Nampak CFO Glenn Fullerton's remarkable journey to recovery after a cycling accident

"Never say die" is Nampak CFO Glenn Fullerton's approach to life. It served him well when he was told he would never return to work after a debilitating cycling accident in 2013. But this indomitable professional rose again to head up the finances of Africa's largest packaging company. Georgina Guedes chatted to him about how he got there and what he has learnt along the way.

After studying part time, while completing his articles through Deloitte and qualifying as a chartered accountant when he was 24 years old, Glenn Fullerton had a stellar rise through industry. He was employed in a group financial management role at Hunt Leuchars and Hepburn, a JSE-listed subsidiary of Rembrandt’s. A few years later he joined the corporate finance and business development team of the then-listed Malbak Group. During his four years with the group, he played an integral role in its unbundling, after which he served as the divisional financial director of the

Cartons Cores and Consumer and Plastics divisions of the remaining subsidiary, Kohler Packaging.

“I was then lured into the exciting growth industry of IT in March 2000, and at the age of 30, was appointed as group financial director of a relatively new listed company in IT distribution,” Glenn says.

This was MB Technologies, which today is the Tarsus Technology Group. “The group was formed in 1985 and was primarily an IT hardware distribution group and was trying to diversify into software and services while capitalising on significant growth opportunities in IT hardware distribution where it had a strong market position. I was part of a consortium that did a management buy-out and delisted that business in 2002. We grew the business into the largest IT distributor in Africa over a period of fourteen years.”

Glenn served as group financial director for ten years assisting the group in securing the requisite funding to fund its expansion. After the Group CEO had a horse-riding accident that left him paralysed, Glenn then fulfilled the position of group CEO for four years. However, a terrible cycling accident stopped Glenn’s career trajectory mid-flight. In February 2013, when he had completed 106km out of a 116km cycle race, a car tried to pass the peloton he was in, causing a devastating accident. In a moment of pure terror Glenn went straight over the handlebars head-first into the tar, going, as he says, “from fit to fragile in a mere second”. The memory of his former CEO’s paralysis drove him to turn his body at the last moment, and he broke his shoulder and several ribs. His neck was badly injured with three prolapsed discs, and he suffered vertical shearing on the side of his brain. He was left unable to use his right arm properly for a year. Glenn was lucky to escape breaking  his neck and is thankful to be alive.

Despite the other injuries being extremely painful and visible, the most debilitating injury at the time was the vertical shearing in his brain.

“It’s almost like a torn muscle,” he explains in layman’s terms. “As I hit the ground, forces went through my brain in one direction and ripped some of the brain tissue in the other direction.”

This had significant implications for his short-term memory at the time, and the doctors told him he would never work again, which was deeply distressing to him. He had to step down from his CEO position. “It was a very dark and challenging time for me – to not have a clear future ahead of me.  As an energetic and commercially minded leader I wrestled with the possibility of not being able to contribute to industry in the future in the way I had done previously.”
 
The long road to recovery
Glenn is thankful for the excellent insurance cover he had in place. His insurance company, Sanlam, put him through a rigorous rehabilitation programme and Glenn says he must sing their praises. “In terms of my insurance cover, Sanlam covered me through my disability insurance cover for the initial period of two years and closely monitored my rehabilitation with constant evaluations after which they encouraged me to return to work based on the significant recovery that I was able to make during this period.”

He says that difficult discussions took place as there was a suggestion that he should seek a significantly lower position so as to not stress his brain. “The thought of this was difficult for me to make peace with, having been the CEO of a relatively large business at the time of my accident.”
He devoted himself to every process of his recovery with a “never say die” attitude. “I just had a lot of tenacity around training my brain to do what it could previously do, teaching it to route messages in a new way and never giving up on my belief that I could and would recover.”  

He drew strength from his high school motto of “Forti Nihil Difficilius” which means “Nothing is too difficult for the brave”.

While his personal mental strength played an enormous part in his success, Glenn is also extremely grateful to his wife, children, larger family and friends who stood by him in his darkest hours. “I’m married to Lauren with three children and my wife is a CA as well. We met when we were 16 and studied all the way together. She was a fantastic pillar of strength to me during my recovery, as were my parents, children and friends. It was an enormously challenging time and the future looked quite bleak. I had my various insurance policies for which I was extremely thankful, but there was more to life than that. I’d been taken out of the business world that I was thriving in and couldn’t operate at the level I used to because of my injuries.”
 
Joining Nampak
After two and a half years of immensely hard work to recover from his injuries, Glenn, who had been told he would never work again, felt ready to return to the world of business. He expresses his gratitude to all the specialists and doctors who assisted him.

Despite his remarkable recovery, his doctors were concerned that overburdening his brain straight away might not be the best idea and that he should ease back into the business world. “But I thought, let me give this a go, complying with what my insurance company wanted, and if it didn’t work out, I could always say I tried. And thankfully, I’ve conquered the significant challenges that faced me.”

