Imtiaz Patel: It’s been a tough ride, but turnarounds can be achieved – for countries just like companies

LONDON — Imtiaz Patel runs the Naspers Video Entertainment business which has 14 million customers. Under his guidance the business has just experienced an excellent turnaround after a two year restructuring. CEO SleepOut™ veteran Patel likens his company’s rebound to what is in prospect for South Africa – and he has challenged heavy hitters Jabu Mabuza, Sipho Maseko and Shameel Joosub to brave the elements and accept the challenge to overnight under the stars at Liliesleaf on July 11th. – Alec Hogg

I’m Imtiaz Patel. I’m the CEO for Video Entertainment for Naspers, which essentially means MultiChoice across Sub-Saharan Africa.

And 14 million people?

And 14 million customers in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which just under 7 million are in SA.

That’s a huge base. It’s highly influential. I know you guys do quite a bit of CSI?

Yes, some stats in SA which we are very proud of. We pay over R6bn in tax, direct and indirect taxes. We spend over R3bn per annum on small and medium sized enterprises. Most of which are black enterprises. We fund sport to the tune of more than R2bn per annum.

These are huge numbers.

We spend R2bn on local content, on production of local content so there’s thousands of people who would benefit from local productions that happen in small shops and in big production companies. Then of course, the value chain – we have hundreds and thousands of people who would install dishes and decoders, as an example, so that’s all part of the CSI program, and obviously, we’re very proud of it. Then through SuperSport we do the MultiChoice Diski Challenge, which is the development competition in the PSL. We do a rugby challenge, which is the development competition in rugby so, there’s a number of things.

Imtiaz Patel

We’ve known each other for many years. I remember at the time that I was at Absa, which is more than 20 years ago, you were with what was then Transvaal Cricket, and development is in your blood.

Yes, and I started-out teaching in Soweto, at Pace College in 1988. I taught there for 3 years and Ali Bacher had just started a cricket development program in the townships. So, I used to teach in the mornings and coach for him in the afternoons, and then went fulltime in 1991. Then moved from running the development program for a few years to becoming the director for Professional Cricket as Ali’s number two around 1997/98. I did that for 3 years and then joined SuperSport in late 1999.

Cricket was way ahead of the other sports, or it seemed to be anyway, in development.

Yes, I think as with all things one needs a visionary and, in many ways, Ali Bacher was a visionary by any standards, and by benchmarking any administrators across the world, in every sport, he would stand out as top-notch. Yes, he had a vision. He drove it purposefully, and he drove it singularly and as with all visionaries, people who see the light follow, so we followed.

Well, it was quite a lot of vision in creating the CEO SleepOut™ in 2006 in Australia, and it came to SA in 2015. You’re supporting it this year, the one at Liliesleaf. What does Liliesleaf mean to you?

Well, first of all we’re supporting it. We’ve supported it in the past. I had the luxury of sleeping on a very cold night on a street in Sandton some years ago. Then I got my colleague to sleep on, I believe what was a colder night, on the Nelson Mandela Bridge, a couple of years ago, so good luck Alec.

So you’re not coming this time? You’re sending colleagues this time?

I’m sending colleagues this time because I’m not going to be in the country.

A pity, I would have liked to have shivered with you.

Absolutely, no question.

We’ll swap notes after the 11th of July, but Liliesleaf?

Yes, Liliesleaf brings lots of emotion, lots of thoughts. I spent a lot of time with Nic Wolpe in the last few years trying to help him raise money, visiting the place, looking at the museum. They’ve done an unbelievable job. One always sort of feels that you want to take more people there when you visit the place. It’s a very important time in your own head to create a juncture and a reminder of our history. When you think of Mandela, and Kathrada, and what that moment meant. It’s a deeply emotional place, in some ways, but it’s a deeply powerful place. I think it’s very appropriate at this point in time in the life of our country that the sleepout is happening there.

On the 55th anniversary of the raid.

On the 55th, and that is extremely powerful. I don’t know what your program is for the night but I hope the organisers are going to do something, maybe around a talk on what happened 55 years ago and what Liliesleaf means and maybe a bit of history, because many of us are young. Or many other CEOs are young and I think reminders are important and creating a shared history is absolutely critical. I think for all of us to get together and create a shared history or a shared future for our children, and I think that concept of a shared history where we can all start with standing in each other’s shoes is so powerful. I think black and white CEOs and their colleagues that they’ll be bringing along. By the way, that’s a very powerful thing, I think, to do. I think it will be a very important moment for CEOs to reflect. Not only because it allows us to think about the poor in our country, and there are many of them. But I think reflecting about how we can take this country that’s in a very difficult moment in its time, and take it forward collectively, with that shared history in mind.

