DEREK THOMAS – LETSEMA CONSULTING CEO

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Letsema is a privately-held investment holding company with long-term interests in management consulting, third-party investment management and proprietary investments. In over 20 years with the group, Thomas has led each of the firm’s operating divisions.

Thomas has a keen interest in the study of ‘Late Industrialisation’. To this end he has recently been growing Letsema’s proprietary investment portfolio, which includes the manufacturing of wax microspheres for the global cosmetics industry. His focus is technology that reduces the complexity of the production processes in certain chemicals. If successful, the technology will have broad application in the chemicals industry.

Under the mandate of a partnership agreement between Letsema and the trade union CEPPWAWU, Thomas led CEPPWAWU Investments (Pty) Ltd, also known as “CI”. This made CI one of the most successful union investment companies in South Africa.

His consulting career included inter alia serving as a strategic advisor to the Director General and Minister of South Africa’s Department of Public Enterprises (DPE), where he worked on numerous projects of national strategic interest. Thomas serves on the boards of various private companies and is Chairman of the Board of Transpaco Limited (a JSE-listed packaging company).

Thomas holds two Master’s Degrees in Economics, from the University of London and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), respectively. He is a Fellow of the fourth class of the Africa Leadership Initiative South Africa, and both a member and moderator of the Aspen Global Leadership Network (“AGLN”). His moderating focus, over the last three years has been the design and delivery of a curriculum for young South African leaders, modelled on the successful AGLN programme. Thomas also enjoyed a season as the presenter of Think Big, a TV show screened on SABC 3 in 2014 that focussed on promoting entrepreneurialism in South Africa.

What was life before Letsema, and what did you study at school? I wanted to become a chartered accountant but fortunately or unfortunately that was not meant to be. I discovered economics in university and subsequently wanted to work in government. I joined one of the departments but only lasted four months once I realised that I had made a big mistake. Before being immersed in bureaucracy, I needed an apprenticeship that would guide my early career. In 1995, I joined my business partner Isaac Shongwe and we have been together ever since.  He was trying to start a consulting business and I was young and willing to take risks. In hindsight, what he was trying to do seemed impossible but because I was naïve and lacked discernment, I believed anything was possible.

What have been the highs and lows of your career and business? When I look back at my career, I embrace as victories the things that I failed at because – without being overly philosophical – I believe they gave me an opportunity to learn.  In business although one would think that part of the benefit is the accumulation of capital, I worry that more wealth may not be a good thing; it sometimes renders you less human. So if you ask me a question about highlights, understand that my highlights are moments of misses and failure.

But to give a less philosophical answer, I am boy from the wrong part of the wrong part of town. Through education, I was lucky enough to meet Isaac and apart from being business partners, we are friends with nothing contrived or artificial. It is a big victory for me. That is not to say we don’t disagree, but most people complain about where they work and want something new whereas in my case, I hope for a further 20 years in this beautiful partnership that allows me so much freedom. We have built a great team and an institution that can serve apprenticeships which is important because in South Africa, you can make money and never learn your trade which is a real tragedy.

Looking at the lows, like most professionals, I wish I had spent more time with family. My son is going away to university and there are times I wish I could have the little boy back. I keep wondering where all that time went. Another low would be moments where I may have been unkind to others or judged them inaccurately. In business, you have to make assessments all the time and being human, you are likely to make mistakes that may break others.

What keeps you awake at night?

The ability to continue paying the salaries of the 40 – 50 people we have in our employ – I would hate to tell someone, look we tried but actually the world is drying. I worry about commercial judgements, which contracts to go after and which ones not to go after in order to hold things together.

With these business challenges, how do you remain ethical?

You have to love your business and not money. The love of money will draw you into a space where your ethics will be tested. We are not saints but we try every day to live according to our values. We do business our way which does not make us everybody’s favourite but we believe this will be beneficial in the long run.  We have not paid a dividend in three years because we are not growing as rapidly or getting certain contracts that one would expect a brand of our strength to rope in.

How would you describe the growth trajectory of your business?

In consulting specifically, we have become more adept commercially and are becoming better competitors. We have had to rebalance our portfolio and spread our risk. As mentioned, we have been conservative with both bonuses and dividends. The business has come down by about 30% from its peak but I am ok with that because it has meant that we are a stronger, more concentrated firm. It is a situation of quality over quantity and have learned to seek strong staff for our business. We have ventured into the financial services sector which is proving to be a success as well as expanding our operations to Southern Africa.

From a customer point of view, what makes you believe that you are delivering? I think genuine professionals know when they have delivered quality. The market affirms them and your client smiles when paying the cheque. We’ve been blessed in the sense that I don’t know of any client that has said to us ‘we are not prepared to pay you because you haven’t delivered.’ In many cases, we have repeat business and customer testimonials that continue to expand our client base.

What kind of recognition have you received?

We won the Best Procurement Consultancy Project award in 2015 at the CIPS Africa Awards and the Best Service Provider Award in 2014 at the Transport Africa Awards.  The TV show I hosted – Think Big – also won a South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA). Late last year, I was also featured in Entrepreneur magazine.

What has been your contribution to the community?

We believe in the catholic value of leadership because leaders change the world and conceptualised the African Leadership Initiative which we intend to make Pan-African. We also run the Young African Leadership Initiative which is often confused with Obama’s project by the same name – both programmes focus on promoting ethical leadership and the development of community projects. I commit five weeks each year to these initiatives and Isaac commits four weeks. As the leaders of our organisation, it is a big commitment to not for profit work.

Is transformation a key objective of the firm?

We are acutely aware of our need to develop black excellence in the professional context and within the ambit of non-racialism. We believe it will take fifty years to build a recognisable black management consulting firm given the legacy of apartheid that painted the black man unable to do more than carry wood. We  work hard at that so that we can hand over to new generations once we are gone, an institution that doesn’t cut corners but espouses excellence in every sense of the word.

 

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