SA's top gun

Magnus Lewis-Olsson, CEO and President of Saab Grintek Defence (SGD), South Africa

The horrific terrorist attack in Kenya has placed civil security in the spotlight. In a world which has significantly changed, the issue of defence appears to be more important than ever, says Magnus Lewis-Olsson, CEO of Saab Grintek Defence.

This impetus on security is no illusion, assures Magnus Lewis-Olsson, CEO and President of Saab Grintek Defence (SGD) South Africa – an international company serving the global market with security and defence solutions – the world has in fact changed, and we have to engage with it differently.

“The truth is that we have to shift into proactive mode in the security sphere – a reactive attitude will land you in trouble,” says Lewis-Olsson in an exclusive interview with Leadership.

He has been applying this thinking in his role as CEO and President for SGD South Africa since he assumed the seat in 2012.

Lewis-Olsson was accepted into the Swedish Air Force in 1985. His first four years were spent at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg where he graduated with a Masters degree in Engineering Physics. Flying training commenced in 1989 in Ljungbyhed and two and a half years later he was accepted as a fighter pilot at Air Force Base F17, flying Fighter Viggen.

“I knew the next step was headquarters (in the Swedish Air Force) – I wanted to fly – luckily for me I was recruited as a Gripen test pilot by Saab AB,” says Lewis-Olsson on his introduction to this security and defence conglomerate.

September 2006 saw the first Gripen new generation fighter aircraft make its public debut in South Africa. Its name, Griffin, or Gryphon in English, refers to the mythological half eagle and half lion creature, and to this day the story of Gripen in the country remains a fascinating, albeit somewhat controversial, one.

These fighter aircraft were shown on the eve of the African Aerospace & Defence (AAD) 2006 exhibition held at Ysterplaat air force base in Cape Town. This was a two-seat version of the Gripen fighter aircraft, and was ordained with a tail tag SA01, wearing South African Air Force (SAAF) livery and bearing the South African flag – and in the cockpit was Lewis-Olsson, one of the first pilots to fly this jet locally. Following the exhibition, he remained in South Africa as project test pilot for Gripen South Africa at the Test Flight Centre (TFDC) in the Overberg. Here the jets were put through their paces during a thorough and rigorous flight test programme. In his capacity as test pilot Lewis-Olsson worked alongside South African counterparts from the South African Air Force (SAAF), Armscor and local companies Incomar and Denel.

The programme was completed in 2008 – all too soon for Lewis-Olsson, who vowed to return to South Africa. He returned to Saab, first in a marketing role before being promoted to  a management position,  heading  marketing in the Netherlands and Malaysia. In March 2011 Lewis-Olsson returned to South Africa as the general manager for Saab Aeronautics and a year later was appointed CEO for the legal entities Saab South Africa, Saab Grintek Defence. When Saab introduced the ‘Market Area Concept’ which consolidated the markets in which it is active, Lewis-Olsson was appointed president of the Sub-Saharan Market Area, comprising 50 African states.

The switch from jet fighter pilot to the boardroom of Saab Grintek Defence South Africa happened naturally for Lewis-Olsson and although commitments are limiting his hours in the air, Lewis-Olsson says his experience as a fighter pilot still stands him in good stead on many levels. For example, during his marketing role, management recognised the benefit of keeping Lewis-Olsson in the cockpit. “When selling a fighter jet I know that I know it; as a pilot I can sell it better than anyone else. It comes down to trust.”

On a leadership level Lewis-Olsson says his instincts as a fighter pilot are as sharp in the air as in the boardroom (it just so happens that there are more fighter pilots among the South African managers in SGD, a state of affairs that does not surprise Lewis-Olsson at all).

How has his training as pilot prepared him for future leadership roles? “I think as a fighter pilot you are trained to make instant decisions within split seconds. You also know not to over-emphasise problems that are not too serious. You realise when things are bad, when warning lights on the dashboard are flashing, and you also realise when things are really very bad. Last year the dashboard at Saab (South Africa) was pretty well lit up, the company was losing money, the spirit was low and we needed to restructure and consolidate,” admits Lewis-Olsson, opening the door for him to optimise the structure. He immediately jumped into action with a three-step programme.

“First I had to get a grasp of the company; who is doing what and what are we not doing? Together with management I developed a new, easily understandable structure and implemented it. From that point I knew I had a familiar base to work from – and I think it is working. We have revised our recruitment policy which now focuses on hiring engineers, IT personnel and those with mathematical skills. It means there are no more ‘flashing lights’ on the dashboard and it’s all systems go,” he adds jokingly, “except for the occasional lightning strikes which can lead to power outages.”

Saab’s headquarters in South Africa is situated in Centurion, Pretoria, an area renowned for its mighty Highveld thunderstorms, and it is right here, says Lewis-Olsson where some of the most amazing development in the field of electronic warfare is happening.

The Swedish relationship dates back to the end of the 1990s, a period characterised by the transfer of technology and offset obligations. Lewis-Olsson, who is of Swedish background, stresses that “all acquisitions that Saab made back then were based on sound business where we identified companies with great opportunities.”

In February 2005 South African electronics and communications group, Grintek, and Sweden’s Saab, announced plans to team up to compete in world markets in the high-tech communications and data network defence sectors.

“I’ve heard people say  that it was never part of the plan to buy South African companies, which is not true, as the strength and knowledge we found in South Africa have been formidable,” says Lewis-Olsson.

