Veteran business executive Johannes !Gawaxab (JG) walks Toivo Ndjebela (TN) through his 40-year career, his views on the government of the day and his daughter’s government tenders.
TN: You are widely known in business circles. Give us a brief personal history about yourself.
JG: I’m from Mariental, born and raised. I am married to Paulina for 35 years and we have three children – Taschiona, Elzine and John. My mother is from Mariental while my dad, the late Negumbo, was from Oshikuku. He was a Kwambi guy. I did my primary schooling in Mariental but attended high school at Cornelius Goreseb in Khorixas. I was quite bright so after completing matric I got two bursaries – one from the Lutheran church and the other one from government – to do medicine. My mother was a domestic worker and my father a rail worker, so they asked if I could help at home after completing high school. So I started working. I’m currently a founding partner of the private equity fund, Eos Capital. Eos started business in 2015 when I took early retirement from Old Mutual. I have worked across various disciplines, ranging from finance, strategy, operations, commercial, to planning – in the UN, South Africa, Namibia, West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. Two industries I have a very good handle in are financial services, and oil and gas.
TN: You are a hugely successful business leader. To what do you attribute your success?
JG: Creating wealth was a long-term journey and I started it early in my life. I had to educate myself to be able to compete globally. I couldn’t go full-time to university so I did distance and got my junior degree from Unisa. I followed that up with a Master of Business Leadership from Unisa, a Master of Arts from the Graduate School of Business at Kingston, London, a post-graduate certificate in leadership from the London Business School and an AMP from Harvard.
TN: What’s your leadership style? What’s your attitude towards business leadership?
JG: I pay attention to innovation, ideas, purpose and impressions. I’m analytical, rational yet unemotional and unsentimental in decision-making. Instant gratification, lobbying and tenderpreneurship are things I have avoided. Doing good is good business if you are in business for the long term. It took me 40 years to get where I am. I have been CEO, albeit in various roles, for close to 20 years and have been in senior management for over 25 years.
TN: You took early retirement when you were doing extremely well at Old Mutual. What motivated your bold decision?
JG: A couple of things. Firstly, I had achieved what I set myself out to do at Old Mutual. You need to move on. Never overstay your welcome in any position. Secondly, I was CEO of Old Mutual Africa for nine years, so most of the time I was in hotels away from home, which became a challenge. I also wanted to start my own business. The first thing I did when I left Old Mutual was to go back to school. I did a post-graduate certificate in executive coaching from the University of Stellenbosch. Currently Eos Capital is what keeps me busy. I also consulted for Old Mutual in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, where I bought fixed businesses for Old Mutual. I’m also coaching business executives in Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique and other places.
TN: How’s Eos Capital doing since its inception?
JG: It’s doing surprisingly well. Everyone was saying to us that there are no deals for private equities, the type of things Eos is doing. We successfully raised N$500 million from about 16 pension funds and three wealthy individuals. They said why don’t you go and invest in unlisted companies. We have invested in three companies already and plan to invest in four more soon. We have a very good pipeline of companies we are investing in. We have a very strong team of seven professionals, from actuaries, chartered accountants, industrial engineers, economists and so forth. We do not have external partners, so if we have to do any work, we do it ourselves. The decision-making is entirely Namibian. We are now positioning ourselves to raise a second fund. We plan to raise funds of about N$1 billion, which we intend to channel towards infrastructure development in the country.
TN: What are some of your notable memories from Old Mutual?
JG: At Old Mutual Namibia one of the successes was the construction of the Old Mutual Tower in the city centre. It was the first green, and the tallest, building in Windhoek. I had a key role to play in that. The first black economic empowerment transaction that Old Mutual did, I initiated that. Also, the company had fragmented businesses and branch offices. I integrated the fragmented businesses and turned them into one financial services unit. By the time I left, Old Mutual was among the top-five companies in the country in terms of profitability, image and general contribution to the country. For Old Mutual Africa, success was probably more pronounced. I spent the last nine years of my time more on African operations than on Old Mutual Namibia. I expanded Old Mutual’s presence from four African countries to 13. I grew the company’s profits from R126 million to about R1.1 billion, the total money I was managing for African operations stood at about R70 billion, this is more than the N$62 billion current annual budget for Namibia. I had three million customers from those 13 African countries and about 5 000 employees reporting to me. I became more of a global executive than a Namibian executive.
