Winning Women – Lesley Mntungwa: The crackle of power

Lesley Mntungwa started her working life as a clerk at Eskom. Today she’s the hands-on owner of an electrical engineering company, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

African Olive is an unlikely name for an electrical engineering business, especially  one dealing with electrical substations, yet that is precisely why Lesley Mntungwa decided to keep it.

She explains: “We bought it as a shelf company and were going to change (the name), but the more quizzical interest it aroused, the more it grew on us. It’s unusual, so people remember it.”

The company provides high-voltage electrical engineering services across South Africa.

Lights in a home or office are low-voltage electricity. Electricity from a power station, such as Medupi, is transported in high voltage to substations.

We’re sitting in her cluster of offices in a business park in Boksburg’s Industrial East and it’s so shiny and clean, it sparkles – not something you normally associate with industry.

But it typifies her approach to everything she does, because she runs a tight ship. No detail is too small for her sharp eye, and her employees are aware of that every working day.

African Olive’s staff complement of 18 full-time employees can escalate to 60 if the company is working on a big project, as it recently was in Mthatha in Eastern Cape.

There, it completed stringing and cabling for a huge Eskom substation the size of two rugby fields, according to Mntungwa, who brings her husband’s name into nearly everything she says.

They met while both were working for Eskom. She was an HR manager at Eskom’s transmission division, with Siyabonga Mntungwa on the technical side, doing control-plant designs and scoping studies for substation projects.

Lesley had been there for 11 years, and was a senior adviser for remuneration and benefits, but she began to feel she’d reached her ceiling. Almost simultaneously, her husband decided to go it alone in business.

“Both of us were looking for a challenge and we took the leap,” she says.

In 2007, they began working from a study in their home and employed a technician in training. By the time their staff complement had escalated to seven people, they moved into an industrial office park in Boksburg and moved again in 2011 to the premises they now occupy.

Siyabonga Mntungwa is an electrical technologist registered with the SA Institute of Electrical Engineers.

Between him and Lesley, they own 100% of African Olive. She holds 55%.

Today they offer technological, high-quality outsourced design, commissioning and maintenance services to electrical engineering companies.

Recruiting and then retaining the best skills in an expensive labour force is a huge challenge.

“We’ve overcome it by training technicians after they’ve completed their theoretical studies – we’ve trained 12 so far,” says Lesley proudly.

She’s acutely aware that South Africa, if it is to continue being the continent’s powerhouse, will need to overcome the constraints it faces in generating electricity.

That means more competent technicians, not least because working with equipment in a substation is highly dangerous.

“Safety is the biggest issue and I insist it is part of our DNA,” says Lesley. Her staff, she adds, all feel her presence.

African Olive is clearly getting it right as it won the 2011 Business Women’s Association of SA Regional Business Achiever Awards in the Entrepreneur category.

Furthermore, they received an award last year from the Ekurhuleni Captains of Industry Forum for “continuous enhancement of local economic development and job creation”.

They are also finalists in the current Eskom Business Investment Competition.

Lesley says attending the yearlong Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10 000 Women Certificate Programme to improve her business skills has been “phenomenal”.

“I needed to refocus and move away from being too involved on the operational side. I learnt to read and understand financials and have begun to strategise.”

Part of that has been creating a sales and marketing department.

She has bigger plans, too. In the long term, she sees her company moving into the rest of the continent and further.

Lesley grew up in Durban’s Newlands East township, and graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science degree in industrial psychology, law and clinical psychology at the then University of Natal.

But after graduating, she was so desperate for a job she joined Eskom as a clerk before being fast-tracked.

She has done various courses since then, including Deloitte’s Succeed Programme.

Today she’s involved in various social projects, from helping high school pupils and promoting entrepreneurship in disadvantaged communities to holding the position of chairperson at the SA HIV/Aids Training Association.

Despite all the demands on her, she insists on maintaining a balance in her life.

“We take our two children out to movies and for meals, and watch our daughter practising drum majorettes every Saturday.”

It’s a full and fulfilling life.

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