SAPO CEO: Toughest job in SA? Mark Barnes – Adapt or die

Having ditched his banking career for entrepreneurial endeavours that brought lows (Capital Alliance with Mzi Khumalo) and highs (growing Purple Capital with Charles Savage), Mark Barnes is now in what some believe to be the hardest job in South Africa. He’s been in the CEO role at the South African Post Office for over four months now, so how does he plan to overturn the odds that are so heavily against him? Dave Tootill attended a talk at GIBS, where Barnes was a speaker. And while Barnes laid out some workable proposals, Tootill wonders if transparent metrics, like improved delivery days, or shortened queues wouldn’t be better published. It’s an uphill task Barnes faces, and maybe the real test will be if overseas Christmas mail reaches its South African recipients before the 25th of December. – Stuart Lowman

By Dave Tootill*

Mark Barnes, CEO of SAPO, was introduced to a full house at a GIBS Forum as the one appointed to the toughest job in SA, although since relegated a place by Nenegate. He is well known as blunt, never one to mince his words. He said that once the plea for finance requested to pay for years of corruption and incompetence at the top level of management were approved, hopefully in the near future, signs of improved customer service should appear within even six weeks of that. This year’s overseas Christmas mail may not have a lead time of somewhere between two months and infinity.

Mark Barnes, new CEO of the South African Post Office
Mark Barnes, new CEO of the South African Post Office.

Perhaps most of us have just assumed that militant strikers, plus thieving employees videoed on Carte Blanche, blocked deliveries to a level of suffocation for customers. The detailed case study is a bit more complex. The strategy for procurement, or supply chain management as some term it, involved outsourcing the selection of suppliers to third parties.

The Public Protector criticised this as wasteful, though not illegal in terms of the Public Finance Management Act. Barnes commented that, in a similar way, internal procurement structures had no capability to calculate fair prices. In contract negotiations, they were generally on the back foot. So, inevitably, cash ran out, and suppliers could not be paid, never mind the staff, who were publicly lied to.

At head office, employees had to bring their own toilet paper. The entire supply chain was broken by stockouts of items like ink and paper, and other suppliers such as the logistics sector, anyone from Avis to SAA, who were not being paid. Apart from these operational issues, big money disappeared on office leases and labour broking deals where co-workers earned a quarter of someone next to them.

Read also: Mark Barnes’s burden: New SAPO chief battling to beat the curse of Kahn

After four months in, Barnes proposes:

  • Communication – he was the first executive to go to Witspos in Aeroton in living memory to listen. When a union leader arrived to meet him at HO with intransigent demands as an opener, he said change your tune, or get out, I’ve got less to lose than your members have.
  • Productivity – speed up by 20%, rather than dragging out tasks in order to stay employed.
  • Business strategy – there are numerous global parallels such as India of how to evolve into e-commerce and so on. SAPO could offer pricing 90% lower than big name couriers when it has its act in order.

Fair enough.

The questions I ask are: how many white collar criminals are in jail (the SIU is apparently on the job at SAPO), and which landfill did those tons of undelivered mail go to? How to replace Cresta misery by Linden satisfaction? And why not publish some transparent metrics such as delivery days or queue length?

  • Dave Tootill is owner of ESCM Technology and a director of the not-for-profit Supply Chain and Logistics Group professional society. He’s had a long career in supply chain management and manufacturing industry systems.