PHUTI MAHANYELE: SOUTH AFRICA'S BOARDROOM SUPERSTAR

One of the most influential women in government and business, Executive Chairperson of Sigma Capital, Phuti Mahanyele has served with distinction as the CEO of the Shanduka Group alongside South Africa’s potential next President, Cyril Ramaphosa

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Rising up from a challenging childhood in Apartheid South Africa to become a multi-pronged force in business, Forbes named her one of the 20 youngest power women in Africa. She has had an interesting life beyond her career in finance.

Mahanyele was previously Head of the Project Finance South Africa business unit at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. Prior to that, she was Vice-President at Fieldstone, an international firm specialising in the financing of infrastructure assets. She joined them in New York in 1997 and later transferred to the South African office.

In her tenure as CEO of the Shanduka Group, she held directorships with a number of companies, including inter alia Lonmin Plc, Mondi, McDonald’s SA, Coca-Cola Shanduka Beverages, Macsteel and Helios Towers (Nigeria). She has been awarded the Forbes Woman Africa Business Woman of the Year Award and the Platinum Award by Motlekar Holdings BBQ Awards in 2014.

In 2009, she was awarded the “Most Influential Woman in Government and Business by Financial Services”. And Wall Street Journal counted her among one of the “Top 50 women in the world to watch in 2008”. The over-achiever was not done yet and was also selected as a Global Young Leader in 2007 by the World Economic Forum and awarded “Top in Project Finance 2003” by the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals (ABSIP).

She is involved in a number of activities with the youth in her personal capacity and mentors young professionals and students to maximise their career potential.

She is currently a non-executive Director on the boards of Blue Label Telecoms Limited, Comair Limited and Reunert Limited. With a resume like this, it is little wonder she is rated as one of the most influential women in Africa. To find out more about the various spaces that she does business in and her rating of our potential future president, Gregory Simpson caught up with the multi-talented boardroom superstar.

If we look at a boardroom level, did you see more equality in New York, a so-called developed country, compared to South Africa?

No, not in the boardroom. It certainly didn’t appear to be at that stage yet, because even if I just look at the senior level, we really had just two women in the whole forum. You would see a whole host of women would be in the support staff and in the junior team but outside of that, you really wouldn’t see much of a proliferation of women at all. So I definitely never had a sense that the US was a lot more progressive at all, with respect to equality between men and women.

Coming back to South Africa, what opportunities did you see for yourself?

Well, at the time, it was the mid- to late-90s so it was opportunistic, being the dawn of the new democracy and black empowerment was then beginning to be spoken about, so it was very opportunistic in terms of transactions that one could be involved in. I had the opportunity to be involved in just about all the facets of where you are driving, where you are funding and where you are the party that is being advised and being funded.

If you had to rate the success of black empowerment, how has that improved the lot of women in the workplace?

Look, whether it’s the improvement of women or the improvement of black people, it hasn’t. When you look at Corporate South Africa, there hasn’t been much movement at all. If you were to look at the number of women who are the CEOs of listed organisations in South Africa, you will not be able to count past one hand and there’s only, in fact, one name that comes to mind all the time, and that’s Maria Ramos’s name. Over the years, we’ve lost a number of women but even then, it’s not as if we had that many women who were CEOs.

And solutions to the problem, do you see any on the horizon?

If we were to be able to have a way in which the private sector and public sector could engage a lot more effectively, we would be able to start seeing things shaping up, and shaping up in a significant way in that we sit here knowing that from a credit rating perspective, we are significantly challenged as a country, and the effect of that has been, of course, the job losses we experienced. Therefore, there will be more pressure on the fiscus, as we are in a country where we have fewer people who pay tax than there are people who are dependent on the State for funds and every support from the government. We are on a trajectory that is very negative. Unless we can get to that point where the public sector and the private sector are able to engage effectively, we will not be able to resolve many of the challenges that face us.

So is that a leadership crisis, business and government not connecting properly?

Yes, it is a leadership crisis—we need effective leadership.

What are the keys to effective leadership?

Well, effective leadership in terms of having leadership that is able and willing to engage with other parties, whether it’s the public sector that is willing and able to engage with the private sector and in terms of the private sector. It appears to me that the private sector is very keen through the organisation that Jabu Mabuza leads (Business Unity), to engage effectively with the public sector, but it appears that they’re having difficulty.

You talk about being open to people contributing to your journey, who have some of the key contributors been in your life thus far?

I have often been fortunate. Two great contributors in my life are my parents, they are unbelievable visionaries in the way that they approached my studying. In apartheid South Africa, they sought a multiracial school in the eighties.

We were attending this multiracial school in North Park and so we were exposed to all these different cultures that we didn’t have the ability to live around but through going to school with them, we were able to learn to engage with people from different cultures, to function a lot more effectively in our own lives. I remember that during the Group Areas Act, my father found a home for us in Sandton, making it a lot easier for us to get to school.

Of course, whilst working for Sanduka, working with Mr Ramaphosa who is just unbelievable, he is incredible, a very down to earth person. So I’ve had the opportunity of meeting these incredible people, but I’ve also learnt that it also it is important that you are also willing to make yourself available to what you do. You can’t try to be a jack of all trades, you can’t try to do a bit of this and a bit of that. If you’re going to do well in your career then you have to really be focused on it and work hard on it and that’s something that I find young people not always being focused on.

It’s good, then, to be able to share that people come from very different backgrounds and are able to succeed in spite of those backgrounds. Allow them to flourish in their studies so that they can—then they will be able to contribute meaningfully to the family, but if you do that whilst they are still studying, all you’re doing is taking them backwards to where they started.

