A toast to the next 20 years

2015-01-26 11:00

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Democratic SA gave business a chance to shine on the world stage and CEOs an opportunity to build legacies. Thebe Mabanga ponders the results

I can think of no better way to celebrate the next 20 years in South African business than to raise a glass of beer – one brewed by SABMiller in any of its 80 territories worldwide.

Some companies, which grew to be parts of conglomerates in an isolated economy, transformed to take advantage of opportunities presented by integration with the world economy and embarked on global expansion.

SABMiller, Anglo American and Old Mutual are among those that led a late-1990s exodus to the London Stock Exchange to raise funds and pursue global growth.

The SABMiller story is simply the most outstanding, and not just because of what it produces.

It starts even before the London listing, with the purchase of the Plzenský Prazdroj brewery in Plezn in the Czech Republic to bring the Pilsner Urquell brand to its stable.

That mission was headed by long-standing SAB managing director, and current director of supply chain and human resources Tony van Kralingen.

Under the stewardship of the late Graham Mackay, SABMiller proceeded to confound sceptics at every turn, entering difficult markets and mostly winning market share, or at least offering decent competition.

Mackay headed a talented team of executives, including Van Kralingen, Norman Adami (seen as Mr Fixit for troublesome acquisitions) and current head Alan Clark.

The SABMiller story is simply the most outstanding, and not just because of what it produces. Picture: Philip Meech / One Red Eye

Then came the name- and game-changing $5 billion (R57?billion) acquisition of Miller in 2003, which got the doubters wondering if SAB could really have a go at taking on Anheuser-Busch in its own back yard. Adami was dispatched to help the business get into shape.

I recall one set of results in which Mackay outlined how the fall of communism and globalisation had created new opportunities for the company, especially in emerging markets.

It remains one of the simplest but most eloquent statements of strategy I have encountered.

Other born-free businesses

While SABMiller was growing, a number of companies were emerging at the dawn of democracy. Think MTN, Aspen and Discovery. They, too, have taken on the world.

The advent of mobile cellular telephony and licensing in 1993 allowed MTN, alongside Vodacom, to make early strides before galloping to conquer frontier markets like Nigeria and sealing the $5 billion Investcom purchase to give it a Middle Eastern footprint.

The story of how Adrian Gore approached the founders of FirstRand to back his pioneering medical aid and rewards programme is inspiring, as is that of Stephen Saad, a chartered accountant who bought a pharmaceutical factory in Port Elizabeth and turned it into a global player.

The challenge for South Africa now is to produce more enterprises – especially in new areas like data analytics, biochemistry and high-value manufactured exports.

Those who inspire

Looking forward to the next decade or two, it’s necessary to try to assess the executives who have had the biggest effect on the business scene in the past 20 years.

A few I’ve met in my business writing career stand out for their vision, shrewdness and eloquence.

The two important criteria in assessing an executive are the returns they’ve delivered to shareholders and longevity at the helm. The latter is an important requirement – to make an impact while retiring early enough to enjoy a few years of good health.

Based on these criteria, it’s hard to look past Mackay, who was found by a Harvard Business Review study to have delivered the best returns over a 15-year period.

One would also have to consider the shy but razor-sharp Jaco Maree at Standard Bank, who I first encountered in a 2003 interview.

In 1999 he was brought in to defend the bank against a takeover attempt by its smaller, pesky rival Nedbank. He told me how that episode, a humbling and chastening experience, shaped his own and the bank’s outlook.

Former Anglo CEO Tony Trahar also made a good impression of being calm under pressure, as did Ian Cockerill of Gold Fields, who was unflappable in the face of Harmony’s Bernard Swanepoel and the cowboy swagger with which he attempted an audacious takeover bid.

Then there are executives who’ve successfully crossed sectors, like Peter Matlare (from broadcasting and telecoms to the consumer business at Tiger Brands) and Mark Lamberti (who moved from Massmart to Imperial).

Others have been active in policy-shaping economic debate, extending their leadership to public entities. Bobby Godsell is the standout candidate here for his work in leading AngloGold to a merger with Ashanti, and then chairing the likes of Eskom and Business Leadership SA – although his impact at the latter is hard to assess.

The moguls who were created by BEE programmes, too, are tough to get a handle on because many of the opportunities presented to them were designed to minimise the chance of failure.

Saki Macozoma of Safika stands out for his advocacy work before political winds changed and Exarro’s Sipho Nkosi looks like he may have prospered whatever the circumstances.

The omission of deputy president and former Shanduka chairman Cyril Ramaphosa, and African Rainbow Minerals founder and chair Patrice Motsepe here is deliberate.

One always feels they could have done more with their influence.

And the winners are...

Alongside Maree and Mackay, my standout execs of the democratic era are:

.?Phuthuma Nhleko, for the way his entry into MTN was engineered and the dexterity with which he led it; and

.?Sizwe Nxasana, who started a successful accounting firm, headed Telkom at an interesting time in the last leg of its legislated monopoly and is now on the last stretch of running FirstRand, another iconic business founded by entrepreneurs long before the dawn of democracy.

Their accomplishments – and what’s to come – are worthy of a cold glass.

Mabanga is a freelance business journalist

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