friend, who later “lost touch” with Coetzee, said she usually claimed she obtained the MBA, BCom and doctorate from US universities that had closed down. But one of her employers, after questioning her degrees’ provenance, found the institutions did not exist.

A search on her consumer profile reveals Coetzee could have legally changed her name in 2008, as both names appear under the same ID number.

On Friday, Gasa confirmed Coetzee’s disciplinary proceedings had begun this week, but she would not comment further. She appealed for respect for the process that was under way and asked that the board be given a chance to provide a statement.

“We will release a full statement once the hearing – which is being run independently of the company – has been concluded,” she said.

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