TN: It perhaps doesn’t surprise then that during the political transition in 2015, there were talks you’d become the country’s new finance minister…
JG: The speculation perhaps emanated from my exposure to financial services. People perhaps thought I could manage our country’s finances well. But to be honest with you, I’m pretty comfortable in technical roles. I’ve no desire to be in politics. If I have to contribute nationally, it would be from a technical role than in a political role. Some people are good in political roles, but I’ll have difficulties cutting my teeth there.
TN: You seem to have done well at Namcor during your time there as board chairman. Walk us through your time there.
JG: I think successful parastatals can play a big catalyst role in our country. The reason I joined Namcor was to try and make it one of those entreprises. It took us five years. What we did first was to significantly improve the corporate governance side of the business. The company was constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. We came up with a corporate strategy and appointed an executive management team – we transformed the culture of the organisation and we left behind a motivated group of employees. By the time I joined, we didn’t have money in the bank. By the time we left, the company had about N$400 million in the bank.
TN: In practical terms, what activities did you roll out to hit that milestone?
JG: We put in place focal points for the organisation to be successful. There’s no company that’s bad. It is the people within the organisation that make such organisations good or bad. The first thing I did was to ask Minister [Isak] Katali to give us a good board. I asked him to give me a qualified chartered accountant, lawyer, engineer and geologist. He was so kind as to give me exactly that. So I had a competent board. It’s the best board I’ve worked with. We sat with management and crafted strategies, processes and systems, IT platforms that support the strategies and we invested big in people.
TN: Namcor is one of the partners in the Kudu gas field. Is this a project that we as a country must pursue relentlessly?
JG: One of the disappointments I had was not seeing the fruition of that project. I think we shouldn’t dilly-dally around Kudu. If exploited, it could answer all our energy questions. We had international players whose presence meant Namibia didn’t have to put in any money. We had people to fund our resource. We must go ahead with it. When Kudu was first found in the 1970s, developing it was projected at N$300 million. Today, the Namcor portion alone requires funding of about N$5 billion. So the longer we delay its development the more expensive it becomes. Let’s give it preference.
TN: What did you make of Minister Katali’s suggestion of preserving ‘strategic minerals’ for Namibia?
JG: I couldn’t agree more with him. If we strike oil in Namibia, the majority owners would be foreigners. Namcor owns about five percent in the current oil blocks being explored. So if we find oil today, Namibia will have about five percent ownership. I believe these are our resources so we need to have significant shares, even if we are the minority.
TN: What is your assessment of President Hage Geingob’s work so far, especially on the economic side?
JG: Many people unfairly blame him for what is happening. The economic downturn is not his making. He came in at a time when commodity prices dropped. The world had an oversupply of uranium, which is one of our leading mineral exports. It is said there’s so much stockpile of uranium that even if supply stops today, the stock has enough volumes for the next three years. President Geingob came in when the South African economy didn’t grow as expected, SACU revenue has dropped, we had drought in the country and the country was spending big time because the economy was growing at between four and five percent. He’s trying to address these issues to the best of his abilities. Give the man a chance. He did well in charting the way forward, especially on issues of accountability, governance and transparency. He’s very clear on the direction and strategy. But the real test lies in implementation and execution.
TN: Finally, your daughter Taschiona is active in business and received multi-million dollar government tenders, especially in joint ventures with the daughter of former president Hifikepunye Pohamba. It is often said this is because the two ladies are politically connected…
JG: What many people don’t know is that my daughter is a well-qualified IT professional in her own right. She used to be the IT operations manager at FNB before her entrepreneurial spirit took over. She and President Pohamba’s daughter decided to leave their comfortable jobs and venture into business. She [Taschiona] grew up in a house where she observed her father running successful businesses – through a combination of perseverance and competitiveness. The two of them set up a business and unfortunately they have been criticised. To say she is leveraging her political influence can’t be further from the truth because I definitely have no political influence. The closest I got to political power was when I was chairman of Namcor. I’m proud of my daughter. She completed 72 houses in Otjiwarongo and recently another project in Rundu. She has developed a nice portfolio and track record for herself. She’s got all my support. There’s nothing wrong setting up business instead of being employed by another person.