Chamber musings

2010-11-23 00:00

A ROW of books stand on top of a filing cabinet in Andrew Layman’s office in the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business building in the Royal Showgrounds. The majority are joke compilations. “I don’t quite know how I ended up with so many,” he says, “but from the outset when I got this job I found I was expected to tell jokes — at functions, dinners, and banquets — so I got these books to keep pace with expectations.”

Layman, currently CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB), will leave the city, which has been his home since 1983, to take up the post of CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He has been CEO of the local chamber, a voluntary association of business enterprises, for the past 13 years.

The move to Durban marks a return to his hometown. Layman was born in the city and educated at Durban Boys’ High School where he matriculated in 1961, later graduating from the Durban campus of the then University of Natal with a BA UED. Layman subsequently taught at Glenwood High School from 1968 to 1982. He then moved to Pietermaritzburg to take up the post of deputy principal at Maritzburg College. In 1986, he was appointed principal of Alexandra High School. He was president of the Natal Teachers’ Society in 1992 and an executive member of the organisation that succeeded it, the Association of Professional Educators in KwaZulu-Natal.

In January 1996, Layman was seconded by the provincial Education Department to be acting superintendent of education and became acting district manager five months later. He also chaired the KwaZulu­-Natal Education Council and the Provincial Redeployment Agency and Task Team. He left the department in 1997 after applying for a voluntary severance package.

At the time he had no idea what he would do but was confident something would come along. When he spotted an advertisement for the director’s post in the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce and Industries (PCCI), the PCB’s predecessor, he applied and got the job.

Considering Layman was a well-known educationist, his appointment raised a few eyebrows. “Although nobody ever said anything to me directly, I think the people who selected me came in for some flak for choosing someone outside business.”

But Layman says the move from education to business wasn’t such a huge change. “I had been running a teaching organisation,” he says. “I knew about running voluntary associations and I knew how to run an office. Management was not something strange to me. But the intellectual framework was difficult to adjust to.”

He says that chamber members were very kind during this adjustment period — “Considering I didn’t know much about business and have never been slow to express an opinion.”

The latter is an especially useful quality for a newspaper columnist. Layman’s columns are a regular feature in The Witness, as well as the Mercury and Public Eye. “I am very fortunate in that I find it easy to write,” he says. “I sit down wondering what to write about and within 10 minutes I’ve got a subject I can write about.”

Being outspoken might well stand as part of Layman’s job description given the main function of the PCB is to represent the voice of business to local, provincial and national government. Layman admits this role probably has less appeal for members who are more likely to value their PCB membership for the networking opportunities it provides. “Networking is the main important thing. But the chamber also offers a wide range of services to its members — the provision of information alone is significant.”

When Layman first came on board, the chamber movement was relatively weak and reflective of the old order. “It perpetuated apartheid divisions,” he says.

It was also seen as representing white interests and those of big business. This is no longer the case says Layman, and if such perceptions linger they would be quickly dispelled by attending the annual banquet. Those attending reflect the demographics of the city, something also mirrored by the governance of the chamber. “Past presidents have included Lucky Moloi, Babu Baijoo and Zinhle Sokhela.”

Over 900 companies belong to the PCB, making it the fourth largest chamber of commerce in South Africa, and of those 85% are small businesses. “More and more we tailor our activities towards small businesses,” says Layman.

Layman regards the creation of the PCB in 2002 as probably the most important development during his time as CEO. This resulted from the unification of the Midlands Black Business Chamber, the Pietermaritzburg Sakekamer and the PCCI, all of which disbanded to form the new body. “I think it still remains the only chamber in the country that consciously went through a unification process to form a new body.”

“This was a significant step,” he says. “Especially considering we had quite a conservative business community. But the formation of the PCB was successful. It was a smooth process and there wasn’t a flood of resignations.”

Despite this, Layman still feels that Pietermaritzburg is “essentially conservative” compared with more cosmopolitan Durban. “It’s to do with socialisation, both in and beyond business. You might see people of all races at lunch together because they work together but you don’t see that in the evenings. There has been a natural progress reflecting what’s happening in the rest of the country, but Pietermaritzburg has been slow to catch up.”

Layman suggests this is because of a lingering “old school tie” mentality and also because the city is no longer home to such drivers of change as big businesses and related institutions, recalling the shift that occurred when the big financial institutions closed their regional offices. “I don’t think we’ve got any movers and shakers in Pietermaritzburg,” he says. “The biggest company is Hulamin, and traditionally its CEOs have kept a low public profile.”

The PCB’s relationship with the municipality has generally been a frustrating one, according to Layman. During the time of the Transitional Local Council he says there was no relationship with the municipality at all. “The interest in economic development was scanty during those years.”

In addition, Layman says some PCCI members found it difficult to accept that the African National Congress now ruled the city. “The chamber is expected to make public criticism. But we found that demand on us became very counterproductive. Our members were happy when we threw stones, but it only made deaf ears become deafer.”

Matters improved when Hloni Zondi became mayor in 2000. “We had a good relationship. The chamber was respected, although the relationship was never formalised.” Layman would like to have seen the creation of a forum on economic development involving local business and the municipality.

In 2006, there was a break in the relationship when Zanele Hlatshwayo became mayor. Following the PCB’s support for Zondi, she felt the chamber was against her. Although the relationship was repaired, it remained superficial and, despite various undertakings, the PCB was unable to find a way to engage with the municipality on any permanent basis.

With the municipality currently under administration, the PCB’s relationship has improved and Layman feels its voice is being heard. Earlier, the PCB had approached the provincial government to express its concern at the way things were going some months before action was taken. “When they did act, they proved we were right, but it was a hell of a lot worse than we realised.”

Throughout his time as PCB CEO, Layman has remained non-aligned politically, a stance he believes is the ethical one in his position. Durban could be a challenge in this regard, as previous chamber CEOs have had clear political allegiances. “The Durban chamber has generally accepted that some of the overt political links have not necessarily been in their best interests.”

Layman, who is 65, has taken a three-year contract in Durban. “This will be my last lap,” he smiles. “I’m aware that if I’d stayed in education I would be comfortably retired by now.” Not that he is the retiring type. “No, my life really is my job.”

Layman has timed his taking up of the reins in Durban for late January to accommodate lectures he needs to attend while studying for an MA.Comm. Presumably he’s also allowed himself some time for some in-depth research in the joke department.

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