Jerry Mabena is the CEO of the newly formed Thebe Services Division that brings together the Thebe Tourism Group and Thebe Enterprise. With an extensive business background ranging from advertising and events to property, Jerry has learned many lessons and here he shares his views on managing and planning for change.

Tell us a bit about your background and personal life — you’re a Jo’burg boy, yes?

Jerry Mabena is the CEO of the newly formed Thebe Services Division that brings together the Thebe Tourism Group and Thebe Enterprise.

Let’s be more specific, I’m an Alex boy! I was born in Alexandra, and I studied there, until I got my bursary to Sacred Heart College. From there I got another bursary to do a post-matric at St Stithians, before heading to Rhodes University. I am now married with two children — two boys. Ndabule turns 13 soon and Lwazi will be 9.

Where did your career start?

At Rhodes I did a BComm, majoring in industrial psychology and management. In the last quarter of my final year I was recruited by Unilever. So in the first week of January, I was on a plane to Durban, and I spent a very exciting three years there. Unilever is one of those places where they say “forget what you learned at university we’re going to teach you what you need to know”, and you just lap it up. It was a wonderful to meet people too. I look at the network of people I made in those days, a lot of whom have done very well, and it’s exciting to see where they are now.

What brought you back to Johannesburg?

After a few years I grew tired of corporate. I joined an NGO up here in Jo’burg. I worked in the reconstruction and development programme called The Culture of Learning. It was focused largely on restoring education in schools, post 1994. It was just after Nelson Mandela became president and it was one of his key projects that he launched. It was exciting to be part of that, to feel part of something bigger than yourself. We went to rural schools that didn’t have anything, and worked with the community. It had a lot of meaning to it.

You also worked at JW Thompson, and ran your own advertising business. What are the lessons you took from those experiences?

At the beginning advertising was fine, but I think there are two types of people in the industry: those that grow into advertising and those that grow out of it. I was one of the latter. I still love it as a profession, but as an outsider. I think the world has changed and advertising in the classical sense needs to redefine itself. In the good old days you spoke about brand building and that’s how you made money. Well, clients don’t have the time anymore. If you build something good today, it’s sold out in stores tomorrow, and that’s without advertising. We need to recognise that consumers are very different from the days where we were speaking to them. We now speak with them. They want to be able to respond, to interrogate, to touch, to experience, to try. While we think we live in a very high tech time, people still value touch. So from that point of view, I just found that advertising was very uni-directional in its approach.

What advice do you have for those people looking to start their own venture?

Your support system needs to be good, in terms of morale and psychology. For me, my family was there. When you go home, the last thing you need is someone nagging you about when the pay cheque is going to arrive. If they have an understanding from the outset that, for example, we’re not going to have our usual three holidays this year, it helps. In terms of planning, you do need to plan where the money is going to come from.  And as much as possible, you need to have something lined up that will give you some income, no matter how little — if nothing else, that will keep you going psychologically. Even if it’s R200 a month, just for delivering someone’s post. Then you can say, “Ok, my budget is R200, now I need to up it”. But to have zero lined up … that can kill you psychologically.

After advertising, you joined Kagiso as CEO of Kagiso Exhibitions, and later of Kagiso Property Holdings. What are the highlights of your time there?

It was an exciting time. It came just after I tried to run my own business, which I had run up and then down again. Around that time Kagiso came along. It was a job that I really, really enjoyed. I think that was because it’s a very dynamic environment. If you make mistakes today, you have a chance to remedy them within 12 months. You don’t have that long recovery process like property. I enjoyed that, although it was helluva stressful. I was there about three years, within the Kagiso group, moving from there into property within the group.

What prompted you to move into property?

At some point after I moved into the property side of Kagiso, there was a change in leadership and a change in strategy, and we almost became irrelevant from the Kagiso point of view. So I left, and I was jobless for a little more than a year. I was speaking to a number of people, looking for a kind of big brother who could take us in – me and a colleague. I joined Thebe as CEO of Thebe Property Asset Management in 2011, before Thebe Services was created.

What necessitated the merger between Thebe Tourism and Thebe Enterprises, and how has the transition from two companies to one been?

I think sometimes we make it a bigger issue than it is. It’s a lot of work, make no mistake. Suddenly you have so many small groups to deal with. When you look at the number, it can be overwhelming, especially when each one is active and each one has its own issues, you find that what you learn from one just doesn’t apply to the other, so somewhere along the way you just have to deal with the non-continuity.

But where the merger begins to make a lot of sense, is when you take all these entities and you ask: “How do we corporatize this and make it work like a single unit?” and “How do we do that but still recognise that it is not a single unit?” It is a conglomeration of singular units.

What’s been your biggest challenge to date?

You have leaders of those organisations who have their own views, own opinions and own ways of doing things. So how do you begin to ready them towards a particular goal or cause? It almost turns you into a very sophisticated salesman. You are selling ideas, dreams and visions to a group of people who may or may not see them from day one.

What constitutes “all customer facing service businesses”?

The idea of “customer facing” is a very difficult one. Your customer is your stakeholder, and your stakeholders vary. When you speak to different stakeholders, you need to speak in languages they understand. When Kaya FM speaks to its audience, it’s very different from how we speak to its clientele. And similarly in our healthcare business, when we speak to clients who are on the medical aid administration side, it’s different from how we speak to the unions who might be custodians of those funds. For them, we need to give them peace of mind. For the customer, we need to perform.

What is your primary push or main objective for 2013?

There are two levels to our objective. The objectives for 2013 are still very much business stuff – the hard issues like profitability and getting systems working, ensuring these entities are sustainable. But that sustainability is only possible if you have good service. If you don’t, then you get cut out of the market place, so it’s a cascading system. As some people say, the profit objective is a consequence of good service.

You are involved with the Columba Leadership Academy; can you share with us why you got involved with the Academy?

I’m just a trustee there, and my role is really a governance one, to make sure they run the initiatives well. But broadly speaking, the Columba Leadership Academy is an opportunity for me to do the stuff that I am passionate about – which is youth development.

You are a non-executive chairman of our naming partner Kaya FM, can you talk about those responsibilities, the importance of the new building and the future of the station?

I don’t operate from there on a day to day basis, so I can’t quite speak about teething issues, but the one thing I know, is that for the team there, the move has made them feel big now. They feel like they have grown up, they are not in the Mvela League anymore, but the Premier League. It has really enhanced their image, and put them in the league where they have always belonged, and now the clients are making the necessary mental adjustment too.

How do you relax in your spare time?

I run in the mornings, just to make sure the work stress doesn’t kill me. And whenever I get a chance I like to do some kind of adventure sports, whether it be a bit of river rafting, hiking, or anything that puts me on the edge. I want to jump out of aeroplanes, but I don’t think I’ll be allowed to. My wife, and the company, won’t like that.