Mpumi Madisa reveals what it takes to get to the top spot at Bidvest

I feel significant responsibility and accountability, the CEO-designate says.

When a call to congratulate her on being appointed as CEO-designate of Bidvest came from the president, Mpumi Madisa was driving, and had no idea who was on the phone. “He said that he was calling to say congratulations, and I said thank you. But it was only when he mentioned that he’d been out of the group for more than ten years – he used to be the chairman – that I realised. And then I had to say, ‘yes, Mr President,’ while pretending I’d known it was him all along and trying not to crash my car.”

Mpumi’s appointment has attracted the attention of the head of the nation along with many other industry analysts and well-wishers. When she officially assumes her duties in 2021, she will be the first woman to lead Bidvest, and one of two black women who are the CEOs of a JSE Top-40 company. “I feel the significant responsibility and accountability,” she says. “I have been on the board and accountable for the financial performance of the group for six years as a part of the team, but now the big change is the huge expectation.”
 
12 years at Bidvest
Mpumi’s journey with Bidvest started in 2003, when she joined the subsidiary Prestige’s client relations team. She spent six years progressing from Prestige to a divisional level.

Three years later, and she was already appointed to exco. “I have had a very quick progression in terms of seniority, but I still felt like I had lots more that I wanted to learn. At Prestige, I had progressed to one level below the board in three years, so I felt that being CEO of this business was in reach. But at the same time, I felt that I needed to go out and learn more. I didn’t want to get there too quickly.”

Mpumi tried to articulate this to a friend, struggling to put her finger on what exactly she felt was the missing piece of her career puzzle. The friend proved insightful. “She said I should go into government. It’s an enormous entity with pockets of excellence if I went out to find them. So I took the next six months looking for a job in government.”

She started out as a chief director of transformation at the Gauteng Provincial Government, setting up a portfolio that didn’t yet exist. “It was really fantastic and very different. I got to understand the difficulty government faces when interfacing with business, so I came to see some of the tensions and why they talk past each other. It was interesting to be the person in the room who could see both worlds and understand why, in some instances, they clash.”

While the exposure to the public sector was important for Mpumi’s personal growth, she decided that she needed to move on in 2008, because she felt that as the elections approached, the working environment became increasingly political. “I’d got what I wanted,” she says.

Then, by utter coincidence, at a petrol station, she met a Prestige board member and started chatting. “He asked me, ‘Have you got what you wanted to learn out there?’ And I mentioned that I was in fact looking already and had had a couple of interviews. He said I should come back and chat about where the business was, as they would like me back if I was ready.”

Clearly she was, because in 2008 she returned to Prestige as corporate affairs director in charge of four departments. She was shortly promoted to sales director, where her impressive turnaround of underperforming sales led her to expand her scope of work to the Bidvest Group level as executive director responsible for group business development. Mpumi was later appointed to the board of directors of Bidvest and her role expanded into other portfolios including Africa expansion, client relations, involvement in M&A and the acquisitive growth strategy of the group.
 
The next chief exec
Then, in 2013, Mpumi was called in for a conversation with current CEO Lindsay Ralphs as well as the Bidvest founder and ex-CEO, Brian Joffe. “They told me they thought I could be the next chief executive, and that they wanted me to spend time getting to know the entire group. I nearly fell off my chair! I had been in one division, but there were six others I needed to know well. They said that Lindsay would teach me the operational side of the business, and Brian would teach me corporate relations. Strategic relationships are an important part of such a big brand’s business, and we needed to walk that road together.”

While this was an unexpected and daunting proposal for Mpumi, she resolved to keep a clear head. “I decided to take the conversation and put it in a drawer and just do my job, learn as much as I could about the business, push myself as hard as I could, and do anything and everything to grow and add value.”

Push herself she did, and she ended up sitting on 22 boards within the Bidvest group, getting involved in business development, client relations, mergers and acquisitions. “And then last year, Lindsay and the board said that they were ready to make the announcement. For six years, I’d been doing the job as best I could, and now it was time.”

