Turning a Grand Dream into Reality
Turning a grand vision into a reality may often take many years of hard work. This hard work paid off for André van Rensburg, Chief Executive Officer, Bombela Concession Company, his colleagues and partners. Today, van Rensburg says, not only is the Gautrain project world-class in terms of punctuality and availability but it has has also delivered beyond expectations in other regards. He discusses the positive spinoffs for the province, how the customer is always at the centre, the drive to provide a reliable transport service to their customers and how they are always learning and improving services going into the future. He dwells on the ingredients of a successful public private partnership and discusses how transformation is a business imperative; not a nice to have, but the right thing to do.
André van Rensburg, Chief Executive Officer, Bombela Concession Company
What has it taken (did it take) to introduce a state of the art public transport system into South Africa’s economic hub?
In recent years we have seen an increase in urbanisation and population growth in South Africa, and in particular, in Gauteng. According to the United Nations, by 2050 nearly 80% of South Africa’s total population will be living in urban areas. And according to Statistics South Africa’s 2015 Mid-year Population Estimates report, Gauteng is home to the largest share of the South African population with 24% of the country’s total population residing in this province alone.
South Africa’s growth in urbanisation reflects global trends and this inevitably creates an increased demand on public transport. This rising demand for public transport in turn necessitates mass transit supply. So clearly, we see that the need for efficient, safe and reliable public transport systems is on the increase.
By the early 2000s many of Gauteng’s highways were heavily congested with traffic, especially during the morning and afternoon peak periods. People often spent hours in traffic as opposed to spending their time constructively at work. This traffic problem ultimately created an adverse effect on the economy. At that stage, amidst the doom and gloom, a dream was born. Visionaries began to advocate for an efficient, reliable and safe train service that would not only service the OR Tambo international airport but also connect Tshwane and Johannesburg.
As we know, dreams remain dreams, if one does not work at them. In this instance, the Bombela team was tasked with turning this grand dream into a reality. One of the main motivators for us was the fact that we, together with our shareholders and the financial institutions supporting us, strongly shared and believed in this dream.
We were determined to make it come true, and to not just reach but exceed expectations. Our shareholders played a pivotal role during the construction phase - being directly responsible for the development of this majestic project. A few years later, we look back and marvel at what has been accomplished. Today, the Gautrain connects three metropolitans in Gauteng, Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.
The Gautrain system has contributed immensely to the overall economy of Gauteng, not only by decreasing the hours people spend in traffic versus the workplace, but in numerous other ways. A recent independent study conducted by KPMG found that the Gautrain plays an instrumental role in creating a better quality of life for its regular commuters in a few ways.
Firstly, as a result of the efficiency and speed of the Gautrain, regular commuters save between 10 and 12 working days per year. Secondly, thanks to the Gautrain there are some 21 300 fewer car trips per day in the province. This translates not only into reduced traffic congestion, but also a reduction in road accidents. Thirdly, the study showed that the Gautrain is a greener transport alternate to car transportation in the province and that by using Gautrain commuters reduce their carbon footprint by 52% per trip.
Finally, over the years the Gautrain has proved to be an exceptionally reliable mode of transport. With an average train service availability of 99.73% and train service punctuality of 98.34% the Gautrain ranks amongst the best in the world, having consistently outperformed set benchmarks.
Ranked among the best public transport providers in the world, what sets your value proposition apart from the other players globally?
The Gautrain project is a Public-Private-Partnership and includes a 15-year operating and maintenance period after construction. Following an international tender process, the Bombela Concession Company was appointed by the Gauteng Provincial Government to design, build, operate, maintain and partially finance the Gautrain project.
After much hard work, we are proud today to say that in comparison to similar modes of public transport and with an average train service availability of 99.73%, the Gautrain is currently one of the most reliable commuter train services in the world.
Our mission is clear: to provide a safe, clean and reliable integrated transport system to our customers, the users of the Gautrain system. Via our operator, the Bombela Operating Company, we have to date transported more than 60 million passengers on our trains and have run in excess of 380 000 individual train trips.
