Windhoek-The name Sven Thieme has become synonymous with good corporate governance. As executive chairman of the Ohlthaver & List Group, which employs more than 6,200 people, Thieme is known for his hands-on approach to an entity touted as the largest privately held group of companies in the country.
Recent estimates indicate that O&L Group generates revenues contributing roughly 4 percent to Namibia’s GDP. The Group has business interests in food production, fishing, beverages, farming, retail trade, information technology, property leasing and development, renewable power generation, marine engineering, advertising and the leisure and hospitality industry.
Thieme also serves on the boards of various companies, including the Windhoek Country Club Resort and Casino (WCCR), the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation, the Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI), as well as Mobipay.
He has been largely credited for turning around an ailing WCCR, to the extent that the hotel has been able to turn around its fortunes from a loss-making institution to one that pays government millions of dollars in dividends.
Towards the end of 2016, with Thieme at the helm as chairman of the Board, WCCR revealed financial results showing gross margins, by April 30, 2016 of N$80 million. Gross operating profit for the hotel during that financial year was N$43 million, slightly down on the previous year’s N$44 million, mainly due to higher operational costs. Despite the challenges, WCCR was able to pay N$5 million in dividends to government, its only shareholder.
This week, senior business correspondent Edgar Brandt (EB) sat down with Sven Thieme Thieme to discuss the state of the Namibian economy, the performance of the O&L Group and, on a more personal note, what makes Thieme tick.
EB: Given the current state of the economy, is the private sector doing enough to assist government to get out of the slump instead of employing the current ‘wait-and-see’ attitude?
ST: No, I don’t think so and I am saying that because we should move from a reactive to a proactive private sector. We have currently initiated under the umbrella of the NCCI a Business/Enterprise Namibia Initiative to unite – or shall I say create – a common understanding with the various stakeholders that we as the private sector need to become more active and proactive. The main focus point right now is the joint (with the government) enhancement of the Namibian Investment Promotion Act.
EB: Has the private sector lost confidence in government’s ability to manage the economy and, if yes, how can this confidence be regained?
ST: If anything, the last 12 to 18 months are all the reason to regain trust, as I believe the right things are being attended to. But, Rome was not built or rebuilt in one day and the latest credit downgrading right now is rather unfortunate at this time. If anything, it should have been seen before by the credit rating agencies. We, as Namibians, should however not allow ourselves to be discouraged.
EB: What are the lessons that commercial SOEs can learn from the turnaround of the Country Club where you are the chairman of the board?
ST: It is first of all that a competent board is appointed. Secondly, a common understanding created with the relevant ministries with regard to a turnaround plan. The plan then needs to be relentlessly implemented, speaking only one voice. The turnaround of the WCCR was hard work, an absolute teamwork with the government, with no hidden agendas. Absolute integrity, long-term thinking, with no self-enrichment and personal agendas are key ingredients for such success.
EB: Should non- and underperforming SOEs be sold, or can their financial fortunes be turned around?
ST: It is a difficult question to answer. This depends on which SOE you talk about. Some for sure have the opportunity to be able to be run on a profitable basis; some have a national mandate to fulfil and others need to be re-evaluated to see whether they fulfil a role. But one thing is for sure, we need a plan for each of them.
EB: The O&L Group registered a N$277 million profit in 2007. Are you satisfied with the Group’s performance since then?
ST: Yes, I am very satisfied, or shall I say excited, and the reason is beyond the profit and balance sheet growth. We have created over 2,500 jobs since then; we have stabilised some industries that we operate in by investing in the right things.
EB: Are you satisfied with the performance of the Group’s individual business units and their contribution to the group’s overall profitability?
ST: Yes absolutely. Off course they are at different maturity levels, but there is no excuse, such as “can’t do, Namibia is not the right place, etcetera,” and all the other excuses. A solution needs to be found to make things work and happen.
EB: Why is it that none of the Group’s subsidiaries have black or female directors or financial directors? When will we see some new faces in these key positions?
ST: In actual fact we do have black and female directors, and further to that, in an effort to diversify our leadership, we have invested heavily behind developing our previously disadvantaged talent, which for exactly this reason, they have been targeted by other organisations as high value candidates, and occupy leadership positions elsewhere.
EB: EPIA Investment Holdings holds 49 percent of O&L Holdings. As a BEE component, have they added any value to the Group and how is this arrangement working for you?
ST: Yes, I believe so. If your question is, ‘Could more have been done?’ then I must also say, ‘It could have,’ but there is much learning about this. Key is that we learn to grow things to the next level.
EB: How much has EPIA Investment Holdings received in dividends since becoming 49 percent shareholders in O&L Holdings?
ST: Very little, just like for all the O&L shareholders, as the entire resources generated are reinvested into the country to develop more sustainable businesses and thereby employment opportunities.
EB: Also, are there any plans to expand the Group’s BEE component?
ST: Not sure what you mean by that, but we are doing everything on all fronts to become completely representative of our population.
EB: On a lighter note, how would you describe yourself?
ST: I am somebody who lives his purpose: “giving a great life to people”. That excites me every morning when I wake up.
EB: What do you do for relaxation (also, what music do you listen to and what movies or tv programmes do you watch)?
ST: Running, playing music, watching soccer, cooking and enjoying great food, travelling and having fun with the family.
EB: What has been the defining moment of your career thus far?
ST: Realising anything is possible in when we achieved the impossible of turning around O&L. This was in 2007.
EB: Finally, who is your role model and why?
ST: Our employees are my role models. I learn every day from our employees in terms of what excites them, what they can create if you let them, what it means for people if they can see what difference they make and if you recognise everything they do, how thankful and inspired they are.