Harmony Gold FD Boipelo Lekubo lets no opportunity go to waste

Boipelo has a vision for improving the mining sector in South Africa through life-saving technology.

Boipelo Lekubo was appointed as the financial director of Harmony Gold Mining Company in March this year. Although she’s young, she has a great deal of relevant internal and external experience under her belt, and a vision for improving the mining sector in South Africa through life-saving technology, preferential procurement and mine rehabilitation. But March was an inauspicious time to kick off any new career move, and Boipelo first had to confront the challenges presented to a mining company by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Boipelo believes the financial health and wellbeing of the company is her greatest priority. “The role of the CFO/FD has changed so much in that it’s not the number crunching, reporting role that it used to be,” she says. “It’s more strategic.”

Boipelo is responsible for supporting all aspects of business in terms of developing the company’s strategy and executing it.

“We are always looking for opportunities to grow the company,” she says. “We’ve got a very dynamic, experienced, executive team that is always hungry for more opportunities to improve the company.”

She has been involved in concluding Harmony’s acquisition of the last remaining assets of AngloGold Ashanti in South Africa. She’s also been working on a massive project in Papua New Guinea – a tier-one copper asset – where Harmony is in the process of securing a mining lease for the operation.

Boipelo is passionate about driving Harmony’s strategy around preferential procurement. “We talk about how we always want to go beyond compliance, not because we have to, but because it’s a national imperative that we do. This is a very strong drive within Harmony at the moment,” she says. Over the last two years, with the help of a consultant, she and her team have developed a strategy that she believes will yield very positive results within the next few years.

One example of this is the recent launch of a 36-month incubation programme to empower youth and female-owned businesses in Harmony’s host communities.

Technology beyond financial reporting

Boipelo is enthusiastic about the role that technology has to play at Harmony, not just in terms of supporting financial reporting. “We have rolled out what we call a ‘missing person locator’ across our South African operations, so we know exactly where each and every miner is at any point in time,” Boipelo says. “We are also able to track water and air temperatures in real time.”

All of these initiatives increase the productivity and safety of the miners that work for Harmony. Whereas previously, after a mining incident, search and rescue teams would have to look and try and see where a person was, now they are able to pinpoint exactly where that person last was, and target that specific area.

Investing in these types of technologies is a complicated business, as Harmony operates in deep-level underground mines. “It’s harder to fully automate deep-level underground mining due to the narrow reef ore bodies that we mine,” Boipelo said. “Open-pit mines are a lot easier to digitise and automate.”

Boipelo has to ensure that Harmony’s investment in technology is balanced against the life of the mine to allow for a reasonable timeframe for a return on investment. “You wouldn’t necessarily invest so much technologically in the mines that have a lifespan of less than five years,” she says, “other than in things that improve the safety and wellbeing of employees such as the missing person locator.”

Every challenge is an opportunity

At the start of Boipelo’s appointment to her new role, Covid-19 was not yet prevalent in South Africa. However, when the virus was on the country’s doorstep, the gold price environment had improved significantly, which was beneficial for Harmony as the company is highly geared towards the rand gold price.

With companies like AngloGold Ashanti withdrawing from operating in South Africa, many are left wondering about the viability of gold mining in South Africa, but Boipelo believes this is not the end of the industry.

“At Harmony we don’t shy away from South Africa,” she said. “We’ve been operating in the country for almost 70 years, this year being Harmony’s 70th anniversary.”

In fact, most of Harmony’s mines were acquired from Anglo. “We operate a much leaner operating structure and also mine the shaft pillars where we can, thus increasing the life of mine of the operation, which is something that AngloGold Ashanti does not necessarily do. This has resulted in Harmony extending the life of the mines and creating a sustainable sector by creating and saving jobs, as well as sustaining mining communities.”

Looking across Harmony’s portfolio, while there are some mines that will be coming to the end of their lifecycle in the next five years, there are a number that will still be operating for more than 10 years. “The first full financial year (FY19) including Moab Khotsong in our portfolio resulted in 7,928 kilograms (254,891oz) of gold produced, contributing R745 million to our free cash flow and reducing the overall all-in-sustaining unit costs for the group.”

Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Along with many other organisations, Harmony was faced with the challenging task of sustaining lives and livelihoods throughout the lockdown period.

Harmony’s operations are building up to full capacity following the temporary shutdown of mining operations nationally as part of the country’s lockdown in March 2020. Surface operations and Harmony’s Hidden Valley mine in Papua New Guinea continued to operate, however. Since the lifting of some lockdown regulations in South Africa in mid-April, there has been a safe and controlled return of employees to the mines.

In the operational update for the nine months ended 31 March 2020, Harmony reported that its operating free cash flow margin more than doubled to 13 percent from 6 percent for the nine months ended 31 March 2019. This was due largely to a 21.6 percent increase in the average rand gold price received for the period to R704.65/kg. Operating free cash flow increased by more than 100 percent, from R1.3 billion to R3 billion.

Meeting the challenge of being a CFO

Boipelo joined Harmony as chief financial officer in 2017 before her promotion to her position as financial director. She has extensive experience in group financial management and reporting within the mining industry. Her previous positions include that of chief financial officer of Atlatsa Resources Corporation and financial manager of Northam Platinum. She served as an independent non-executive director of Trans Hex Group from 2013 until 2017 and is currently an independent non-executive director of African Rainbow Capital and of UBI General Partner. She is a qualified CA(SA).

Given the overwhelming male dominance of the mining industry, Boipelo shares her views on the challenges facing women in this space. “We should steer away from the male versus female argument. Each person, irrespective of their gender, brings their own unique skills to the boardroom table. As a leader, it is important to establish your voice within an organisation in a respectful but assertive manner.”

People have often said that since Boipelo is so young, she has had to prove herself over time. “You always have to be on top of your game. There will be times that you are challenged merely because of a certain bias towards you and your experience. I believe I have handled that challenge quite well.”

Given the dynamic nature of the mining industry, Boipelo maintains that such an environment calls for “visible and inclusive leadership”. In explaining her approach to dealing with the challenges she’s faced, Boipelo adds that it’s important to be able to provide the right leadership at the right time. “In this industry, you need to be able to adapt to changing situations. Situational leadership – matching your behaviour with the performance needs of individuals – has proven to be a useful tool to me in such an environment.”

Adding the ESG element

Having been with Harmony for more than three years, Boipelo has seen the annual report evolve. “The ESG element has been introduced, so a lot of stakeholders are asking what we are doing environmentally, socially and in terms of governance.”

Boipelo refers to Harmony’s rehabilitation programmes as an example of the company’s commitment to environmental management. “In the Free State, we have completely rehabilitated where we previously mined.”

Harmony’s accelerated rehabilitation programme has resulted in the rehabilitation and backfilling of 45 shafts to date. Each operation’s environmental management programme includes closure commitments to expedite beneficial post-mining land use and promote sustainable community livelihoods.

Harmony is also embarking on a 30 megawatt solar plant in the Free State that will reduce some of its load and dependency on a troubled Eskom.

“With the stage six load shedding that we experienced in 2019, we couldn’t take any shifts down. So for two days we had no people underground. We lost about 80 to 90kg of gold as a result. Irregular power supply is not only costly, but also unsafe.”

While South Africa will still be feeling the fall-out from Covid-19 and its infrastructural challenges for many years to come, Harmony, with Boipelo in the finance hot seat, is well-positioned to weather challenges, forge its own destiny and seize opportunities. This company and its FD seem to be geared for success.

Home life

When she’s not spending time with her daughter, Boipelo plays golf, occasionally cycles and goes to the gym.

“It can get demanding with travelling and work, but you make it work. I’m fortunate to have a great support system around me, which definitely makes a difference.”

Boipelo completed the 21km Soweto half-marathon in 2019. She wasn’t a ‘runner’ at the beginning of the year, but by the end of the year, she was running 21km races, which she considered a big achievement. “They say the bug just grabs you.”