African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited chief executive Khalid Abdulla is a visionary leader.Photo: Supplied

JOHANNESBURG - With four awards under his belt this year already, Khalid Abdulla is counting his blessings: he’s captained the JSE-listed African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited (AEEI) for six years and built up a strong team around him.

AEEI listed its Premier Fishing and Brands Limited division earlier this year under Abdulla’s leadership and he is thrilled about an imminent listing on the JSE for its IT arm. “Part of our Vision 2020 was to list our fishing and IT businesses separately on the JSE. The IT listing is going to happen in the near future. There’s quite a bit of work happening around that,” he says.

“AEEI has five portfolios: food and fishing; technology, health and beauty, biotherapeutics, events and tourism, and its strategic investments. "Over the past 15 years we’ve built up the IT division, mainly around software services in hospitals and national laboratories. That business has already mushroomed and is going to expand a lot more - we’re going on a serious acquisition drive over the next year.

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"We have a 30percent stake in British Telecoms South Africa, which will also operationally transform our IT division/group.” AEEI has various other strategic investments, which include Saab Grintek Defence, Pioneer Food Group and Sygnia Asset Managers.

“We think the time is right: the JSE is looking for good listings. We’re also looking to move into Africa - that’s our big play,” he says. Premier Fishing and Brands’ listing earlier this year was a big success for the group, which will be investing R200million into an aquaculture project in Gansbaai over the next two years. It’s one of the country’s biggest aquaculture farms, producing abalone for a seemingly insatiable export market.

Aquaculture, one of the fastest-growing food producing sectors in the world, accounts for more than 50percent of global edible fish on the market. By 2030, that share’s projected to exceed 62%.

“We’re busy extending our abalone production to increase from 100 tons to 300 tons. It’s expected to create about 200 more much-needed jobs within the next two years.

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“South Africa currently produces about 1000 tons of farmed abalone and the international market - mainly the Far East - is demanding 2500 tons. South Africa has the second best abalone in the world, after Japan. It’s worthwhile investing in that because the demand is so high,” he says, explaining part of the Premier Fishing and Brands listing’s success is owed to its aggressive sustainability drive. A third of the Gansbaai farm has already been covered by solar panels and the facility is currently undergoing a revamp to make it totally self-sufficient for its energy.

Abdulla has won four leadership awards this year alone: the most recent was the CEO Africa Award for South Africa at the CEO Today Africa Awards, which recognises and celebrates outstanding leadership, superb strategic thinking and entrepreneurial spirit. The All African Business Leader Awards, in partnership with CNBC Africa, honoured Abdulla as the Business Leader of the Year - Southern African region.

He also won the inaugural South African Vision 2030 Future Maker: Driver for Change 2017 award as well as being recognised at the Oliver Empowerment Awards as South Africa’s Most Empowered Business Leader of the Year. And last year, Abdulla was ranked among the 10 best executives by the Financial Mail and as one of the best chief execurives in the country.

African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited’s (AEEI) group chief executive officer Khalid Abdulla, was named the Business Leader of the Year – Southern Africa 2017. Image supplied.

Abdulla is enthusiastic about taking leadership in business on the continent. “South Africa’s a good platform to grow business in Africa. We’re neither First nor Third World - we’re more Second World,” he says.

“Our banking is the best in the world and our infrastructure is highly developed. A lot of multinationals come to South Africa and grow into Africa from here.

“We’re a young democracy and our country has its problems, but also a lot of positives. South Africa, as part of Brics - the only African country in the grouping - has a definite competitive advantage over other African states, because we have trade partners in that environment. Those countries look at us more seriously when we go there to do business, because we’re members of Brics.”

Abdulla’s been with the group since 1999, working in each of the divisions and chairing most of the companies and subsidiaries’ boards of directors. With an MBA from UCT’s Graduate School of Business, a B. Compt (Honours) and a certificate in accounting theory (CTA) from Unisa as well as a project management qualification from UCT, he led the group’s various operating divisions to success, including the IT group, which is the platform for its imminent listing on the JSE.

Abdulla, a former Premier League soccer star who achieved provincial colours in soccer, squash, volleyball and athletics, brings his sporting skills to business. He believes that much of what he acquired on the sports field - planning, strategy and leadership - can be applied in the boardroom.

“I played soccer from the age of nine. (Former Bafana star), Mark Williams and I played twin strikers together in our early years, from the age of 10 all the way to provincials and Premier League.”

Abdulla focused on soccer as a full-time career at an early age and became successful. He was scouted by an international UK team during an under-19 tournament in Erica Park, Belhar. But when apartheid and permit restrictions put paid to his sporting ambitions, he played locally instead.

During his late 20s, after a noteworthy and illustrious sporting career in volleyball, squash, athletics and mostly soccer, injuries forced him to immerse himself in his academics, which he completed part-time through Unisa.

Abdulla’s family had once lived in relative comfort in Harfield Village, Claremont, but after forced removals to the Cape Flats, his 60-year-old father had to adapt his mindset to his new circumstances. The close-knit Harfield community was torn apart and scattered all over the Cape Flats and times became tough, so the Abdulla family had to start from scratch.

“In Harfield Village, my dad - as a forward-thinking community businessman - had a shop, a music hall and a movie house. He wanted to keep the kids off the street. He was quite involved in sport, doing body-building and swimming. He loved his soccer. My brother was also a good soccer player, but we had very different styles and ambitions on the pitch.”

The Flats was a harsh environment compared to the community they were used to in the Southern Suburbs. “In Athlone, you needed a very different skill set to survive and you saw different perspectives of life - both on and off the football pitch. “My dad was a peace-maker and he had respect in the community, even from the gangs in the area. He had a Harley-Davidson - he really was a cool dad. My mom was the strict one at home.”

The family passion for sports has been passed down another generation, to his own children: his son is another talented athlete and an under-17 South African hockey player, one daughter is a champion canoeist, and his youngest daughter is a keen hip hop dancer. While studying part-time, doing his accounting articles during the week, Abdulla also worked weekends for several years at Campwell Hardware.

The original store has long changed ownership, but his former boss still stays in touch and celebrates his successes from a distance. “There are angels watching over us, within the community, family and friends,” he believes.

- BUSINESS REPORT