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Triumphing over tragedy

Isaac Mophatlane has made the best out of a sad situation.

Read time 5min 40sec
Isaac Mophatlane
Isaac Mophatlane

It's sadly inevitable that an interview with Isaac Mophatlane will gravitate towards the subject of Ben, his late twin brother. It's unavoidable because if Ben hadn't died, Isaac would have happily stayed out of the limelight of Business Connexion (BCX), instead of stepping in as the CEO. The twins were together right from the launch in 1996 until Ben died aged 41 of a heart attack last year.

Isaac has stepped up admirably, continuing despite the tragedy and steering BCX through its acquisition by Telkom and delisting from the JSE in August. It felt right and natural to step into Ben's shoes, he says. "I didn't think for one minute about giving up. When one has been so blessed and had so many opportunities, it would have been ungrateful. Our vision of building a significant ICT player still remains and there's a drive to finish what Ben and I started, even though he may not be here. Part of him would want me to do that," he says.

It's easy to see how Telkom will benefit from acquiring BCX, gaining a wide array of ICT skills to support its connectivity services. It's less clear how BCX will benefit.

"We've always said telecoms connectivity was the missing part of our business," Mophatlane says. "We were never big enough and never small enough. We were always in the middle and we never saw an opportunity of how to take this business to another level," he says.

The Telkom deal presents three immediate advantages, he says. Firstly, BCX will now supply its IT services to Telkom on a commercial basis. Secondly, it will gain access to Telkom's 320 000 customers. Thirdly, Telkom is moving its Cybernest datacentre operations into BCX, along with 500 staff members.

"Normally, when you get acquired, they want you to jump into them, but we are taking over their datacentres. Now we can offer more to our customers in terms of disaster recovery, continuity and hosting," he says.

Quality, not quantity

The exposure to new customers through Telkom couldn't have come at a better time, he adds, because BCX has many clients in the mining and retail sector, and those clients are battling. The deal will also help BCX venture further into Africa, although acquisitions will be about quality rather than quantity. "We still need to drive our pan-African strategy, but we've lowered our expectations. There are challenges nobody ever sees, like the devaluation of the currency or elections taking longer than expected and a whole lot of uncontrollables," he says. "You have to do it with a lot of caution. People think you're going to make buckets of money, but every place is unique and you have to invest with a partner and skill up properly."

Mophatlane says his employees are extremely excited about career opportunities within the Telkom group. Yet Telkom announced 2 393 voluntary severance packages in July, which hardly bodes well for career advancement. We're talking about two different skills sets, he says. BCX has application developers, which Telkom doesn't have, so there's no overlap, and in some fields there's a national skills shortage.

I didn't think for one minute about giving up.

Isaac Mophatlane

Mophatlane is proud of the graduate and internship schemes that BXC runs to alleviate skills shortages. It offers work experience to about 30 graduates and 120 interns each year. All the graduates are hired at the end, and most interns too if they show promise. "One of the things Ben and I always agreed on was not to train just for the sake of training, but to enable them with the right skills, so next year they can work productively. A lot of training in South Africa is about compliance and ticking the boxes, but the worst thing is to take them through the experience, then not create a real job for them at the end."

More attuned

During our interview, Mophatlane asks me twice how I am, as if his own grief has made him more attuned to the emotions of others. I tell him my man died too, four months ago, which is why I'm interested in how he is really coping, behind the stoic public front he must present. We talk of premature death, feelings of futility, the search for meaning and how the loss of a twin - or a partner - is like losing half of yourself. He speaks with a comforting, reassuring demeanour and an outlook shaped by resurfacing through unspeakable pain.

He tells me he never considered quitting. "Two days after the funeral, my wife asked, 'Do you want to live?', and I said, 'More than ever'. People have tragedies happen all the time. I'm not the first or the last. You have to find a reason to live. I couldn't decide to jump off a bridge and leave five kids behind or 7 000 people looking at you to lead them."

Mophatlane has children aged six and two, and Ben had three kids, who are now ten, four and two. "Now I say I have five children," he says.

He talks of the unbelievable support he received from friends, family, the IT vendor community and his competitors because the industry had lost one of its own.

Now he is more committed than ever to carrying on. "There are people who joined this business because they believed in what Ben and I stood for, and our values, and you owe it to yourself and to the people to be a good custodian of the business and take it forward."

He and the BXC management team have made a five-year commitment to stay with Telkom and to work towards reaching the next level that has previously eluded them.

"The zest for the business and for life is still there," he says. "That's key - you have to have a zest for life. Then the other things will fall into place."

When we leave, I give Mophatlane a big hug. The interview has given me far more than an article to write.

This article was first published in Brainstorm magazine. Click here to read the complete article at the Brainstorm website.

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