She says that the response has been far better than she ever expected. “From the day the announcement was made, a lot of our shareholders, clients and suppliers have been coming to me with positive feedback. One said that they would have been very surprised if someone other than me had been appointed. And of course, she received her call from the president.
 
Bidvest insights
Mpumi says that Bidvest’s evolution in the 12 years she’s been with the company has been wonderful to watch. “I’ve worked for Brian and for Lindsay, who had two very different leadership styles. Brian was the founder, and he had an amazing brain. Conceptually, he was continuously thinking twenty years ahead to what the company should be, quite instinctively. He taught me the gut feel stuff. Lindsay is more of a business operator and strategist. He’s taught me about how to run a business, getting deeply involved when you need to and pulling back when you need to. I’ve watched them manage the transition from a founder-led business to the next phase, with the fundamentals remaining in place.”

She points out that the business has done exceptionally well over the past 30 years. “There’s been compound growth every year for 29 years, the only year when there wasn’t was with the global economic crisis in 2008.”

The company, she says, is in a slightly different space today. The food business, which operated in 39 countries, was unbundled and listed as Bidcorp in 2016. The remaining businesses are 95 percent South African, and Mpumi says that they remain bullish about the country.

“We’re spending a billion setting up an LPG facility in Richards Bay. But 50 percent of our capital allocation is outside of South Africa, growing our footprint in specific niches – we have no intention of duplicating Bidvest in its current state outside of South Africa. To recreate what we have here is almost impossible, so our international aspirations are quite niche. Our first acquisition post unbundling was a facilities management business in Ireland. So we’re looking for bolt-on acquisitions like that in the UK. Hygiene services is another niche industry we would want to expand internationally.”

As well as being actively involved in driving all aspects of the business, Mpumi is also excited about a project that Bidvest is will be launching in the North West Province. “It’s basically a reskill and rebase project, bringing people in for artisanal training. It’s addressing the big issue of unemployment, which is why we chose the North West, where the mines have been scaling down and a huge number of people aren’t working. Our own staff take people through the programme, giving them skills so that they can become plumbers, electricians, toolsmen or carpenters.”
 
Mpumi’s leadership style
Mpumi believes in leading by example and earning respect. “I think that people will follow you when they believe in you, when you know how to deliver, when you intrinsically understand what you are doing and will make the right decisions. Because Bidvest has 120,000 people, one of the things that’s top of mind for me is the influence of my leadership, and how I can touch all 120,000 people in the Bidvest family.”

She says that this presents a challenge as the group has a decentralised operating model, so her people don’t all come to one office. “But I want to influence everyone with our vision, so that they can understand the strategy and how to achieve it and what their role is in our story. Whether you are a cleaner or a chief executive, I want you to understand your role in the bigger group and have a love for the brand in the way that I do.”
 
Getting to know Mpumi Madisa: Maths, marriage and fitness
Mpumi grew up in Sebokeng in the Vaal and went to the Santa Maria convent school for her primary education. When she was 16, her parents moved to the South of Johannesburg, and she finished her schooling at Mondeor High.

She holds three degrees – a B.Sc mathematics and economics, an Honours degree in economics, and a Masters in finance and investments. “I have an absolute love for numbers,” she says. “I get excited when I see a spreadsheet. My mother is a teacher, and from a young age, I helped her with calculating the test results. She would leave a pile of test papers in the kitchen, and she would say, ‘I’ve marked all of those. I need you to go through and double check them. And then double check that my percentages are correct.’ So I would count all the ticks and sit with a calculator, and although I hated it, it gave me a real knack for numbers and that’s how I ended up doing a B.Sc in mathematics.”

Mpumi is married to a petrochemical energy operational director, with two children. She and her husband are currently building a new home because they are “suckers for punishment”.

She believes that it’s important to be physically active so that your body can live up to the demands of life. “If you want your body to carry you, you must be fit. I need to do a 60-minute run every day. I’m clear that I have to do this. If I don’t, I can feel my body pulling back – a sluggishness or fatigue. It’s not a grudge thing for me. I feel the need to oxygenate my body.”