In terms of education, is the ‘Fees must Fall’ protest movement a realistic campaign?

Well, I understand where the young people are coming from but personally, and also I’m on the Advisory Board of Stellenbosch University, I know that these universities are doing the best they can. You don’t get that much capital flowing to the universities, so it’s already difficult enough to be able to retain good quality professors. Unfortunately, the ‘no fees’ option does not give the university the ability to retain such quality staff and all of the things that they have to pay for at the university mount up. Rather, what we should be looking at are other ways in which young people can be supported in their education and also making sure that capital that is available for young people from the public sector is fully available.

You’ve worked with Mr Ramaphosa, possibly our next president, what would that mean for the leadership style of the country?

That would really present South Africa with an incredible opportunity to have a leader who is humble but at the same time, very focused on the need of South Africans. I remember when Mr Ramaphosa announced we are going to also be launching the foundation; it was called the Shanduka Foundation, now called the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation. At that launch, we announced that the company would be giving R100 million to the foundation. Now, the company wasn’t worth R100 million and we had far less ability, so I was rather concerned about that and I spoke to him afterwards to check that that wasn’t a mistake.

He said, “Look, I really believe that we will be able to make such money and be able to actually get this money to the Foundation”, and he was absolutely correct because, in the end, we gave significantly more to the foundatio—it wasn’t R100 million, it was over R200 million and we were also able to attract capital from other corporates as well towards the work that we were doing. What I loved about working with him was seeing how he also spread the importance of everyone contributing, so regardless of whether you were a manager making keys, a security guard, as long as you are employed by the company you were expected to give something to the foundation. Being able to work with somebody who had such ethics, I learnt so much from the time I spent with Mr Ramaphosa. His passion for education wasn’t something he kept in his head, he actually made it come to life.

And the effect of having a businessman and not just a pure politician leading the country?

That’s the thing I have come to respect about him—the fact that even when seen as a businessman, he showed different approaches, for example, on the Board, he has a casting vote and so has the ability to change a decision that a Board could make, but he never ever used that casting vote. I remember there would be times where we would debate an issue prior to the Board and agree on the view that we wanted to take and the Board—the rest of them, the management, the directors—would have a completely different view and he would agree with them and so as management, we would be looking at him like, “Hello, you’re supposed to be on our side”, but to have a leader who can focus on what the right thing is as opposed to what my idea is is important.

The other thing I respect about him is the fact that this is not a job he needs or requires. Quite honestly, if I was him and I had all he has, I’d probably be relaxing on a secluded beach. As a nation, we are so fortunate to have somebody who absolutely has no need for this, but he does it because he believes it is the right thing to do. I would be so thankful for us to have a leader who is in the role not because of what he can personally gain from it but because of what he thinks the country can gain from it and, given the fact that he has worked with the private sector for so many years, he has developed many relationships within the private sector and so he would be the type of leader who would be able to look for talent in the South African environment and be able to attract them to the various difficulties we face in the public sector.

There is your link between the private and the public sector right there.

100%, we have many former CEOs today who are and who could be in a position to contribute a lot to the public sector if they are approached to do that, and he is such a person who could bring in somebody like the former CEO of Standard Bank or any other leader to come into the government and to say, “This is what I could contribute. We should look at this issue in this manner,” because it is about securing the country in the right way. It can no longer be about any political party, it has to be about driving the economy in a way that will be beneficial to the South Africans of this country.

You have also served at an executive level in the energy sector—your outlook for the energy sector, the old renewable versus coal and nuclear debate?

I have never understood why we would look at nuclear. Nuclear is such a hugely capital-intensive energy product for us to look at. It just simply does not make any sense that we would suddenly have a need to look at nuclear. What I was very supportive of was the trajectory that we were on previously, which was to focus on fossil fuels in the form of coal and gas but also to be looking at renewable energy as well, so that we are caring about our environment, because we do need to do that as well, irrespective of the fact that the economic players like the UN are now on a different trajectory it appears. We do need to be looking at our environment and how we can create a proper future for the young people of tomorrow.

You are also involved with Comair, how can we make air travel more accessible to the man and woman in the street?

Comair has been able to provide a good service and reliable service to their passengers—that is why they continue to have a good relationship with British Airways and will continue to do so for many years.

What I hope is that if we can get the right leadership at South African Airways—that’s what we don’t have—so that if we are to continue running with a national airline, it can at least be run by people who are able to competently lead it, but we haven’t been able to do that. Comair is absolutely on the right trajectory and we are doing all we can as Comair to make sure we can continue to provide the best service for our customers.

Your advice to young women looking to follow in your footsteps?

I would say they really need to have a passion for the hard work and to have the ability to actually be willing to give up certain things because, sometimes, that’s what it calls for—to really be willing to put in what it takes in order to succeed. In addition to working hard, they also need to form good relationships and it’s not only good relationships with people who are senior but people at all levels because you never know where somebody will be in the future.

And finally, balancing all the different aspects of your life, work, family, spirituality, how do you get that all right?

I am actually an absolute failure at that but that’s why I always say when I speak to young professionals that they need to give some time to their personal lives as well because it’s very easy to ignore that and you only realise it much later.

It is important to make sure you’ve got the right partner, somebody who will be supportive of the work you’re doing and the role you play and somebody who you can grow with, and also to keep in contact with family members and to try to participate in some family functions from time to time. The downside to working hard is that you can become a bit addicted to it, in that you want to—it becomes your normal and that is something that is not good in terms of managing your entire lifestyle. 

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