down long enough to share a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at the Mount Nelson Hotel and talk to her about life and business. She shares her beliefs and hard learned Leadership Lessons in the Agribusiness Sector.
It is not often that one finds a dental surgeon who is also an agriculturist. What attracted you to the latter sector?
I married into a traditional Cape Dutch culture and this environment lends itself to cultivating a lifestyle of health, energy and vitality, which founded my guiding principles of today, even in business. I have a passion for life and for the well being of people, so dentistry was a fine career choice for me - and I could choose my own work hours and raise our kids, all whilst developing my identity as a woman. In a sense, I was as much a psychologist as I was dental surgeon and my natural curiosity drove me to find out what makes people tick – a habit that still endures. A patient friend of mine announced from the dentists’ chair that he was doing some pioneering research into berry cultivation and production, and this led to my fascination around the health-giving properties of berries.
My husband has always actively encouraged my multiple interests, never making me feel inferior in any way. We have both come to learn that my strengths and independence has helped us to develop functional teams. My background in the health sciences taught me that science is directly applicable to all interdependencies of wellbeing, health and vital food. This has spoken into my work and strategic direction for Berry Flavors. Added to that, my husband, Paul, an agricultural scientist, is largely responsible for our scientific-agricultural approach to farming and researches and develops production techniques, irrigation and new plant varieties.
There is currently a lot of focus on small scale farming as one of the ways to stimulate entrepreneurial growth in South Africa. Do you think it is feasible?
In the BdW Group we optimise shared resources. By sharing and pooling resources, we save money on a host of services, like human resources, consultant’s fees, auditing and control services. It has become one of the strengths of our group and it has led me to hold clear views on the subject of small-scale farming. So much so, that I am in the process of enrolling for a PhD on the very topic of leadership and entrepreneurial growth in the agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa. Simply put, small scale farming on a subsistence level will not stimulate meaningful entrepreneurial and especially economic growth in this country. The only circumstances when this will become a driver for growth is if you are linking into the bigger picture value chain and specialise in a vital component of that chain. Entrepreneurial businesses often fail within five years because they do not visualise or link their business to growth, and direct it to where they will thrive and prosper and this sector is fraught with those failures.
Whilst commercial, farming certainly does contribute to growth, perceived inherent revenue distribution problems within that model threatens sustainability at the moment. A model to a more equitable distribution of value or wealth would ensure a brighter future for big-scale farming. I remain convinced that we South Africans can design our own solutions. Ours is a different agricultural context to the western world and that means we need to research and create our own business models and solutions. In Africa, there is a different way of doing things and we should be allowed to apply methods that are more harmonious to Africa’s potential. An interdependent model, incorporating the African boardroom’s wisdom into the more westernised suit and tie meetings, might assist us in finding more sustainable solutions.
This is a question which will be heavily debated and part of the appeal of the Africa Academy of Management 2nd Biennial Conference in Botswana, at which I am a speaker next year. This conference integrates American, European and African researched Management Models. We need to be cognisant of, and integrate African solutions and pay attention to integrating agricultural studies conducted in Africa into agribusiness management models.
Much of what you achieved over the years in the berry-growing sector has been pioneering work. What are the key business lessons you have learned along the way?
My scientific training taught me to diagnose the root causes before treating the symptoms, and that also means asking probing in depth questions. Relationships are the single most important component of our business. All of our partners are with us for 17 years, and that takes a lot of worthy effort to nurture that kind of commitment. I recall one occasion when a major retailer rejected a consignment of strawberries, which were already on the retailer’s shelves for sale. We fixed the problem but refused to invoice our client, because our ability to provide the best possible product is the bedrock of our value system. Sometimes, as a German, I know I can come across very strongly and I make my views about trust, integrity and ethics known – I will not shy away from standing up for what I believe in. Having said that, our business partners are becoming dear friends, but that does not preclude the possibility of us pointing out things that need to be challenged. I remember a time when my knee operation went badly wrong and I anticipated that I would not be able to follow through on a few commitments to a client, within the agreed timescales. Transparency and the ability to be honest won the day – and still do.
Far too often I have seen businesses break down through lack of transparency or non-alignment of stakeholder objectives. It is never easy to make customers feel valued, but my Executive MBA has increasingly taught me that face-to-face and telephone communication helps develop relationships like nothing else. I recall dealing with a looming crisis with one of our key partners, a call straight to the CEO got to the heart of the matter and led to a rapid, sustainable solution to the problem. I tend to keep all business and employer relationships very direct, with as few management layers as is practicable, which enables me to understand workers’ needs.
You are a strong believer in life-long learning. Why is this?
