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MTN SA chief is hooked on new challenges

Zunaid Bulbulia new MTN SA.Photo Supplied

Zunaid Bulbulia new MTN SA.Photo Supplied

Published Aug 1, 2013


‘Thank you Alan Knott-Craig!” may be a strange statement coming from the chief executive of MTN South Africa, but these are the sentiments shared by Zunaid Bulbulia, the unit’s new chief executive, as we sat with him discussing leadership and the opportunities and challenges facing him in his new role.

This particular statement came on the back of our question of what Cell C chief executive Knott-Craig and Cell C had brought to the local mobile telecoms market, a question we also posed to Shameel Joosub, the chief executive of Vodacom, a short while back. Bulbulia said he had great respect for his competitor because he was such an experienced campaigner in the industry.

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Bulbulia and his team have had to make sure they are working harder and with greater focus than ever before. “We’re learning to make decisions quicker; we’re learning to be more market aware, and we’re learning to not take them for granted. Alan knows the industry – he’s not a guy that parachuted in here and doesn’t know anything about South Africa.

“The unintended consequence for Alan is that he’s made us, and Shameel Joosub at Vodacom, even more determined to be successful… and he’s made me more match fit.“

This is the invaluable contribution that competition offers the marketplace and consumers.

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Bulbulia is one of only two who remain of the original group of seven who were there at the birth of the familiar yellow telecoms company, MTN. He has devoted 19 years to assisting it to move from a start-up to a small company of 200 to 300 staff members and 50 000 customers to where it is today: a multinational player whose reach extends into 19 different countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East and now employs well over 17 000 staff members, supplying services to over 189 million customers.

But who is he and where did it all begin for him?

“I grew up on 14th Street, which is the old Pageview area of Johannesburg, running my father’s shoe store, which was also the beginning of my leadership career.

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“I would often have to run the business because my dad would be involved in many other things… he was a seasoned traveller and loved seeing the world and doing all kinds of things – which is why I was actually born in Canada. My parents just happened to be there when I was born. But I have lived in South Africa all my life.”

Bulbulia would later go on to study accounting and qualify as a chartered accountant, having completed his articles with the then highly regarded Arthur Andersen.

This upbringing seems to have set the stage for his journey with and throughout MTN. After joining the group in 1994, he spent the next 19 years meandering from marketing, sales and distribution to managing a customer care call centre for about five years and even doing mergers and acquisitions.

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He added: “I’ve had a very good cross-section of experiences that I would probably not have [gotten] in a company that was not growing like MTN was, and MTN, because it was growing so quickly, had more opportunities than they had people that they trusted.”

And this journey prepared Bulbulia as a leader and positioned him well for his role as chief executive of MTN SA. But what is the lesson for everyone else from this?

Many leaders, but not all, undergo a natural process of shifting from seeing themselves as a technical, functional person to becoming a leader by profession. Just to explain: Years ago, we published a book entitled The CEO Leadership Handbook. Having been quoted therein, Roy Anderson, who was the chief executive of Liberty at the time, asked for a copy. He said: “Years ago I realised I’m not a chartered accountant anymore, I’m a leader, that’s my profession.”

Anderson had made a conscious shift in his mind and if someone from his distant past asked what he did or what he had become he would have told them that he was a leader, not a chartered accountant.

Often top executives don’t make this conscious shift and still see themselves as specialists in their area of vocational studies. They may barely use these skills, but remain devoted to the notion that they are still those people. As a result, many do not improve their leadership skills actively enough.

In questioning top leaders regarding this, most have to admit that their day-to-day functioning requires maybe 10 percent specialist, technical knowledge, while the remainder of what they are needed to do requires a 90 percent leadership skill set to be employed.

Bulbulia’s journey seems slightly different. Although he first became a chartered accountant, he never really functioned as one and it seems he never made that conscious shift in his mind. When asked whether he described himself as a leader he said: “I think if the definition of leadership is I display a passion for providing clarity based on insight when clarity is being sought, then I would say that is a definition of me and if that also defines a leader, then I’m a leader yes.”