Less than 0.5% of train trips had to be cancelled during this time. Aside from being world-class in this and other regards, the Gautrain has earned a sound track record in terms of being a safe, clean and reliable public transport system.
The growth we have seen in passenger numbers has been so phenomenal that we often have little to no spare capacity during the peak periods. This in itself speaks volumes of the overall success of the Gautrain. In the absence of exceptional and consistent service levels and a strong credibility that the Gautrain has developed over the years, this level of success would not have been possible.
What can you attribute your sound track record to, in terms of being a safe and reliable public transport system?
The safety and well-being of our passengers is our number-one priority and we will never compromise this for any reason. Everything that we do starts with this fundamental principal in mind and I am proud to say that our employees and contractors share this value. Second to safety is our drive to provide a reliable transport service to our customers. This business model is built on a solid foundation of quality infrastructure and systems supported by the full suite of operational services including proper and efficient maintenance, hands-on training and tightly controlled operations. None of this would have been possible without the highly skilled and dedicated resources working for and within the Bombela family. Our track record is proof of our achievements in this regard.
When we do not live up to our own expectations, and those of our customers, we use those opportunities to learn and to improve our services going forward. I dedicate our incredible achievement to the highly skilled and capable Bombela team who is always prepared to go beyond the call of duty. It is because of the collective effort of this team that we are able to deliver an exceptionally sound Gautrain operation.
Tell us about your achievement to date?
My vision is aligned with the vision of the company. That is, for the Bombela Concession Company to achieve excellence in the execution of our contract with the Provincial Government and to be recognised as a world leader in concession contract management. We can only achieve this by providing a safe, clean and reliable integrated transport system to our Gautrain commuters. With our operator, the Bombela Operating Company, we have demonstrated that we can achieve this goal. Seeing how Gautrain has become an alternative transport mode to thousands of commuters every day and that we can compete with, and even exceed similar international service offerings makes me immensely proud.
Given your extensive expertise in the industry and as a leader, what has been the greatest learning that spurs you on daily?
I believe that success is a by-product of two key ingredients. Teamwork and proper planning. In the case of Gautrain, I often witness how different groups or business units come together to accomplish a specific goal. It doesn’t seem to matter whose goal it was to achieve in the first place, our staff just rallies together and look to find solutions. This type of culture breeds success and I am proud to say that at Bombela, this is the type of culture we have built for ourselves.
Likewise, effective planning is key for any project. As a team we have been able to meet and exceed expectations not by chance but by working together and by working a proper plan. We are accustomed to delivering on deadlines, and we not only do what we say we will do but we go all out to do it in the best way possible.
Finally, I personally do not see failure as an end-state. Instead, to me, it presents an opportunity to learn, to start over if need be, to do it differently and to get it right. What sets an achiever apart is his or her ability to dust themselves off and move forward. I’ve learnt early on in life that to be the best that I can be, I will have to embrace failure as well as I do success. The trick to success however lies in learning from what went wrong.
Much of your career has been spent in the public private partnership (PPP) realm. What in your experience are the key ingredients needed for a PPP to be successful.
For me PPP’s have shown that they can be successful and hugely beneficial. The biggest benefit is probably that there is a significant transfer of risk from the public sector to the private sector in terms of finance, technical development and implementation and operations. The long-term benefits and cost savings to the public sector in a PPP environment should not be underestimated.
I think three elements are absolutely essential to make a PPP successful. The first being a commercially sound and thorough contract or concession agreement between the relevant parties, second, a highly skilled and capable team equipped to deliver on the mandate set out in the contract or concession agreement and last but not least, a constructive and amicable working relationship between and amongst the relevant parties. All parties should ultimately strive for the greater good of the PPP. When this happens success is imminent.
What is Bombela’s vision with respect to transformation?
Transformation is a business imperative. It is not a nice to have, but the right thing to do, not just from a moral perspective but from a business perspective too. Leaders of the view that transformation is about compliance see it as a tick-box exercise. In my view, such leaders deprive their own organisations from their full potential.
