🔒 Mike Wylie on WBHO’s secret sauce: Five attributes his leaders must possess

Nowadays few employees consider lifetime employment. But back in 1974, things were very different as outgoing WBHO chairman Mike Wylie tells us in this fascinating interview on Rational Radio. Wylie has been intimately involved in the growth of a tiny Cape-based startup business that is today SA’s dominant construction company – and the only major player still standing after a decade of decline. He reckons it’s all about the people, crediting WBHO’s longstanding approach of only promoting from within and the five attributes his leaders must possess before being considered for the next step upwards. – Alec Hogg

Mike Wylie outgoing chairman of Wilson Bayly, a company that you started with in 1974. What got you into Wilson Bayly in the first instance?

I did my degree at UCT and had a bursary from the city council. I felt I needed to get some practical experience so I put my feelers out and had offers from three companies. Wilson Holmes had just won a contract to build the bridge over the Berg river in Paarl and they offered me R50 a month more than the other two, we moved to Durbanville and that was the beginning. After a few more contracts in the country, I moved up to Johannesburg and said to my wife we’ll just see what it’s like for five years and even now she doesn’t want to go back.

So you’re actually from the Cape?

I went to school at Sacs and then went to UCT and my family’s still down there.

How big was Wilson Holmes back then?

It was small. It was just John Wilson and Brian Holmes. Wilson was LTA and Brian Holmes was the tenderer, because if you start a construction company you’ve got to have a good tenderer and John knew that, so he said to Brian come on let’s go. I joined a couple of years later and then we ran it very conservatively paying cash for everything. One of the experiences I had early on, was with a company that went into liquidation and that gave me a really good lesson. I did a BComm after that through UNISA so that was a really good experience for me and it tied in with John and Brian who were very conservative. That was through the 80s and we then merged with Peter Bayly construction. He was much more outgoing and that was a good combination. Those 80s – they were tough times.

As tough as now?

Yes. It was really tough. I can remember coming back from holiday and we had one job. We were just wondering how we were going to survive from one year to the next. At that time interest rates went up to 24% in the early 1980s. Yes, that was it, it was really tough. We managed to get through that, but even the 90s were very difficult. There was so much uncertainty in the country, very similar to now. Funny enough, we had no roadwork at all. Our roads director Paul Pietson, had a lot of contacts in Botswana. He spent part of his early life there, we did a lot of work in Botswana that kept us going. Then it gradually improved during the 90s until we listed in 94.

When did you take over as CEO?

I took over in about 1989 – 1990. I was MD of the building company and Paul was the CEO of the roads and earthworks company. I took over as CEO in 2000 – 2002 and Brian Holmes retired soon after that. I was chairman and CEO for quite a few years. I became Chairman in about 2010 – and that’s when Louwtjie Nel came in as CEO. It’s been about ten years that I’ve been chairman.

In effect leading the business. It’s been almost 20 years, half of your experience, with Wilson Bayly. It is also the last man standing if you have a look at the construction industry. Some of the huge names of the past, Aveng, Murray and Roberts, Group Five who were all much bigger than Wilson Bayly, and as you were growing the business they are now either bust or very much on their knees. What was it about your company that has caused this incredible outperformance?

We always seem to have an advantage. We were very quick on our feet, we didn’t have heavy overheads, we weren’t listed in the mid 90s and even when we did list, it didn’t really make much difference to the way we operated. We started taking market share in a significant manner in about 2000. In 2000 I think our turnover was about a billion. Then in 2000 it got to five billion and in 2010 to fifteen. Thats when I turned 60 and started thinking about retiring, but it was so exciting at that time because we just started taking more and more market share. In 2015 we were up to 25 billion and now we have 40 billion. We took a lot of market share and there is a story of why that happened. I think the big companies like Grinaker LTA lost their way. Look there’s a story behind Basil Read and Group Five. There’s a story behind each one and it all comes back to people and the decisions people make. I suppose it applies to any company.

That puts a huge premium on the people that you have around you. How was it that you at WBHO managed to get people who thought differently perhaps?

I remember we used to get these ideas in the late 80s and 90s. Jim Collins and and Stephen Covey, they used to broadcast these talks from overseas and we used to get a satellite dish put up and all the guys would come in and learn about the Seven Habits. There was a common theme to all that, and I think it was confirmed in a few articles from Harvard University, and that was Management Continuity. So I got really hooked on Management Continuity. In other words there should be no reason why you ever employ somebody from outside. It’s our job, all the time, to be employing the right people and then creating career paths for them, so that when the people retire or people leave, you can easily fill those positions with people with the same culture, the same experience with the same understanding of the WBHO systems. And that really worked for us. Even to this day, as you can see from the latest changes, it’s all from within. So when I’ve heard companies searching internationally and searching outside the boards, searching for this and that, I just shake my head and say to myself ‘Well what’s wrong with him?. The people are there in the company they should be there.”

How do you bring through particularly in the challenges that South Africa has with black economic empowerment etc. How do you bring through people, how do you make sure that you recruit the right people and that they stay the right people when they get a few bucks in their pocket?

Look I think these days we are sort of vulnerable because good people join us, stay with us for three or four years and become very marketable. So we do lose a lot of people but I think once people are with us for five or ten years then they realise the grass is not greener on the other side. We don’t necessarily pay any better, sometimes I think our salaries are normally a bit lower than the rest, but we are very bonus orientated. We employ people that are sort of humble but smart. I think if I can put these words, we just want people that just love the outdoors and love getting their hands dirty and getting excited about building something and being creative. So that’s a certain type of person. We certainly like BSC Civil engineers, we like those guys because they have the maths behind them. The maths is so important and that overall intelligence. On the admin side we obviously have a lot of CA’s and then everything flows from that. It’s that sort of humility and strength that we look for and a lot of people have it, and a lot of happy people have it. So that creates the sort of dimensions of quality that we need and that we know will be sustainable and that’s almost become a habit now. So I think that’s really it.

But when you are considering whether to promote someone from a relatively young age, what do you look for, what qualities or what values do you look for in those people?

I learnt these from a management consultant friend of mine and also from all those American management consultants. I’ve got it down to five adjectives, I suppose you would call them, that we want people, and we can measure them. When I look at our team that we’ve got now, that I know as I walk away there’s been a lot of good. It’s not just Louwtjie taking over from me, or Wolfgang taking over as CEO, but there has been a lot of movement down which creates excitement. I look back and see every single one of these guys has every one of these attributes, and that’s: reliability; responsiveness; credibility; empathy and attractiveness. So you know if a guy’s got that with an umbrella over that of intelligence, you’ve got a winning formula. It makes me laugh because if we went outside to get a new CEO we would get 20 CVs and we would interview people and each of those guys would be saying how great they are and how are they the right man for the job and really promoting themselves. When we approached our guys you know to take over these senior positions the first reaction is always ” I don’t think I can do that job. Are you sure sure I’m the right person?” And that’s the people we want.

Mike Wylie the outgoing chairman of Wilson Bayly Holmes.

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