Phuthi Mahanyele says South Africa is a good place to start a business. Photo: Dumisani Sibeko

 

Johannesburg - Phuti Mahanyele, the chief executive of the Shanduka Group, is calling it quits after a successful decade at the helm. But the board is not in a hurry to see the back of her. She has been asked to stay on, as a consultant, until December.

She laughs heartily when the issue of some chief executives of listed companies, who overstay their welcome to the point that their eventual departure leads to a spike in the share price, is brought up. “It means they’ve been sitting on value,” she says.

“I’m happy leaving the company in a healthy state, with solid assets and a highly enthusiastic and inspired team, not just among my management team, but also in the investee companies.

“I’m leaving an organisation that I’m proud to be handing over. I do it with pride, knowing the quality of business that I’m walking away from. It is a good space to be at.”

James Motlatsi, chairman of Shanduka, showered her with praise last week. “In her tenure, she has been instrumental in driving the business to its current heights and we have no doubt she will be equally successful in the future.”

The diversified African investment holding company started by Cyril Ramaphosa in 1991 has a portfolio of listed and unlisted companies. Its key holdings are in the resources, food and beverage industries. Shanduka is also invested in the financial services, energy, telecoms, property and industrial sectors in South Africa, Mozambique, Mauritius, Ghana and Nigeria.

Notable transactions during Mahanyele’s tenure include the first direct investment in South Africa by the Chinese Investment Corporation (CIC), when it acquired 25 percent equity in Shanduka. The acquisition of McDonald’s SA solidified the group’s objective of developing a geographically diverse, black-owned, food and beverage company on the continent.

The Aggreko-Shanduka joint venture increased its capabilities in the power sector, making it one of the private sector suppliers to Eskom.

“It has been an eventful and unbelievable experience. We started young. And it’s wonderful to look back and see how our lives have changed over time – both personally and professionally,” she says, referring to her crop of black professionals and business people who rode the first wave of black economic empowerment (BEE) that either preceded or followed soon after the dawn of democracy in 1994. She is 43 going on 44.

“It has been a time of many changes. When we started, it was the early days of BEE. Those days one would just scramble for opportunities, without a particular strategy, whether to focus on resources or other opportunities. It was only after we achieved critical mass that we started focusing and wanted to drive net-asset value (Nav) in particular.”

She takes pride in the fact that Shanduka has become diversified over the years. The group has majority stakes in McDonald’s SA, Shanduka Coal and Coca-Cola Shanduka.

“The nicely diversified portfolio has been able to cushion us in terms of high inflation and has enabled us to build the Nav of the group.”

She takes particular pride in the work of Shanduka Foundation’s Adopt-a-School project, which focuses on providing infrastructure in needy schools.

“We soon realised that providing infrastructure alone was not enough, and there was a need to also focus on creating a conducive environment for teachers, hence our partnership with Kagiso Trust, the country’s largest education NGO.”

The results of the partnership have been pleasing, with the schools achieving pass rates of more than 80 percent in matric exams. Last year, the group reached its goal, pledged in 2004, of investing R100 million within 10 years towards the work of the foundation.

Mahanyele believes it is particularly vital for black business to be involved in social responsibility programmes in disadvantaged communities.

“We are the ones affected the most. We have to be involved because we are the ones who should understand the challenges (best) and come up with solutions. Given the resources we have access to, we should be able to be better leaders, be respectable,” she says.

It was not always smooth sailing for her, with 2012 having been a particularly difficult year. The company found itself in the public glare following the Marikana massacre, which claimed the lives of 44 miners during a strike at Lonmin, the company in which Shanduka is a minority investor.

Shanduka drew a disproportionately amount of attention and flak, owing to Ramaphosa, its high-profile founder and then chairman.

“It was a difficult year,” says Mahanyele.

“What happened could have happened in any mining organisation, but it happened at Lonmin. It has been a huge lesson for all of us. As a board, it was a period of learning,”

One could not find the solution to what happened in Marikana from a textbook: “It was a tough time. The important thing is what we have learnt: It has reminded us of the importance of the work that is done, not by people who are sitting in offices, but of the importance of the work done by people on the ground, especially underground; the people who are actually doing the mining,” says Mahanyele.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to address the issues that gave rise to Marikana.

“I know at Lonmin there’s a lot that’s been done, with (new CEO) Ben Magara there. It’s wonderful to see how he has brought everybody together.

“He came at a difficult time, focused on the workforce, bringing it together. By the time they reached an agreement with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) to go back to work, after a five-month strike last year, people went back with gusto. It was good to see that level of commitment. There is no need for us to experience another Marikana, ever, ever, again,” says Mahanyele.

She was coy about what exactly she would be doing, saying only that she was going to be an entrepreneur and run her own business. She has already chosen partners for it but can’t say more because they are still in jobs. “I really had a wonderful career and look forward to moving on as an entrepreneur. It has been a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice – something I was willing to go through for the sake of what I wanted,” she says.

“I left a management job here to take an internship in New York because I wanted to learn about investment banking. It did not make sense to many people but I wanted to learn to put deals together.”

Instead of working as an intern for just a few months at Fieldstone, the specialist-infrastructure asset financing company as planned, she ended up working for it full-time for seven years. Back home, she worked as head of a project finance division at the Development Bank of Southern Africa before Ramaphosa lured her to Shanduka in 2004.

“Now as I embark on a new trajectory, I look forward to being able to build something formidable. I want to start something new. I’ve always wanted to run my own business. South Africa is the one place, as a black person, you have opportunity to do that,” she says.

She rejects the oft-bandied about view that South Africa is not competitive and lacks entrepreneurship. “You’ll always have such views. South Africa is a good place to start a business and grow it. It doesn’t mean you have to keep it here. You can grow it into other markets.

“But this is a good place to have a business, particularly if you understand local dynamic, and there is great respect for the rules and regulations,” she said.

Sunday Independent