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The problem with Eskom’s Mr Fix-It

Parachuting Brian Molefe into the beleaguered power utility is a masterstoke, but….  

One of the benefits of interviewing a never-ending parade of CEOs on the SAfm Market Update in recent years is that the last thing they want to make small talk over is the financial results they’ve spent the entire day parroting.

In the nearly two years I had this privilege, the most interesting things I learnt and discovered were in those few precious minutes off-air, typically at the end of the programme, with the inimitable David Shapiro, said CEO and myself talking about something else altogether. Sometimes the broader ‘issues’ of the day, sometimes something obscure being featured on Bloomberg TV, and sometimes an opinion-sharing exercise about one of the previous guests (obviously never present).

In those moments – and others – I never once engaged anyone who had didn’t have something genuinely positive to say about Brian Molefe. Add me to the list – I’ve interviewed him just over a handful of times.

And while his star has certainly exploded into brilliance as chief executive of Transnet, it was his role as CEO of the Public Investment Corporation for the best part of last decade that really got him noticed.

Prior to that, as deputy director general at National Treasury, he oversaw the two substantial state asset sales: the 20% stake of SAA to Swiss Air and the initial public offering of Telkom.

There were many skeptics when Molefe’s appointment as Transnet boss was announced in 2011 (It didn’t help that Maria Ramos’s reputation at her time at Transnet was superb (something we’ve since found out to be perhaps ever-so-slightly generous). Even back then, when I was only a stand-in on radio, I’d enquire about Molefe running an entity as complex and as large as Transnet. ‘Don’t worry’, I was assured, ‘he’s an excellent appointment’.

Molefe’s stewardship of this country’s second most-important industrial asset – after Eskom, of course – has been nothing short of remarkable. In many ways it’s been solidly boring, and that is precisely what’s needed. No suspended peers, no paranoia and wiretaps a la SAA.

His legacy at Transnet has been the implementation of the Market Demand Strategy, a R300bn seven-year investment programme for its railways, ports and pipelines which begun in 2012. Compare this to the R118bn invested in the previous seven years – five of those under Ramos’s leadership, and most of those during a commodity bull market – and it tells you everything you need to know.

Molefe in 2012: “We are poised to become one of the world’s largest freight logistics groups. The Market Demand Strategy will see Transnet’s revenue grow from R46bn in 2011/12 to R128bn in 2018/19.”

A clear goal, wonderfully articulated.

Did I mention the MDS is self-funded? Properly self-funded (none of this implicit government guarantee-stuff). And operationally, things at Transnet are better than they’ve ever been. Productivity and efficiency are no longer swearwords.

Following Friday’s announcement by Minister Lynne Brown that Molefe would take over as Acting CEO of Eskom, everyone suddenly has an opinion. The one thing this column is not going to be is prescriptive. Or a wish-list. Hell, many of those who were flinging suggestions from the relatively-anonymous confines of Twitter on Friday are hardly qualified to run a bath.

Brian Molefe just needs to be Brian Molefe. As excellent as he has been. Providing the leadership he very clearly has.

He was canny enough to feed the media the populist sound-byte that his main priority would be to “minimise load shedding”. But he knows load shedding is a symptom, not a cause. Without speaking for him, his main priority will surely be maintenance and plant reliability. Fix that and load shedding goes away.

Crucially, Molefe also brings vision and direction to Eskom beyond today and tomorrow. From the sounds of things, Eskom is hardly capable of sometimes predicting what’s going to happen in the next minute, never mind in the next quarter. If his ‘acting’ role at Eskom becomes permanent, this reason alone will be a huge positive (quite what happens to suspended CEO Tshediso Matona when the ‘inquiry’ is over is anyone’s guess).

That’s ‘all’ one really needs from a chief executive, isn’t it?

There’s a rather common misunderstanding of what a chief executive does. He (or she) doesn’t “run” anything. Yes, there’s some sleeve-rolling-up and crisis management to be done in the near term at Eskom. But a chief executive is there to lead and to provide a vision and strategy for a company, often one with tens of thousands of employees. This has been completely absent from Eskom since Brian Dames’s departure.

So if the problem is not ‘Brian Molefe’, what is it?

President Jacob Zuma asked (naively?) now the other day where “all the black industrialists” are. Pouring billions into efforts to create these are simply not going to work. Why not start with state-owned enterprises – the (supposed) backbone of our economy? These are giant industrial entities, capable of producing solid, experienced executives, yet many (most?) of them are lurching from one crisis to the next.

Here’s the problem with Molefe as ‘Mr Fix-It’: We need more Brian Molefe’s!

How many experienced black executives are candidates for posts as complex as these at Transnet and Eskom (and SAA, for that matter)? And these are not ‘just’ executive posts. There’s a big difference between an executive and a chief executive.

That there are so few options is an indictment on both government and the private sector. We need more black executives, full stop.

Yes, fundamental change like this and the process of building up the required experience takes time, but Brian Molefe and Sipho Maseko? That’s all?

We need more. A good few others exist, but they’re often found running outposts in this country for multinationals from Europe and North America (that’s where Maseko came to Telkom from, for instance). Some are buried inside the country’s largest companies. Maybe running a state-owned enterprise is not attractive enough?

With this severe dearth of talent and experience, government’s options are limited. Practically, there’s now a massive void at Transnet, which is halfway through that gigantic investment plan of its own.

And the reserves bench is not exactly full.

That’s the real problem with the minister’s plan.

* Hilton Tarrant works at immedia. He can still be reached via email at hilton@moneyweb.co.za

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I find no fault with your article. My input for now is: we have a fair amount of people that could be called Industrialists. Some of them are white and some of them are black. If we are serious about building a globally competitive economy and country for the benefit of all, why is Zuma so concerned about ‘creating’ Industrialists that are black? Surely the focus should be to create Industrialists (of any colour). I am no expert, but believe once you have a stable and non corrupt leadership would the real entrepreneurs stand up to be counted and create a legacy in our country.

Exactly, why should all CEO’s of public institutions be black. This may come as a surprise to many but whites also pay taxes.

Eskom is a technical company with technical problems and needs technical people at the top, subtop, middle management.

Eskom does not need a black CEO, it needs a CTO, Chief Techical Officer, of whatever colour.

But in the mind of the South African you need a strong man who is going to scare the shit out of everybody and sort things out. How wrong they are.

With all respect, Mr Molefe has been set up for failure because he does not have clue what running a technical company is.

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