Nic Wolpe will be there, your friend. I’m sure he’s going to be popping around to different groupings to share the story of Liliesleaf, which is an amazing story, as you well know. But what about Nelson Mandela? He wasn’t arrested at Liliesleaf. He spent a lot of time at Liliesleaf, but what does he mean to you, his legacy?

My God, how can… He means so many things to all of us. My overriding memories, when I finished Long Walk to Freedom, I closed the book with tears in my eyes. I think he is what we all aspire to, but we can’t even get there. So, in a sense, it feels overwhelming to aim to be some little bit of what he was. But he represents a beacon of what we can all aspire to. For me, that’s a very important thing, and it’s a reminder. He’s in our subconscious every single moment, I think, of what responsibility we should be carrying as individuals, and I guess, as leaders of companies, and whatever leadership positions we have, in our own homes with our children – it’s the best I can do to describe him.

Dr Makaziwe Mandela, his eldest daughter, is the patron of the SleepOut™ this year, and what’s also quite pertinent here is that the Liliesleaf SleepOut™on the 11th of July is exactly a week before Madiba would have turned 100.

My god.

So, it’s all kind of coming together. Who would you challenge to, if they aren’t already coming, to actually get out there on the 11th of July?

I’ve got quite a few people I want to challenge. First of all, Jabu Mabuza, my good friend.

I second that.

Secondly, Shameel Joosub, from Vodacom.

I second that one too.

Sipho from Telkom – come on boys, you’ve got to be there.

So, we’ve got the ‘big-3?’ Oh, and I’m sure they could bring some of their colleagues along as well.

No question about it.

And all three of them would keep us pretty well entertained, particularly Mr Mabuza.

Absolutely, Mabuza will keep you entertained for sure.

Imtiaz, and as far as the business is concerned. We’ve just had the Naspers’ results, MultiChoice is continuing to do well. Hanging in there, despite some incredibly tough competition.

Yes, the Sub-Saharan Africa business went through a really tough time a couple of years ago. If you recall, commodity prices fell through the floor. Currencies devalued heavily. Those economies went through a really hard time so, we’ve spent quite a bit of years, 2 years in fact, trying to turn that business around. I think we’ve done a fine job. It’s stabilised, currencies have stabilised, macroeconomics have stabilised. In SA we’ve got fundamental shifts that are happening in our industry so, over the top operators, like Netflix, like YouTube are big gorillas that have entered our space. Consumer trends are shifting. Young people don’t watch TV, they watch TV on a mobile screen. Technology changes – and we’ve got to stay abreast of that. It’s impacted the top-end of our subscriber base. Partly, also, because of the economics of what’s happening in our country, affordability issues. The bottom-end is robust, we’re growing there. It does impact on our margins, and we’re spending a lot of time transitioning to our ‘over the top products.’ We’re spending a lot of time looking at cost base.

Lots of challenges?

Lots of challenges, no question about it.

When you say, ‘transitioning to the over the top’ taking account of what’s happening in the world as a whole. How will MultiChoice look in 10 years time, compared with today?

I think quite fundamentally different. So the success of our Showmax product is extremely important. The success of our DSTV Now product is extremely important. It remains to be seen whether we will snap off other kind of smaller over the top packages, where you can consume sport as a separate package, general entertainment as a separate package. But it has major impacts on the economics of the business models, and that’s just where the world is going. My one concern is that regulators in SA are looking in the rear-view mirror and trying to regulate into the future. When there are fundamental shifts taking place in this industry, to take them along with us, to get them to understand that it’s not about today or about tomorrow, it’s not about 3 years. It’s about looking 10 years and allowing African and SA companies to be enabled through regulation to compete with these international giants. That’s the big challenge for regulators and it’s a big challenge for us to take regulators along. So in a nutshell I think the business has had a good year, a stabilising year, but challenging times ahead.

Well, I’m glad you’ve had a good year because once again, you’re supporting the CEO SleepOut™, and you’re going to be sending your colleagues there because you have found a reason not to be in the country at the time.

My colleagues are going to be there. We’re very excited about the support. I think you’ve come onboard, which is very powerful for it. You’ve twisted our arm to get involved again so that’s very powerful. I think, when you describe all the things about Liliesleaf and 55 years ago what happened, and 100 years of Mandela’s birthday – it’s a coming together, in some ways, a number of moments could prove for this CEO SleepOut™ to be a very powerful moment for leaders getting together and saying, ‘let’s reflect on what do we do and going forward, to create a future of our country?’

Imtiaz Patel, good to see you, as always, here in London so, you are out of the country actually.

I am.

Well, maybe CEO SleepOut™ 2019, we can get an even colder night and the two of us could go there together.

Definitely, you’re on.