From security guard to CEO

30 June 2003

Some 20 years ago, a young Mogwailane Kenneth Mohlala left his rural homestead on the outskirts of Steelpoort in Limpopo Province for the beckoning lights of Johannesburg, City of Gold. Today Mohlala is acknowledged as the man who has made the city lights glow even brighter.

His has been a spectacular rise – from a security guard to president and CEO of a company with an annual turnover in the region of R2.5-billion. Since his appointment two years ago as head of City Power, Johannesburg’s electricity utility, the company’s performance has improved dramatically.

Mohlala’s achievements have not gone unnoticed. In 2002, the man known affectionately as MK scooped the Impumelelo Businessman of the Year Award and the African ICT Public Service Delivery Achievers Award.

In 2001, when he took charge of City Power, Mohlala found staff morale at an all-time low. “There were a lot of inefficiencies in the system in terms of cost management and customer service management,” Mohlala recalls. “There was no expenditure on the network, as the operating and capital budgets were slashed.”

With Mohlala at the helm, the company has recorded a dramatic turnaround, from an indifferent performance to a healthy R12-million profit after tax in its first year as a corporatised entity. The company’s capital expenditure in the 2003/2004 financial year is a massive R246-million.

Mohlala attributes his success to his “street-wise” management style. “You can’t manage an organisation through textbooks,” says Mohlala. “You must apply your learning to your context. You must think on your feet and be decisive.”

There is nothing like consensus management for Mohlala. “Managers fail because they are not decisive.” But he qualifies this: “Of course, you will be working within the rules of the organisation at all times.”

Mohlala has also cultivated good relations with employees, and restored staff morale. “When I came in, I made sure that I met each of the 2 000 employees in person. Even today, I eat in the company canteen with the rest of the staff. Trade union leaders know my door is always open.”

Mohlala started his working career as a security guard at Eskom College in 1984, where he powered his way through the ranks, reaching the position of customer service regional manager for the North West, Northern Cape and Free State. At the same time, he was studying through correspondence, completing a Bachelor of Administration degree. He is now on the verge of completing his MBA.

Mohlala is also a non-executive director of seven companies and a chairman of two others. His activities are not confined to the boardroom, though. He is a gym fanatic, keen golfer and avid reader. “I read a lot of management books and magazines,” he says. He is also a regular speaker at conferences.

A religious man
On Saturdays though, Mohlala can be seen clutching a Bible and dressed in a grey designer suit, white shirt and maroon tie – full church uniform – as he makes his way from his home in Glen Vista to the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Zuurbekom, west of Johannesburg. This African independent sect advocates strong family values underpinned by polygamy.

A profoundly religious man, Mohlala follows the teachings of the church to the letter. “I don’t smoke and I don’t drink.”

Quizzed on whether he would consider taking a second wife, his response is categorical. “Absolutely. I believe in polygamy. It is better than cheating. It’s honest. I intend practising it.” But when asked whether he has anyone in mind, he responds with a chuckle: “No, I’m still searching.”

According to Mohlala, his wife Melita, a highly qualified entrepreneur in the furniture business, would not object to him taking a second wife.

Asked how he manages to juggle his diverse roles, Mohlala waxes philosophical: “If you want to get work done, give it to a busy man.”

Changing mindsets at City Power
But it is City Power that takes up most of his time and energy. “When I arrived, the company was structured as a city department, and the workers thought of themselves as municipal workers. They had a different focus and a different organisational culture.”

Mohlala set to work, giving the organisation a corporate look and feel. He notes with pride the progress the company has made.

“We have created a key customer section to service 11 000 of our major clients. Our call centre is up and running. There has been a substantial improvement in street lights across the city. We have converted our accounting system from Municipal Accounting to the General Accepted Accounting Practice (GAAP). We are also working on activities such as the management of overdue accounts. We have improved our database and the quality of our data management.”

The company has also implemented a new billing system called SAP, which has led to revenue collection increasing to more than 95 percent.

Proud of empowerment
But it is the company’s empowerment record that is the source of most pride to Mohlala. “We have put new structures in place and successfully positioned the company in relation to the government’s transformation agenda. We comply with the skills legislation and have made affirmative appointments.”

He is quick to point out that City Power has exceeded the requirements of the Black Economic Empowerment Commission’s scorecard. According to Mohlala, the company spent R220-million in products and services procured from black companies in the last financial year, an improvement of some R40-million over the previous year.

Most of the services engaged were in fields as varied as information technology, power restoration, meter reading and security. Mohlala expresses overall satisfaction with the performance of black companies contracted by City Power.

In terms of City Power’s staff profile, Mohlala says 60 percent the staff in senior positions are now black. He expresses regret, however, that women still constitute only 18 percent of management in the organisation.

He fiercely defends the virtues of affirmative action. “Oh yes, I’m a product of affirmative action,” he asserts. “I give tribute to those who died so that we can have a better life.”

But Mohlala is not about to rest on his laurels. “We must continue to improve service delivery and satisfy customer service.”

Mohlala is quick to acknowledge the challenges facing the company. The company loses over R200-million as a result of non-technical losses – losses incurred as a result of illegal connections to the system and cable theft. Defaulting ratepayers also owe some R270-million to City Power, and “a more concerted effort must be made to collect the debt”, Mohlala says.

But Mohlala is unfazed by these challenges. “I’m a workaholic and I have a passion for life. But I also make time to be on my own. It helps me to reflect, to take stock of what I do. I only participate in activities that add value to my life.”

Source: City of Johannesburg website