Outlier #1 – Mteto Nyati’s path from rural obscurity to Altron’s 6x wealth creator

In this new series on South Africans who have massively outperformed, mechanical engineer Mteto Nyati explains how his family’s obsession with education put him onto a road to becoming an Outlier. It’s a story of discipline and dedication, faith and application – and an appreciation that fancy plans are worth nothing without execution. He spoke to Alec Hogg of BizNews.

Mteto Nyati on embracing opportunities despite struggle

My parents were not rich by any means. Not at all. Not at all. So one of the things that I set out to do when I went to St John’s College, at grade ten, a new home, was how my mother was struggling. In fact, she had to stop being a teacher, go and start up a trading shop to help us. And she’s by the way, she’s the person that helped me shift our whole family into a different level, that risk that she took the right to establish a store. But I could see how much she was struggling. And I made the decision when I heard there was a bursary there, I said, I need to get it, so what I’m saying here is that opportunities are there. But you have to want them. You have to go after them. And they decided to give out of maybe about 120 students they gave bursaries to only 20. I told myself, I want to be one of those 20. And of course, I got in. And throughout all of high school they paid zero, nothing. You know what I’m saying here is this has got less to do with the fact that I had come from a family where there was teachers, but also being hungry for something, understanding where you can help, because here you can see that your parents have got, you know, all of these responsibilities you can help and the choices that you make, they make us you know, at the end of the day, those choices make us.  

On his time at Altron –  how he contributed to the share price boost from ten rand to thirty in three years

I think it’s a combination of factors. First of all, Altron was not by mistake. Some companies that I looked at when I was at MTN were looking at buying Altron. So I had spent a lot of time going under cover to look at this organisation. They were going through a difficult time. But they could see that they’ve got such great assets. This is a company that has got so much potential, so I did not go in there cold. I went in knowing fully, well, what is it that I need to do in order for us to realise the value. So that’s the one thing. I also happened to partner with VCP, which is the private equity firm that hired me there. And this a combination of the two of us, working together, we were able to do amazing things there. I focus on creating the right culture and making sure that we dispose of the non-core assets and executing and rallying everybody around that. Even the family, they stood on the side. They just gave me the space together with my leadership team, this space that was absolutely critical. 

On his timing for investing in particular shares

For me, it’s really about those insights, understanding what is the driver of this thing. You know, it may look good. Now, is this thing sustainable? What is driving it or is it just hype? You know, that’s the stuff that helped me. My engineering background helps in the sense that I’m a problem solver. I try to get to the root of the thing. You know, it took me three months to get to what is really the core of the challenges that Altron was facing, and I was able to quickly say, okay, let’s drive this one Altron strategy, the same thing with MTN and quickly get to an environment, understand, okay, these are problem areas and if you can shift and move these things around, this will have massive impact. And guess what? We were able to fix MTN South Africa at the time, which was underperforming, in a very short period of time. It’s getting to the core of the problem and that to me is the engineering capability and competence.  

On construction rather than destruction

When we’re sitting with an unemployment rate of just over 35%, we cannot afford to be destroying anything. We need all the companies out there. What we need to be doing is to, if need be, transform them and make them able to serve society. And that was the mission that I went there with – saying you know what, we need to start working together across different races and demonstrate that working together we can achieve so much. And I’m glad that the employees of Altron from all sides were able to first embrace that message and were able to help us to demonstrate to some of South Africa that these things are possible. 

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