The cycle of lifelong learning forms a backbone of our BdW business systems. For 2014, a female employee of Khayalitsha is sending two children to university, which is most gratifying. I keep learning to learn others. I have the pleasure of being mentored by Dr. Paul Cluver, a neurosurgeon and successful entrepreneur in the field of leadership science. It is a mutually respectful relationship that transcends business. Dr George Roux is my EQ mentor, where we sometimes chill out over a beer to ponder life’s complexities and joys, whilst Dr Ailsa Stewart-Smith, the Director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business Executive MBA programme is my only female mentor. As member of SuccesUnited, I also tap into the expertise of this global network for woman business owners. I am privileged to be a mentor to many other people, either individually or through teams at a leading South African bank and one of our major sporting codes.
You have a reputation as someone who approaches business from a relationship building perspective. Do you think such an approach gives a competitive advantage?
During the ‘economic downturn’ since 2008, we expanded our own business, and even in this difficult climate all our partners have grown their businesses during the last two years. We identify where we can all add value to each other. For me, it’s far less about building our brand and much more about growing our relationships. We have developed a highly mobile and flexible workforce, skilled in many areas of the value chain. If it’s raining, they move to production roles under cover, and so on. Even our logistics driver buses employees home. I tend to coax our team along, involving myself in a direct, spontaneous way, whilst Paul tends to be more strategic, more insightful. Each to their own strengths.
It is often the attention to detail that super cedes. For example, email is often over-used as a business tool, with many business people using this to hide behind. That does not build relationships and often leads to misunderstandings. I’d much rather pick up the ‘phone, or even better, go and see them in person, because one clarified conversation is worth five hundred emails. Utilise mails as a practical management tool and, try and keep it to about three lines just to clarify the fact; an added attachment will provide more detail if required. Professional email communication is as such, already is a competitive advantage.
There is a school of thought that suggests South Africa is losing its competitive edge in the global market. What is your perspective on this?
This is an issue that encapsulates many different facets, presently there is a leadership vacuum in South African agriculture. It is fuelled by a number of inhibitors, like legislation that prevents growth from happening at the optimum rate. To a certain extenet it comes back to relationships. We need to strive to constantly deliver a product that is 100% quality produced by 100% quality people, then we will be more competitive. After all, did we not have even more restraints on our business – with sanctions in place – pre 1994? Frankly, business can thrive despite government, not because of it. We need the right political environment for sustainable growth, and we need the expertise of successful businesses leaders to bear upon government thinking to achieve meaningful growth and to benefit all stakeholders. There is the sense that this has not yet been fully enacted, and this is why the perspective exists that we are losing our competitive edge.
It is often suggested that South Africa is suffering from a dearth of quality business leadership. Do you think South African is severely challenged in this space?
Dr. Perry Zeus’s Singapore based Behavioral Coaching Institute is the world’s leading institute of workplace coaching knowledge and my time there amongst global executives has impacted profoundly on my thinking on leadership in our South African context. The biggest mistake made in terms of Affirmative Action has been in respect of the premature promotion of many promising people. This sets one up for failure. We can accelerate the five steps of leadership (self leadership, supervisory level, leading teams - like operations and processes which eventually leads into executive or spiritual leadership), but you cannot miss any of these steps... Too many people have skipped one or more of these vital stages. This means that the ability to think clearly in increasingly complex scenarios is restricted exponentially and is a vital missing link as you develop your emotional ability to lead. There is gain in that pain and one has to go through every step thoroughly to lead well.
When it is all said and done for you one day, what type of legacy do you hope to leave behind?
Firstly, I want to be known for having the courage to stand up for what I believe in. I will fight tooth and nail to pursue an ethically justifiable end. I am not arrogant about it, but it’s an absolute truth for me. People tell me that they would happily go to war with me at their side, such is my passion for life and people. Secondly, I want to add meaning to our existence on earth. Frankly, window dressing in every way gets me very upset. For example, if prepare a Sunday meal and discover that half the weight of the food product I have purchased is accounted for by packaging, where’s the sense in that? What does the accountable seller really contribute to environmental sustainability then? Why use expensive non-recyclable plastic packaging which makes up half of the product price when paper will sometimes do? I will always question the mundane or the unnecessary. Having said that, she concludes with her personal passion and states that “Life to me is only worth living if I can share a good bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and great coffee with exceptional friends!”
Dr Birgit Andrag, Director of global change consultants, Systemic Excellence Group and the recipient of Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government prestigious Agri-Businesswoman of 2013 award. She is also the Managing Director of Berry Flavors @ By den Weg, the fresh berry packing and agri-processing business she and her husband Paul established in 1994, initially only to provide women on the farm with full time employment.
A passionate leader and natural communicator, she authors strategies that enhance the lives of her employees and the income of her business partners in their value chain. A firm believer of the ‘stand for something, or you’ll fall for everything’ principle, she also finds time to mentor others and to meditate upon really important stuff, like being a wife and mother to their three children. Richard Webb slowed her
by Richard Webb