Thursday 3 September 2009
Mike Miller: 'The biggest problem facing South Africa is the attempt at Africanisation'
The fund of goodwill and optimism for South Africa is felt right across the world.
From Auckland to Accra, Dublin to Denmark, organisations and individuals are working to raise funds to assist individuals and charities in South Africa. Some of the most active are those with a deep association with the country, people who were born there and left in whatever circumstances, those with friends there or others who simply wanted to help.
Collectively, their efforts are, slowly but surely, helping make the lives of many South Africans that little bit better. Efforts such as the sponsorship or training of youngsters are of particular value.
Mike Miller is an English-born, Durban-educated man who lived for years in South Africa before relocating overseas. But out of sight is not out of mind, a fact familiar to so many people who have either lived in that country or been born there. South Africa is a topic seldom far from their thoughts.
Miller first went to South Africa in the 1950s, when he was nine years of age. His parents went to Durban for work and their son attended New Forest High School and later what was then called the University of Natal, where he studied psychology.
Like so many young South African reared boys, Miller was sports mad, playing rugby, squash and cricket. But when he left University he joined Unilever in Durban and started out on a hectic business career. Innovation was to become a key element in his future business path to success and the value of training was to become an aspect of paramount importance to him.
Miller worked for Unilever for some years but eventually joined Colgate Palmolive's South Africa operation as their Marketing Director. It was there, in that role, that he first encountered a problem that was to become endemic in the new South Africa - the ambitions of the hitherto untrained locals to get promotion and make rapid progress in the new, post-apartheid South Africa.
"There were young people, male and female, coming to me and telling me they wanted to be promoted. And they meant that moment. I knew they weren't ready to hold down the kind of senior roles they were talking about but of course they didn't understand that or if they did, didn't want to acknowledge it."
So Miller agreed to train them, fast-tracking the most promising and offering them a clear career path forward. But before too much longer, their career paths diverged.
In early 1997, Miller returned to the land of his birth, the United Kingdom, on a business trip. While he was here, he met several South Africans, some of whom were store owners in the UK and wanted to import quality South African consumer products at low cost. The idea to set up a proper business importing and selling South African products in the UK market was born.
Miller thought he might create a small sort of operation, handling a few items going in and out to the UK . He was certainly not expecting the way the business took off, like some summer fire through the dry scrub of the Cape.
Miller and his wife Liz set up a company called 'South African Products International (Pty) Ltd, with one end of the business in South Africa, the other in England . Quickly, the business expanded so that all kinds of South African merchandise could be bought over the counter in the UK . As a retail outlet, Miller opened 'The South African Shop' in Maidenhead, Berkshire, in the busy Thames corridor which runs west from London, out past Heathrow Airport to Maidenhead and then Newbury, home to so many technological companies it has become known as 'Silicon Valley'.
But events back in South Africa were creating the potential for Miller's business really to take off, like some rocket on a launch pad. The growing diaspora out of South Africa to countries like the UK , Australia , New Zealand and Canada created a wealth of potential new markets for Miller's business. As more and more white South Africans reluctantly moved overseas, so the clamour grew for South African products which they missed so much. Whether it was boerewoers, biltong or anything else, Miller realised his company was in pole position to fill what had become a very considerable gap in the market.
He moved to the UK permanently to run the business and, in time, a mail order company was set up with astonishing results. But South Africans are a chummy lot, it seems. Given the choice of simply ordering on-line or popping into a specialised South African shop to chat and hear a South African accent is, it would seem, a great attraction.
Miller explains the point. "We get on average 400 customers a week coming through our doors but generated up to 20,000 sales through the shop and mail order business last year. 13,000 people visited our website. One Sunday afternoon, when we weren't really open but I was doing some work, the phone rang and a South African voice asked me where we were situated in Maidstone.
"I had to explain that we weren't in Maidstone ( Kent ) but Maidenhead (Berkshire) on the other side of London."
Miller ended up giving precise instructions to a South African couple who had driven down from the north of England to stock up on products from their beloved homeland.
Today, Miller's company is the largest specialist South African retail store in the UK and is doing business in excess of half a million pounds (6 million Rand) a year. They are catering for customers in almost all the countries where South Africans have gone and are now looking to expand around the UK and then into mainland Europe. They also sell South African beers, specialist wines, arts and crafts made in this country and even specialist South African sportswear, as well as newspapers, magazines and videos.
It is no surprise there is such a growing demand for these products. Miller believes there may well be between 3.5 and 4 million South or Southern Africans living in the UK alone. But what he also says is very true.
"It is sad for South Africa because this is a real brain drain. And in my view, the biggest problem these people have had in South Africa and are continuing to face is the attempt at Africanisation. There is nothing wrong with that if you are putting good people into jobs.
"But this happened after World War 2; it is apartheid in reverse. To me, anything with discrimination based on the colour of a person's skin is racism. Apartheid was racism but what has happened subsequently is the same.
"But as apartheid showed, just putting people into jobs for which they were not qualified, does not work. You have to set up some sort of Graduate training programme, like a company such as Unilever would do, to train people in situation experience. They need to experience certain things before they can be given those jobs. If you just push people into a situation - which has happened too much in South Africa 's recent history - they will take wrong decisions."
Miller admits education is one of his hobby horses. He believes that present day South Africa has a multitude of potentially skilled young people who, given the proper training, can go on to make a meaningful contribution in the country in the years to come, and hold down demanding jobs in the process. But they cannot do that without the training.
To create that scenario, Mike Miller is now doing something about filling another gap which he has spied. It will not be for personal profit, but for the benefit of South Africa , a country he wasn't born in but has come to love and admire through the years.
Thus, he is setting up a Graduate Training Programme in South Africa to which a lot of Senior Executives will give their experience and advice. He has high hopes that the programme will turn University educated young people into potential young executives able to command important positions within major companies.
"The problem at the moment is that you can have a graduate leaving University but they are not ready to do a job in business. All they are is ready to be moulded to do a job. But you have to train them to do that job. Because they have a degree they have got the job but they can't then do it. Yet a large number of them are really very, very good.
"It is the fault of the system that they are given no training to do these important jobs. If we can do that it has to be good news for them and everyone else."
Miller hopes that if the training programme is a success South African industry as a whole will accept them to get involved in the country. In the UK, they have set up a South African Chamber of Commerce and the Honorary President is the South African High Commissioner. An Executive Committee has been formed and there will be a formal launch next month.
Why does Miller go to all this trouble to try to help out a country in which he wasn't even born? He smiles. "South Africa is a great country, one of the best. And it has great people. Of course, everyone has been predicting a bloodbath in the country for years but it has been incredibly successful in avoiding that.
"I am positive about the country and if I can help in any small way, I will."
Perhaps we should call it, putting something back…
By Peter Bills
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