Altron's Mteto Nyati details tough turnaround years

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Mteto Nyati, Altron group chief executive.
Mteto Nyati, Altron group chief executive.

Diversity and inclusion are at the core of JSE-listed technology company Altron's turnaround strategy.

So said Mteto Nyati, Altron's group chief executive, in a keynote address during the company's Customer Day event held in Midrand last week.

Nyati, Altron's first black CEO, took over the reins in April 2017, following a brief stint at mobile operator MTN South Africa.

Founded in 1965, Altron has a direct presence in SA, rest of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

Since his appointment, Nyati has been pushing forward with plans to revitalise Altron after a number of challenging financial years, including a loss of over R1 billion in total revenue for the year ended 29 February 2016.

Previous to Nyati's tenure, Altron was a family-controlled business, before 84-year-old Bill Venter stepped down as chairman of the company he founded more than 50 years ago and his son Robbie departed as CEO. The moves marked a new chapter in the firm's history.

Altron implemented a turnaround strategy which has so far paid off, selling some of its non-core business assets as well as making some acquisitions.

Some of Altron's subsidiaries include Altron Arrow, Altron Bytes Systems Integration, Netstar, Altron Karabina, Bytes Secure Solutions and Bytes UK.

Culture shift

Speaking at the event, Nyati chronicled how tough the past two years have been.

"It has not been easy. I have heard many people, when analysing our company, either on TV or wherever, saying the easy part has been what we have been doing over the past two years," he said.

"It's interesting when you are watching from outside when you say that, but some of us who have been part and parcel of this journey, we understand that, in fact, the most difficult part was the last two years."

According to Nyati, this was largely due to the company dealing with cultural changes.

"It was a turnaround largely focused on changing the culture. What do I mean about changing the culture? It's really about, first, an organisation that was very much siloed, having a lot of operations operating independently. When we look at how customers wanted to experience us, we felt we were not aligned with the way they wanted to engage with us."

Therefore, Nyati said, the firm had to restructure itself in order to better connect with its clients. In August last year, Altron unveiled a new brand with what it dubs the "One Altron Strategy", looking to bring the firm under a single identity, making it easy for customers to do business with it.

"So we had to change ourselves so that we can align with the way customers wanted us to engage with you. So that's the first thing."

Secondly, Nyati said, Altron, as an organisation, was highly hierarchical. "With great amount of respect, I used to be called 'Sir' all the time, which is something that I am not used to.

"We had to address some of those challenges. I'm saying it's a challenge because, yes, you may think it's respect but today we are living in a day of innovation; in a day where things are moving fast; and if you have all of these barriers to engagement, largely because of things like titles, you are going to have a problem."

White dominance

Nyati also pointed out the other problem was that Altron was largely a white company. "I am saying white because by looking at the top of this business, it was largely white male and over 55 years old.

"There is nothing wrong maybe with that but if you want to be a company that is relevant; if you want to be a company that addresses the real challenges of the country in any of the geographies where you are operating, the best thing that you need to do is to make sure you start to mirror the demographics of that country.

"So we had to go through some of those changes and those are not easy changes. We had to bring different types of people - [we are] talking about gender diversity, talking about geographic diversity, race, ethnicity; all sorts of diversity. That's what we had to go through, and that's not easy."

He added that when the company initiated those changes, people started having fears. "We had to make sure that whatever we were doing, we were creating an Altron that is embracing everybody, an Altron where everybody feels welcome.

"That is the Altron that we are building. It's not an Altron that is going to be a homeland, meaning only black people are going to be working at this Altron, no. It is an Altron that is embracing all of the people.

"When you come here, you can understand that you can go all the way up within the company. That is what we are building, and it has not been easy to deliver that message because of fear. But as we continue to be moving and people are starting to see some of our actions, they will start trusting us."

Nyati revealed the one thing defining Altron is the "One Altron Strategy".

"If you look at our hiring - the kind of people that we have hired and our values - you can see the connection. These are people that are passionate about other people, these are people who are passionate about customers, and these are people that collaborate with others."

He added Altron needs people who are able to see beyond colour. "Not that they are colour-blind but they must be able to see beyond that and just look at the people with the right skills. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, these are the things that matter to us as Altron.

"When we say diversity and inclusion, we mean it. It needs to show; if you are a black guy, what kind of a team is under you? Is it only black people under you, or is it people maybe coming from the same geography where you also come from? These are the things we discuss."

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