I see value in transformation and whilst it is important to ensure that we meet and exceed the requirements stipulated in our contract and also the relevant legislation, as leaders we also ought to see the value that diversity presents to the business as a whole. My belief in transformation translates into a truly diverse executive and management team. I personally see the significant contribution that different employees bring to the table.
With diversity comes an array of views, ideas, solutions, and opportunities. We therefore should not see transformation as a tick-box exercise but rather as a drive to seek the best people to execute the task placed before the team. My executive team consists of two males (one white and one black), and three females (one coloured, one Indian and one White). Collectively they are each professionals in their own right and have earned their seat at the table. My management team is just as diverse with a healthy mix and balance of people irrespective of race, gender and disability.
The establishment and operation of the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link provides an ideal platform to boost transformation – both from a skills and economic perspective. How has Bombela capitalised on this opportunity?
Bombela signed up for very specific and onerous obligations in terms of social economic development. These obligations includes a wide variety of aspects including equity held by BEE [black economic empowerment] enterprises and black women, subcontracting to and procurement from BEE enterprises, subcontracting to and procurement from SMMEs, procurement of South African material, employment of historically disadvantaged individuals and people with disabilities, human resource development and many more. Not only has Bombela consistently met these obligations but we continue to exceed these obligation by a significant margin, even now during the operating period.
Simultaneously, one of the fundamental goals of the Gautrain was to bridge the mobility gap in the country by helping to overcome inequality and by promoting access to opportunity. As we know, greater freedom of movement contributes to economic empowerment and a higher quality of life. The Bombela Concession Company, together with its operator and other key entities, has helped make this goal a reality. The Gautrain is one of the most efficient, reliable and safe modes of public transport in South Africa, and the world at large. In connecting three key metropolitans, the Gautrain also connects people to each other as well as to opportunities across Gauteng.
According to an independent study conducted by KPMG, the Gautrain project has made a significant overall contribution to the economy, from construction phase through to it becoming fully operational. The Gautrain construction generated a variety of economic spin-offs from a R26.5bn investment. Over a period of six years, it has made an approximate contribution of R20bn to the provincial GDP. The project further sustained 121 800 jobs in Gauteng between 2006 and 2012.
With operations of the Gautrain already supporting in excess of 6 000 jobs, future growth in passenger numbers and the possible extension of the Gautrain, these numbers can increase drastically. For every R1million invested in future expansion, approximately five extra jobs can be created.
In addition, the Gautrain has accelerated social transformation by raising the living standard of and quality of life of all people of Gauteng.
Your tenure at the helm in the past few years has been characterised by phenomenal growth and success for the organisation. To what do you attribute this?
First and foremost, to my resilient, capable and highly-skilled team. Without a strong team to support you, success of this magnitude is not possible. I am also thankful to our commuters for placing their support and trust in the Gautrain. Without their support the Gautrain could very well have become a white elephant. I often say, we have some of the best commuters in the world. Our commuters hold us to high standards, and simultaneously show understanding and support during those 0.5% of the time when things don’t go as planned. Last but not least, the company’s shareholders and directors have given immense support, and continue to do so. Without their backing and assistance none of this would have been possible.
Do you envision a future for Gauteng that is predominantly reliant on public transport system?
Absolutely, this is an end-state that we should all strive for not just for Gauteng but for South Africa as a whole. It is a possibility but can only happen when we have a truly integrated transport system that works to service the needs of all people. Public transport is the blood line of any mature economy. It is not a nice to have, it is a must have. Think about it the same as the electricity supply, or London or Paris without its public transport systems. Take it away and those economies will collapse. By making the shift from private to public transport, we will inevitably help reduce South Africa’s carbon emissions rendering South Africa greener, safer, more connected and more efficient as a nation.
What do you hope to look back on as your legacy to the organisation, the province and South Africa in general?
I strive to leave behind a legacy of a safe, clean, efficient and reliable Gautrain system. I am proud and thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate that in spite of what naysayers have had to say, a public transport system in South Africa that is clean, safe, reliable and efficient is not just possible, but a reality, thanks to the Gautrain. I endeavour to leave behind a legacy that shows that in spite of the odds, it was not just possible, it was exemplary