Eskom’s CEO Brian Dames: Burnt out at 48 after three years in the job? Promises he’ll be back

Brian Dames - EscomBrian Dames is on his bicycle. The highly regarded Eskom CEO says the job is just too energy draining. He’s had enough and plans to spend more time with his wife and children. Problem is, Dames is 48. He’s only been in the job three and a half years. And is the best bet that we know of to keep SA’s lights on. This interview was held within an hour of Dames announcing his resignation. It’s always best time to get to someone soon after the news breaks. They haven’t yet been able to process a formulaic set of answers. As a result, there were some interesting responses from the Eskom CEO. Including a suggestion that if the job to bring the potentially massive Inga Falls hydro project in the DRC were offered, well, he might just be tempted back. – AH  

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ALEC HOGG:   Eskom has just reported an interim profit of R12.2 bn.  Let’s unpack the numbers and more:  that ‘more’ is the resignation of Chief Executive Brian Dames.  The CEO of Eskom joins us now.  Brian, you could have knocked us over with a feather here in the studio: 48 years old, in the job for three and a half years, and you’re throwing in the towel.  What gives?

BRIAN DAMES:   It’s a job that takes every fibre of your energy and I would really like to just focus and spend a bit more time with my family.

ALEC HOGG:   So you’re not going into anything else for the moment.  You’re just going to take it easy?

BRIAN DAMES:   No, I have not decided, and for now, I’ll just turn my attention towards, as I said, my wife and kids.

ALEC HOGG:   Brian, your wife and kids are the most important things.  We know that. But the country needs you.  You’ve already had SACCI issuing a statement saying ‘my goodness, what’s going on here?  The man we’ve given our confidence to, the man, who sorted out ahead of the FIFA World Cup, has left the scene when we’re getting SMS’s every night, saying ‘please switch off appliances because the system’s almost overloaded’.

BRIAN DAMES:   All of it is not just one person.  It’s a very big organisation.  There’s a very strong leadership team in place.  I think they’re some of the best team we may have in the country, and I have full confidence that they will be able to make sure the lights stay on.

ALEC HOGG:   Jacob Maroga – your predecessor – leaving, and then you also had Paul O’Flaherty – your financial director – leaving in July, and you have only now replaced him.  It seems to be a little bit of a revolving door at Eskom.

BRIAN DAMES:   No, it’s not, the organisation is stable. Paul and I set out to make sure we stabilised Eskom and turned it around.  I think we’ve done that.  I’ve been fully committed to this, and I’m not leaving tomorrow.  I still have a few months to go (leaves in March).  I think we have embarked on what we needed to do.  We’ve done that and I think there are still many big challenges lying ahead, but everybody absolutely knows what to do.

ALEC HOGG:   So you’re going to keep the lights on, at least until you leave, Brian?

BRIAN DAMES:   The lights will stay on.  I have a great partnership with business and the South African consumers out there.  As people go on holiday, they must enjoy it.  They mustn’t worry about that.  As I’ve said, if you go on holiday can you please make sure that you use gas stoves and braais as much as you can, and that then gives us time to do all the maintenance we need to do.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI:  Brian, coming back to your resignation, do you believe that you’ve achieved the strategic objectives that you once set out initially – three years back – particularly given the news that construction plants like Medupi and Kusile have been pushed back even further now?

BRIAN DAMES:   We set out on a specific path.  We wanted to put some key building blocks in place, and even on the build program: get those on a level where they’re absolutely mature. We know what the current issues are, and we take actions to deal with it.  I’m comfortable that is in place.  We haven’t achieved everything.  We’re not perfect. But Eskom four years ago suffered massive losses and today we’re financially sustainable.  We have a funding plan to finish this build program.  Several years ago, we didn’t know how to do it.  We have our contractors on the ground.  You can go and look at Medupi, Kusile.  The stations are being built.  There’s confidence in terms of the fact that we are on the ground – building – and we’re really now in the hands of contractors, etcetera.

ALEC HOGG:   Well, you’re leaving us feeling a little bit more upbeat, no doubt Brian, and I’m glad to hear that we can all go and have a pretty good Christmas season.  Perhaps you can just unpack some of the other good news that came out in the last week: the President signing a purchase order for electricity from Inga Falls (in the DRC).  We’ve heard about Inga Falls – how many times? – that the project is going to light up the whole of Africa.  At least there’s going to be some electricity coming in the near term.  Wouldn’t you have liked to get that huge project behind you, before leaving?

BRIAN DAMES:   Yes, that would have been a great project.  I’ve been talking to my colleagues in the regions about visions for electricity for Southern Africa, and we have such a lot going for us.  We have hydro projects in the Zambezi, with a massive transmission that links all of Southern Africa together.  Eskom will soon be going, with other partners, into the Mozambican state.  It would have been great to work on that, but I’m not done with the energy sector yet.  I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I’m sure that I’ll have to stay close to my niche, and so I may find myself at some time in the future, getting close to Inga Falls or any other projects.

ALEC HOGG:   That sounds like a great idea, Brian, another – the size of Eskom – that you could be involved in, so the wife and kids take priority at the moment, and the rest of us can relax a little.  Just one last point, Paul O’Flaherty was well known to the investment community.  He was on listed companies before he came to you as the FD.  Your new FD – also a Chartered Accountant – Tsholofelo Molefe: are you confident that she’ll be able to engender the confidence of the business community in the way Paul did?

BRIAN DAMES:   I have full confidence in Tsholo.  After the last few years she’s an experienced hand at Eskom, she’s been on the export team, and she’s dealt with investors.  She’s been with me on our forays to the banks.  I’m still around, we’ll be talking to agencies and etcetera, and she’s helped me with all of the customer base, so I have full confidence.  She also has a strong team behind her.  Her FD team is intact and Caroline has done a sterling job and will continue to do so.