In order to effectively create movement, leaders need to provide their followers with a clear, concise strategy that is going to lead them to realise their goals. However, this cannot be done without first simplifying the situation by having a solid hold on all the facts and an understanding of the team or organisation’s strengths and weaknesses within these facts.

Bulbulia has an interest in and a natural instinct to analyse, scrutinise and demystify situations where there previously existed vagueness, ignorance and even complexity. Not only does he describe his leadership role as needing to provide clarity and insight, but he also seems to have the courage to take on projects even if he had no or little background or training. No doubt these initiatives moved forward successfully partly because of his natural ability and an acute awareness about the need to simplify, clarify and give direction.

He said: “Every time something looked vaguely interesting and they were looking for someone, I put my hand up and said I’m happy to give that a bash, with the result that I did things that had nothing to do with what I had studied at university.

“In fact, even when I became chief financial officer of MTN SA, I did very little accounting, because the accounting strategy had been created and I was focusing more on running the business with Karel Pienaar [now group chief strategy officer] and the rest of the guys.

“It’s been a journey I can’t really explain – it’s been the most hands-on learning about how corporates should grow and gain and sustain value. You can’t put this in a MBA package… It’s been a collection of experiences that are priceless for me and priceless for many people that have gone through MTN.”

Bulbulia calls it being a “go-to guy”, which he believes he became because of always volunteering. His continuous leadership journey will no doubt accelerate as he consciously views himself as a leader, which will be important as he leads the “new” local arm of MTN.

Leading an established business like MTN means you no longer ride that original exciting tidal wave of growth. It seems less exciting than before. Structures and systems are in place; growth opportunities are limited. One understands that the group is moving from voice to data, but is it still so interesting and exciting to be at the head of MTN SA?

Bulbulia simplifies and clarifies the question well. “I’ve learned to take more than one brand of medication, I guess. So the drug in this organisation has been growth, which is a very destructive drug in that it lulls you into this sense of ‘we can do anything we want’; it masks a lot of things that are not working because under the cover of growth you can make many mistakes and you can get away with them. I’m learning to take new drugs.

“It’s fascinating that people have this perception that because the organisation, from a growth point of view, is slowing down in our traditional business of voice, that MTN is not sexy anymore, that MTN has become less of a drug, less of an organisation that makes you want to get up in the morning and come to work with a passion that makes you want to change things.”

The company is growing data usage at 20 percent to 30 percent a year at the moment. That presents its own challenges. The group has just bought an internet service provider that is being integrated into the business, which provides a new context. And it has started an enterprise focus.

Bulbulia feels MTN is learning the skills necessary to be successful in a saturated market: “So now we’re trying to reduce our costs faster than we’re growing our revenue. It’s just a whole new set of skills and experiences that we have to learn in order to continue to create value. That in itself is providing me with ample raw material – a new variety of drugs to keep me hooked on this organisation.“

In fact the entire context has changed because MTN is no longer just a cellular company. It is many different things to many different people. The exciting journey, according to Bulbulia, is one of making the cellphone device the centre of people’s universe.

Also, “becoming a service company is now a challenge – we’re not yet a service company, we’re a growth company; we sell and move lots of products, but can we become a damn good service company where people say ‘when I think about MTN I think about the most unbelievable service’. It’s a huge journey,” Bulbulia said.

Admittedly this is a huge culture change for MTN and employees need to get used to this new context. It is an interesting leadership challenge.

In an industry with so few players, where technological changes occur at breakneck speed and competition is extremely high, the difference may very well come down to which leader is more “match fit” and positioned in such a way to understand where to next create movement.

Interestingly though, Bulbulia is the man at the MTN SA helm and, like the other competitors, MTN seems to be in good hands. This makes for interesting times ahead in this industry, with the ultimate beneficiaries being the consumers – nothing wrong with that.

For Q&A, go to

Adriaan Groenewald, a lead contributor to the BR Leadership Platform, is a leadership expert, managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform ( or follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP). Send comments to: [email protected] or to Business Report editor: [email protected]

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