New Cell C CEO reflects on first 60 days in office

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 29 Aug 2023
Cell C CEO Jorge Mendes.
Cell C CEO Jorge Mendes.

Newly-appointed Cell C CEO Jorge Mendes sees creating a positive and winning culture within the telco as part of his mission to build a sustainable organisation.

During an interview with ITWeb at Cell C’s headquarters in Johannesburg yesterday, Mendes reflected on his first 60 days in office.

He noted that a successful organisational culture and happy employees form an intrinsic part of the telco’s journey to profitability, as it carves out a new growth strategy.

Mendes was appointed as new CEO of Cell C in June, replacing Douglas Craigie Stevenson, who left in March.

In his new position, Mendes is tasked with turning the company’s fortunes around as the telco struggles to be profitable and fend off increasing market competition.

In September, the debt-laden mobile operator secured funding to recapitalise the business, but is still behind its peers Vodacom, MTN and Telkom on key metrics.

The long-awaited Cell C recapitalisation was closed after its lenders accepted an offer of 20c for every R1 of debt. According to Blue Label Telecoms, the company’s biggest shareholder, Cell C was valued at R3.1 billion at the time.

Mendes says the company is looking to become profitable within 18 to 24 months, with building a healthy workforce, strong partnerships and stakeholder relations key to the organisation’s “customer-centric” strategy.

While he’s only been with the company for 60 days, he is already seeing some “green shoots” along the way, he notes.

“I’ve seen a significant difference already within this organisation; there are different communication strategies that we've deployed, weekly comms and monthly timelines…there is renewed energy within the company, there is excitement and anticipation of what's coming.

“It's been two very interesting months. We've been extremely busy. My biggest ambition is to have the best culture in the country as an organisation. We will hire the best professionals in their field to deliver on the best technical competencies that are required.

“But we will face headwinds like anyone else in the industry and I think having the most amazing culture will get us through that.”

Career moves

Since his appointment, Mendes has made two additions to his team. Former Airtel Nigeria employee Rachael Ayo-Oladejo was last month appointed chief of staff, strategy and business transformation.

Three weeks later, Cell C announced Melanie Forbes, a marketing veteran with 25 years of experience, will play a pivotal role in reshaping the brand.

It also added two new board members – former MTN SA CEO Godfrey Motsa and former Vodacom Group chief officer of corporate affairs Maya Makanjee.

“We've had a huge number of leadership changes in this organisation and it's no secret that we need to stabilise that and we need to make sure Cell C is a sustainable organisation.

“You've seen some appointments take place in our organisation and the reason why they have, is because people like Melanie will be responsible for, among other things, research insights. What we want to do is make sure we ask our customers what they want and we’ve already started on the journey.”

Mendes points out Cell C is looking to introduce “exciting” offerings across several verticals, including prepaid and postpaid products, datapackages and fibre offerings.

While unable to divulge the details of the new offerings, due to the company being in a closed reporting period, he states the telco aims to strengthen its mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) partnership deals. This market has seen intense competition over the years, as more players came into the market.

“As part of the business’s growth and profitability strategy, we have some solid plans. Cell C wants to continue building true partnerships with MVNOs, and there are interesting products that will be launched in the MVNO space.

“We are not competing with MVNOs; they are still our partners and we will do anything to make them successful, together with ourselves. This is still an important part of our business and a key differentiator. We are still one of the country's largest MVNO providers in the country.

As to challenges, he comments: “There is no question that we’ve been a distressed organisation − cash remains a challenge − but those are things that one has to manage.

“There are big negotiations on the go that are challenging negotiations, but I believe the parties involved want the best outcome. So those things keep us really busy. I would prefer to have a whole bunch of stuff which I don’t have − some of the systems and some of the tools – but we do want to become innovative and work with what we have.”