The turnaround king

By on November 12, 2012

Maverick, entrepreneur and PSG tycoon Jannie Mouton was fired at the age of 48 but in the last 15 years he built PSG up to be one of South Africa’s most successful business empires. He tells Carié Maas that real success goes beyond rands and cents.

I have often written about busi­ness and investment princi­ples and how we apply those, which probably boils down to making money and unlocking value, an activity many would say PSG is known for. Yet a company also entails something that cannot be measured in terms of rands and cents: its distinctive culture or even “soul”– that which you can feel. Is there a good vibe? Are the peo­ple happy? Are they a team, do they want to move forward and is there real talking, or only a poor barking back and forth of emails? Is integrity the ground rule directing everyone’s ac­tions?

Companies, especially financial services companies, comprise of peo­ple – without people there is nothing. It was like that at smk and PSG is the same. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I did wrong at smk and those are mistakes I don’t want to repeat. Thus this formulation of “the soul of a company” that I compiled back in May 1999.

It reads: ” The soul of a company – the culture determines the performance. Climbing the windmill of a hierarchy – a flat surface is best.”

A hierarchical structure scares me. To send a memo around that a guy with an honorary doctorate should hence be addressed as “doctor”, as happened at Federale Volksbeleg­gings… calling a colleague with a “ti­tle” sir, still makes my chest tighten. At PSG’s head office everyone calls me Jannie, except for our office lady, Joan Claassens, and the receptionist, Cindy Williams, probably because it makes them uncomfortable.

Yet “sir” or no “sir”, when I come back from holiday or when Joan sim­ply has a great day, I get a hug… and then neither of us knows who’s more embarrassed. My daughter, Charité, works for an Oriental bank in Doha, Qatar, and there your rank determines who’s allowed to travel in the car with you from the airport. The more important you are, the higher the floor your ho­tel room is on. With us it’s the oppo­site. At a company braai you eat from your lap if you’ve missed out on a seat at the table, whether you’re a clerk or a so-called bigwig.

‘It surprises newcomers that anyone can walk into my office without an appointment.”

Teamwork is much more fun. How should a company get things done if it always feels as if it’s strangled by a starched-collar mentality? An ap­pointment to see “the boss” is as good as throwing time down the drain. Hierarchy paralyses and an open-door policy fosters resilience.

‘I don’t know my job grade. At PSG everything is equal, except for parking spaces – there I get first choice!”

Colleague Chris Otto will tell you I’ll open a closed door in the office – closed doors create a vibe we don’t want in PSG. It surprises newcomers that anyone can walk into my office without an appointment. The days of levels have long been numbered and titles are undesirable too. In terms of the Companies Act, each company has to have a chairman, managing and financial directors and non-executive directors. The rest have a job to do. Surely in a bigger set-up like Capitec one can’t have the chaos of all 5 000 employees running into the office of chief executive Ri­aan Stassen simultaneously, but it should not be a rigid process, set in stone. I don’t know my job grade… We don’t even have a company procedure. At PSG everything is equal, except for parking spaces – there I get first choice!

Drowning in the e-mail ocean of a bureaucracy – formality is stupidity

I see overflowing in- and out-baskets, stacks of grey or pink files, ashtrays full of cigarette butts and maybe somewhere a half-jack hid­den in a drawer when I hear the word bu­reaucracy. Every day Charité has to ensure that eve­ry single e-mail sent or received by an em­ployee at the bank where she works is noted down and signed off. I detest senseless communication that wastes time and attention. As useful as email can be, there are people who measure “indispensability” by how many e-mails there are in their inboxes when they return from two days out of the office. I simply get worried about my business if I get too many “in case” e-mails. I plainly call it cover your arse – why do you send me an e-mail… so that you can have the excuse of “I’ve told you”.

Empower others or sweep the office yourself

People laugh when I say this, but it’s true. I’ve overdone delegation to the extent that I do almost nothing. I don’t really work at the office. It’s a singular privilege. I want time to think. I want to philosophise and I want to come up with opportunities. There are people who like being in­volved everywhere, as if that would make them seem important. One should rather become unimportant. It consumes an endless amount of time if you as manager don’t trust people.

Former General Motors president Alfred P Sloan Jnr put it this way: “Every execu­tive has to recognise sooner or later that he himself can’t do everything that needs to be done.”

The same decision-making principle that applies to bureaucracy is valid here. Someone who works with a certain matter daily knows exactly what each aspect en­tails and therefore he or she will take the right decision nine out of ten times. If he wants you to decide on his behalf, he would motivate for a decision in a certain direction anyway. Someone with a problem can walk into my office any time, but I don’t want to know about every trifle. You can come and tell me once you’ve made an important decision. Chris Otto will also tell you I’m the best delegator he’s ever met. He also knows that in fact I do nothing:

“Jannie doesn’t want to be on boards. He’s not a control freak, but he expects something to be done, and then it gets done.”

There’s something else to the art of em­powerment. If you trust others to take good decisions, you also have to respect your employees and give credit where it’s due. Labour can never be rewarded with money alone.

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