Letters from Africa: Doing Business On-the-Ground

Currently on a research trip to South Africa and Angola meeting FSG clients and other international and local companies, I wanted to take a moment to share my latest insights:

Today I spoke to a seasoned and very impressive South African executive running a 22.7 billion rand turnover FMCG company out of Johannesburg. He wants to remain anonymous but here is his advice to MNCs entering Sub-Saharan Africa:

  1. Build strong partnerships: Value business relationships and continuously invest in them. Personal relationships are a key component of business success in the region.
  2. Blend corporate culture with an entrepreneurial spirit: “Seize opportunity, if it presents itself. Even if the opportunity lies outside of a company’s core business competencies.” For example, acquiring a local business in a different space will enable a company to better understand the market to then move in with the core business at a later stage.
  3. Believe in the long-term opportunity: The opportunity in individual African markets might seem quite small but, “the size of the prize might be big over a longer period of time. If you are not in the game now, it will only get more difficult.”
  4. Find the right people to run your local operations: Make sure your managers fit in from a cultural perspective, and most crucially, make sure they and their families want to be in the market, “if the wife is not happy, it does not work.”

This last point was echoed by another executive from a leading South African industrial company who shared with me this Roman analogy which reflects his company’s talent strategy:

When in Rome…

One reason why the Roman Empire grew so large and survived so long – a prodigious feat of management – is that there was no railway, car, airplane, radio, paper or telephone. Above all, no telephone. And therefore you could not maintain any illusion of direct control over a general or provincial governor. You could not feel at the back of your mind that you could ring him up, or that he could ring you, if a situation cropped up which was too much for him, or that he could fly over and sort things out if they started to get in a mess.

You appointed him, you watched his chariot and baggage train disappear over the hill in a cloud of dust and that was that. There was, therefore no question of appointing a man who was not fully trained, or not quite up to the job; you knew that everything depended upon him being the best man for the job before he set off.

And so you took great care in selecting him; but more than that you made sure that he knew all about Roman government and the Roman army before he went out.

Stay tuned for more valuable insights as I meet more companies on the ground…

 

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