Magara ready for leap of faith

Published: 10 June 2013
AS Zimbabwean-born Ben Magara unbuckled the bungee jump harness after jumping off Victoria Falls bridge three weeks ago, his phone rang with the news that he had got the top job at the world's third-largest platinum producer, Lonmin.

"My son Kombo answered the phone and on the other end was Roger Phillimore [Lonmin chairman] asking to speak to me. Kombo told him that I was almost done taking off my harness from the Gorge Swing [that includes a 70m free fall].

"When I got to the phone, Roger gave me the news that the Lonmin board had decided to give me the CEO position. Wow!" said Magara during his first interview after the announcement this week.

The 45-year-old father of two will be taking on one of South Africa's most challenging jobs on July 1, with Lonmin trying to restore faith after a bloody strike left 46 people dead at its Marikana mine last year and dropped the company into reputational, operational and financial trouble.

The company also lost CEO Ian Farmer in the heat of the conflict, with him being diagnosed with a serious illness and leaving the company without a boss.

It will not be an easy task - and not just because of the fact that Lonmin has become the unwitting focus of worker dissatisfaction.

To make it more tricky, Lonmin's largest shareholder Xstrata previously voiced its disdain of Lonmin's management but would not make any official comment on Magara's appointment this week.

However, an industry source said Xstrata CEO Ivan Glasenberg personally gave Magara the thumbs up.

Lonmin launched an extensive search for a new CEO, scouring the mining industry and shortlisting a number of individuals including ex-Anglo American Platinum CEO Neville Nicolau, according to an industry source.

Magara does not seem fazed by the challenges. He says he has received e-mails asking him if he is "jumping from the frying pan into the fire" and others telling him "how daring" he is.

"I will never shy away from a challenge, it gets my adrenalin flowing and I am an adrenalin junkie."

"Speak to guys like Bobby Godsell and other people that were CEO and GMs in the '80s, when the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] was established. They too faced challenging times."

Magara will step in at a time when the platinum sector starts wage negotiations, which will be challenging with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union having taken over as the majority union in the sector from the NUM in the Marikana aftermath. The situation could get tough as the two unions tussle.

Magara will also be responsible for implementation of Lonmin's restructuring, which aims to restore production levels to pre-Marikana levels.

The company completed a R7.5-billion rescue rights issue late last year, saving it from financial ruin, and production has been picking up in the new year.

Markets reacted negatively to the announcement of Magara's appointment. Lonmin's share price fell by 1.24% in London and 2.26% in Johannesburg.

South Africa's Chamber of Mines CEO Bheki Sibiya attributed this to certain investors possibly not knowing Magara well - with this being his first appointment as the CEO of a listed company.

"It is a solid appointment and Ben really has the goods to pull this off," said Sibiya.

"He has held big positions as Anglo Coal's CEO and he has really been Chris Griffith's right hand man in recent months at Amplats [Anglo American Platinum]."

In fact, Magara is still playing a key role in Amplats negotiations with the government over the loss of 14000 jobs due to the company's proposed restructuring plans.

Magara is known for being a hands-on leader. In his first major leadership role, as general manager of Anglo's New Denmark colliery in Standerton, he had meetings with a different individual every day for the first two months in order to identify problems.

He said that as head of Lonmin he would take the same pro-active strategy to assess the status quo. "I intend to meet employees on all different levels, employee representatives and unions, community members, investors in London and Johannesburg and, of course, mining minister Susan Shabangu."

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Magara dreamt of being a bus driver and his father told him not to oversleep if he wanted his dreams to come true.

In less than three months, Magara will be the CEO of one of the world's largest platinum companies, hoping to steer the company in the right direction. "I still wake up at four every morning and, as I switch on my car to go to the gym, I remind myself to make a positive difference that day," he said.

* This article was first published in Sunday Times:

- Business Times
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