Due to his injuries and the need to ease his way back into the business world he was advised to return to being a CFO, which was a comfortable space for him. Fortune played a part, and Nampak was recruiting for a CFO. With his prior packaging experience, Glenn was a perfect fit. “I chose the CFO role in an industry that I had previous experience in because I’d be more comfortable and the stresses wouldn’t be as large.”
Of course, he had to disclose his condition and his journey to recovery.

“From an integrity point of view, I had to disclose exactly what had happened, but the market knew anyway because I’d had to resign from my previous role. I had to make a full disclosure to the chairman of the Nampak Board, the nomination committee and audit committee. Based on my representations and their assessment of my recovery they were comfortable enough to let me give it a crack. I am thankful to have been given the chance. They could have said no, and I am sure many other boards might have.”

And so, in September 2015, three and a half years ago, Glenn assumed the role of CFO of Nampak and grabbed the opportunity with both hands, making a significant impact on the Nampak Group finances.

Even so, the first six months were not easy for Glenn. The role required a level of mental fitness, and because a significant portion of the business is owned by foreign shareholders there were international roadshows, involving presentations to analysts and investors both locally and internationally. “It was quite a thing getting back to operating at that level. It was very tough in the first six months, but I got more used to it as time progressed and I got mentally fitter. I am most thankful for the support that I have been given by the Nampak CEO, my team and Nampak board.”

The business had been through a period of upheaval when Glenn joined. Management had divested out of a number of low-margin, low-barrier-to-entry businesses and invested heavily into Nigeria and Angola. The oil price subsequently collapsed from $110 a barrel to $27, which cost those economies significant amounts in lost dollar export revenues and resulted in significant “in country” shortages of dollars to fund their imports, placing these businesses under pressure.

“This put significant stress on the transfer  of cash from these economies and we had to restructure the group to accommodate very challenging times in the rest of Africa. One of the big transactions that we did was the sale and leaseback of 15 properties with the transaction valued at R1.7 billion and on which Nampak was able to report a capital profit of R1.3 billion, boosting equity and reducing the group’s debt, which allowed us to restructure the group’s balance sheet and improve the group’s liquidity,” says Glenn. “Some extremely tough decisions were required as part of the group recapitalisation plan, one of which was to cease paying a dividend to shareholders until the group’s gearing levels had been brought to levels that the board were comfortable with. This was complemented by active management of capex spends and working capital.”

Currently, Glenn is focused on using the high levels of capex spend of the last six or seven years to deliver appropriate returns for shareholders and ensuring that future capital expenditure is prudently allocated.

In addition, Glenn recently lead a team that secured a group revolving credit and term loan for R12,5 billion to address Nampak’s maturing debt profile, which has significantly restructured the group’s balance sheet and provided the group with a sound platform for future growth. Glenn’s focus has therefore been strongly on treasury in the past three years with the group’s gearing ratios now at a moderate level and significantly down from the levels it was at when he joined the group. “It has  taken concerted effort, support from my outstanding team, and focus to have restructured the group and to reduce the gearing to acceptable levels,” he says.

“It’s been a real personal victory for me to get back to what I was doing, on a bigger scale and in a much larger and diversified business. Nampak operates in 13 countries with 53 sites. There are approximately 6,000 people and it’s a business that’s been in existence for 70 years, and listed on the JSE for 50 years. It holds a very strong position in four substrates – metals, glass, plastic and paper. Recently, along with the Nampak Chairman and CEO, I had the privilege of opening the Johannesburg Stock Exchange trading in celebration of Nampak being listed for 50 years. It was a wonderful experience and something I will remember for many years to come particularly given the fact that my dad worked for the JSE for 20 years.”

A changed outlook
Glenn does have to take extra care of himself because of his accident and injury, but he says that he’s not the kind of person who can “sit on the sidelines”. “I don’t do half measures at all. My wife and parents continuously remind me to be careful, but I try to keep fit. There’s a gym at home, and a spinning bike. I don’t ride on the road that much anymore but do try and keep fit.”

He does however ride the Argus every year. “The only one I’ve missed in 20 years was the year of my accident.” And last year he completed a 160km race in the UK with his brother.

“It was an amazing experience to confront my fears. The Argus is only 109km and this was 160km.  It rained for the entire race and at times I could not see where I was going. It’s reflective of my personality that I am up for challenges, and I don’t let things beat me.”

But he won’t ride in races without road closures and his approach is to keep fit and be social.

Glenn is willing to share the story of his accident and recovery because he believes that others can learn from it.

“You can find yourself at a fork in the road, and your life can change in an instant. I had an absolutely unexpected accident remove me from being able to make a difference. So if you are given a chance, you should grab it and give back what you can. You can easily get bogged down in the negatives, but you have to focus on the big picture and see the positive aspects. From a leadership point of view, I’ve tried to bring that to the group.”

He adds that you should never take your health for granted because it can be taken from you in an instant. “Your biggest assets are your attitude to life, your health, your family, your support structures and how you are prepared to deal with adversity. I am thankful I was given a second chance, that I was not paralysed, that I have been able to overcome a traumatic brain injury, and have been able to return to a senior role in business where I have the opportunity to make a difference for Nampak and provide leadership for the executives and support staff whose lives I can touch daily.”