Some 10 years ago a new Financial Manager became part of the leadership team of a fledgling business on the verge of corporate success. The ensuing decade proved a watershed one – both for the flourishing company as well as for the young manager who joined its ranks. The Frans Indongo Group developed from an owner-centred retail operation to one of Namibia’s foremost investment companies. And Etienne Cloete grew from Financial Manager to the Chief Operations and Commercial Officer, taking a seat as an integral part of the Group’s top management structure.
Now, ten years after coming aboard, Etienne is bidding the Frans Indongo Group farewell and leaving the shores of his native Namibia to conquer new horizons in Sydney, Australia. Yet before Etienne left for Down Under, we had to opportunity to sit down with him for a glimpse of the highs, lows, triumphs and challenges that filled his days at the Group.
Etienne Cloete was part of the Frans Indongo Group for 10 years.
From Financial Manager to Chief Operations and Commercial Officer
The journey to becoming the Group’s Chief Operations and Commercial Officer took a few interesting turns along the way. After getting his degree in Accounting from the University of South Africa, Etienne joined Stier Vente Associates, where he did his articles. Then followed a stint at an NGO, while he continued to further his studies part-time. With an honours and his board exams in the bag, Etienne then joined Verizon – and started pursuing the idea of immigrating to the United Kingdom. “My plans were beginning to take shape when I got a call from a man by the name of Kobus van Graan, the CEO of the Frans Indongo Group, who told me that they had something that would pique my interest. He was right. I came aboard and ended up staying for ten years.”
Etienne joined the leadership team at a particularly pivotal point in the Group’s history. In 2006, the founding father, Dr Frans Aupa Indongo, fulfilled his vision of changing the company structure from an owner-managed to a corporate-managed model. Etienne remembers the time as both highly challenging and immensely rewarding. “For the first few years my role was purely financial, putting structures in place to take the group from an informal trading one-man show to a formal corporate structure – all within four years.”
As the Group’s investment portfolio increased, Etienne’s responsibilities shifted from the purely financial to operational. “I guided and coached not only the financial managers, accountants and finance in the Group but also to business leaders of our various subsidiaries. We simply grew so fast and so quickly that we needed someone to focus solely on operations – on exercising control and giving direction.” The solution was obvious. The Group hired a new Financial Manager and Etienne took his place as the Chief Operations and Commercial Officer.
Fixing the holes
Etienne’s vision when stepping into the role was clear. “The goal of any business is to make money,” he explains. “Yet to know whether a company can perform better and what it needs to boost performance and profits requires time, attention and insight. My approach was to spend time on the ground with the business leaders and finance and operational staff of the Group subsidiaries to analyse where improvements could be made and then to improve the necessary processes for optimal performance. In some cases this entailed overhauling large parts of the whole business structure. You can have a scenario where a company does make a profit, but where not everything filters down to the bottom line. If you have a bucket with a few holes in it and you want to make sure that the bucket holds water, your first job is to fix the holes. That was my purpose: fixing the holes.”
Looking ahead, Etienne has a few words of wisdom for the man who has taken over the responsibility of fixing future holes. “The prospects going forward are huge. By continuing to streamline businesses and implementing specific measures there is an opportunity to increase profits by nearly 50%.”
Etienne concedes, however, that pursuing these opportunities will present a number of challenges. “My advice,” he offers, “is to be diligent and persistent and to pay attention to the people involved. In the end, it is not about managing a business, but rather about managing people. The results and the profits will follow – as long as you manage the people well.”
During his ten years with the Group, Etienne has celebrated many feats and accomplishments. Yet there is one highlight that stands out. “I am extremely proud of being part of the team that managed to turn Bokomo from a loss-making entity to a star performer within three years. Looking at Bokomo now, it is a complete turn-around from where it was – 180° and even better.”
Bokomo produces value-added maize meal, wheat flour and pasta in Namibia.
Today’s picture of success did, however, require countless hours of hard work behind the scenes, he remembers. “First we implemented solid structures, then we got the right people on board, whom we equipped with the right tools, means and guidance to continue building on that structure. And we achieved all this with a small staff complement within an extraordinarily short timeframe.”
As one of the Group’s subsidiaries, the Bokomo brand has flourished, growing from strength to strength. “I believe,” Etienne holds, “that this measure of business success can to a large extent be ascribed to the structure we put in place.”
The secret to success
Over the past decade Etienne has witnessed the Group’s tremendous transformation from a budding initiative to a flourishing empire first-hand. “We grew from a handful of staff members to over 1,200 and net profits increased nearly tenfold, all in the last ten years. Not many companies in Namibia can do that. But the Frans Indongo Group certainly did.”
Etienne credits the Group’s success to a number of aspects. The first, he shares, is the foundation of integrity, excellence, perseverance and hard work implemented by the founding father. Everything else that was built subsequently rests on this solid structure.
The Group also ascribes to a culture of leadership and management excellence. “We have a diverse portfolio of companies,” Etienne explains, “but in the end, having the right people at the top, people with ethics and ability, is what makes all the difference. An army is only as good as its generals. If your generals are weak, you can forget about getting to the top. The same holds true for business. If you have strong, ethical and strategic heads at the helm, all things are possible.”
Another secret to the Group’s success is its solid track-record of business streamlining. “We have managed to maintain our focus and to rid ourselves of non-core entities. It boils down to having a strategic plan in place and then sticking to that plan at all costs. Of course there might be certain diversions along the route, but deviation is simply not an option.”
Etienne has high aspirations for the Group going forward. “People often speak about being the biggest and the best. But as far as I am concerned, the Group should just focus on being the best. Being the biggest will follow automatically. Looking at our history, that is not too much to strive for. The Group is well positioned and has a reputation as an ethical, reputable company with a solid track record of success. The capacity, the means and the promise are all there.”
“In the end, I want to see the Group as the preferred Namibian choice of employer, the preferred choice of investor and the preferred choice of local partner. In short, the Group must be the best. And I believe it is already well on its way of achieving this goal.”
What the future holds
Leaving behind the Group and the prospect of future opportunities is not easy, Etienne concedes. “There is still so much that I wanted to accomplish in the position of Chief Operations and Commercial Officer and as part of this Group. There is still so much potential and capacity for growth. But the opportunity to make a life in Australia came along. And it is time to take it. I am eager to prove myself out there.”
Etienne is still uncertain as to what the immediate future holds career wise. “For the first year I am taking a sabbatical to recharge my batteries and get a feel for the proverbial lay of the land. I want to gain a fresh perspective before I commit to something. The idea is to go into consulting for an auditing firm and just do contract work for a bit in different industries to find out which one I like. I honestly do not know in which industry I see myself in 5 years’ time. I have been a generalist for the past 10 years with a wealth of experience in various fields. Now I have the opportunity to focus on one industry and become a guru in a particular field. At this point I believe it is important to find a niche for myself and stick to that of the next years.”
The team that wishes Etienne well: Cheriza Vries (Receptionist), Rebecca Joseph (Financial Assistant), Jacobina Lungameni (Financial Manager), Lucinda Feris (Junior Financial Assistant), Tanja Beukes (Assistant Financial and Operations Manager) and standing at the back are Kobus van Graan (Chief Executive Officer) and Jeremy George (Newly appointed Chief Operations & Commercial Officer).
It is with a heavy heart that we say our goodbyes to Etienne. The legacy he leaves behind will continue to drive and inspire the Group into the future. We wish him only the best as he takes on the new challenges that Australia has to offer.