As for the South Africa and Swedish relationship: “Technology is invented and developed in South Africa and paid for by Sweden. In this instance we aren’t talking skills transfer as much as the transfer of funding – as we already have the skills here.”

He says South Africans need to believe more in themselves. “We have found that many South Africans believe that the technology here are not on par with the level in Europe and the US. This is ridiculous, as when it comes to electronic warfare (EW) South Africa knows more than most countries in the world – and 99% of Saab Grintek Defence’s employees are South Africans, clear evidence of the depth of homegrown skill and knowledge,” says Lewis-Olsson.

The local technology Lewis-Olsson refers to is the EW systems developed for aircraft, including radar warning receivers, laser warning receivers and chaff (countermeasures) dispensers, avionics systems and command and control (C2) systems. He is well known for his praise for South Africa’s local skills-set and has been quoted in the press: “We have fitted out the South African Air Force with all its EW equipment on helicopters and aircraft,” he recently told the media, “then we have the Command and Control (C2), which is the part of the company that does the most business in South Africa. There’s a lot of indigenous intellectual property in C2. It’s invented here. It’s something we are proud of.”

An impressive range of defence forces – including India, Malaysia, a number of countries in the Middle East, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, South Korea, the Netherlands, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Germany, Peru, and Greece – are using indigenous South African electronic warfare technology, with 90% of the systems being designed and produced at Saab Grintek facilities in South Africa.

It is a little known fact that roughly 95% of the systems we manufacture in South Africa are sold to export markets, making it a valuable source of revenue for South Africa. SGD South Africa’s latest contract with the Indian air force alone is valued in excess of R400 million.

It should come as no surprise then that under Lewis-Olsson’s leadership the company was awarded the distinguished title as Best Export Company in South Africa 2013 by the Department of Trade and Industry.

It is not an award this leader takes in his stride. For Lewis-Olsson it says a lot about the company culture where professional happiness sprouts from success – whether monetary or seeing achievements on the technical front.

“It is the company culture to encourage employees and to further their skills set by sending them on training, whether locally or abroad. Trust is also important. We don’t check up on people and that gives employees confidence that we have faith in their work.”

Further to the award he adds: “To generate a market focus, and to survive and excel as a company is not a God-given right – you have to market, sell and develop new products.

“We are not playing Lord of War here,” he says, “we adhere to red tape and respect advanced and controlled processes.”

This, he admits, is a challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa where “deals pop up very quickly…in Europe the processes are very formalised, which isn’t true for certain parts of Africa. A lot of times deals are unplanned and don’t follow formal processes. At Saab it is important to be transparent and to do business the ethical way.”

There is always the question of war – can it ever be ethical? “In South Africa we do not make weapons, we develop electronic warfare equipment,” he responds, “A lot of the technology we develop isn’t designed to kill. Instead of arming soldiers with weapons that kill, we arm them with knowledge. If you know about potential dangers you can respond to the danger – not the person. It is not just about fancy gadgets; it is about providing the technology to adapt the equipment to the threat.”

He cites examples of equipment aimed at preparing and protecting society and its individuals, such as critical infrastructure protection, traffic management for air, land and sea applications, national security and first responders.

“I believe that by identifying potential dangers before they develop into real threats or disasters it is possible to create a safer and more confident society.

“I believe it is fantastic for a company like SGD to be proactive in its conceptualisation and development of security and defence technology, but governments need to be proactive as well in the way they equips their soldiers and fleets,” Lewis-Olsson told Leadership, reflecting on the recent attacks in Nairobi.

He says a major challenge in South Africa is delays and the red tape that government organisations impose on orders and subsequent empowerment of defence forces.

“I’m not sure that the main problem is lack of funding, as there is enough money in South Africa, there is a tremendously modern infrastructure, and all the possibility in the world to make  for instance a ‘Safe City’ work.”

‘Safe City’ is a Saab concept, and refers to a nonviolent metropolis achieved by a CCTV network, specialised police vehicles and command and control systems, a futuristic society where safety and security is achieved by 24- hour surveillance.

In the long-term Lewis-Olsson might well achieve his ‘Safe City’, but in the short-term he says his goal is to grow and to break into the Sub- Saharan region, where the Saab group is slowly making inroads. The company has a presence in Kenya, and there are talks of expanding into Botswana and Ghana. “The goal is to achieve a proper footprint on the continent and to be the preferred supplier in the SADC region and to the United Nations (UN) in Africa.”

The company is active on this front in the way of assisting peace-keeping missions in Africa for both the African Union and the UN. Examples include extensive MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) activities for vehicles, generators, water purification plants, air-conditioning units and patrol boats. One mission has also seen Saab setting up a complete turn-key camp solution in the horn of Africa.

“Europe donates a lot of money to UN programmes on the continent, and some of this money goes towards the acquiring of safekeeping equipment,” says Lewis-Olsson, weighing up the long term benefits of safekeeping versus the temporary – but lifesaving – relief a bag of rice brings.

But Magnus Lewis-Olsson is not in the business of aiding the hunger; he is in the business of reprieve: reprieve from dangers that us ‘ordinary people’ have no means to protect themselves against.

He is in the business of equipping governments with the technology to protect its citizens so that they in turn can focus on their work, children and food.

At Saab Grintek Defence they are not  preparing for a food crisis.

“We are the players that prepare for peace. We prepare South Africa to be a big player in Africa, to retaliate with force – when needed. We need to prepare government to have a big enough stick so that when things happen South Africa can do something about it,” concludes Lewis-Olsson.

Jolene Earl

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