Aggreko supplies temporary power generation equipment and temperature control equipment in over 100 countries, but the company puts a firm emphasis on its local expertise. John Lewis, its Managing Director for Africa, talks to us about how it is developing the employee experience in its Africa operations.
How do you see the landscape today and the future for Aggreko’s business in Africa?
It’s a strongly performing part of the Aggreko business. Aggreko operates all around the world in all the continents, and Africa is a strong market for us traditionally. We are particularly well known for shorter term emergency power across a range of fuel types, technologies and size of generator, from short term demands for a couple of days up to months or even to two to three years.
Increasingly how our market is evolving is we are seeing longer-term demands – so demand from a range of our customers for longer-term solutions, and we are evolving to fulfil that need with new technology such as hybrids: solar battery arrays combined with thermal power, and also larger, more efficient engines which we refer to as a power block, which we are obviously still doing the shorter term work, and it is still a strong part of our market, but we are increasingly getting into those longer term solutions across a range of customers from utilities through to industrial applications like mining, and oil & gas.
In terms of investment and headcount are you growing in Africa?
We have had a fairly stable few years. It has been relatively flat for a few years but what we are seeing this year and going forward is pretty consistent growth - strong growth from industrial sectors that we are in, counterbalanced a little bit by the utility sector which is stable but steady, so overall we are seeing reasonable growth, and that is backed of course by demand for resources and people.
Are there any headwinds, any concerns?
I think the headwinds are always a degree of the unknown, so what happens with the broader economies, in the markets that we operate, what happens in the commodity markets we’re often having to respond to different trends in those spaces. Can be challenging headwinds, or positive winds behind us of course, so at the moment that side of it is looking quite positive. We’re also quite dependent on the weather patterns and particularly rainfall availability which powers the hydro schemes across Africa, and often we find ourselves filling the gaps when there isn’t sufficient rain
And then of course there’s also competition - we are the dominant player and there’s always competition and we have to keep an eye on that and make sure we respond accordingly.
Are there any examples of projects that a lay-business person might recognise Aggreko from across the African region, any headline projects?
We’ve just gone live in Burkina Faso with a 50 Mw HFO (Heavy fuel oil power plant) which we are deploying to help the Burkina Faso government with their long-term energy strategy. So that’s just gone live, that’s a very high profile project for us and very important to the government of Burkina Faso.
We’ve had longer term projects in Cote d’Ivoire, one of our bigger operations is a 200Mw plant where we’ve been for a few years, and we’re a significant contributor to their energy mix. And then on the industrial side, we do a fair amount of work with mines. We have the first hybrid solar-diesel plant in Eritrea and we also do a significant amount of mining work in DRC and Mali and places like that, so that’s supporting mines in remote areas.
We know there is a really strong link between the employee experience and leadership in a number of areas. What’s your philosophy on how leadership impacts on the employee experience, and what do you do to try and influence the employee experience positively at Aggreko?
You’re absolutely right, I think it’s fundamental. What Aggreko is about are our people, and our teams and their motivation, their skills and their application to what we do. That’s what stands Aggreko out from everyone else. So a fundamental role of our leadership is to make sure our teams have got the capability, they’ve got the motivation, and they’re focused, they’re engaged and doing the right things for our customers.
We take a view in Aggreko, that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work, our business has extensive diversity which is unique in the industry we think. So as an example we operate in over 100 countries globally, where we speak probably 15 to 20 different languages, and in Africa alone we’re in about 25 countries and of course we have a diversity of cultures and customs.
So when it comes to communicating our vision, and engaging people, we need to factor all that in and make sure we’re trying to think locally, and think what matters to individuals and the countries that they’re operating in. Whether that’s culture or language, really focusing in on the inclusivity part of it, and making sure when we do communicate, which we do frequently, that we’re doing it in the right way, with the right media.
How are you ensuring that communication up and down the organisation is taking place?
Our leadership team hold meetings at each of our sites a year, which is quite a challenge as there are a lot of sites and they ‘re quite diversely located, so we make sure we visit and just engage with our teams take the opportunity to discuss what’s going on, to ask questions, and importantly reinforce our safety culture, which we’re renowned for globally as a really strong culture on safety, and a strong development focus within some of the countries we operate. So it’s absolutely a key role for our leadership team.
How many sites are there in total?
So there’s probably about 50 sites plus, including the offices and depots.
How many people in that leadership team?
There’s eight including me.
We see purpose being a really strong attraction driver, in various markets across the continent. How do you connect the day to day work you’re doing with a sense of greater purpose and bring that to life in the business?
We’re quite blessed with the work we do – our teams can really see the difference they make to the communities they’re operating in. Power is a fundamental, basic need, and obviously within Africa it’s often quite challenging for people to get power, or get reliable power. So it’s one of those services where it is quite easy for our people to actually see the difference they’re making, and we make a big thing about that. We engage with the community, we invest in community schemes and just to connect our teams to see that the difference they’re doing.
We do our Orange [Aggreko’s corporate colour] Days of Difference, where our teams get a day to go an work in the community on a project of some sort, helping the local community which might be a local school, or an orphanage or something like that, so we have a comprehensive programme where everyone gets the opportunity to do that. We have other social initiatives as well, we focus predominantly around education – and particularly around education in science and technology. To give you a couple of examples, we work with the University in Abidjan in Cote D’Ivoire to develop and train young engineers. In recent years we have been working with Book Aid International on developing study hubs with, for the past few years, Malawi and Zimbabwe, and this year we are doing them in Ghana. And they are basically hubs to enable children to go and have the facilities to study and do their homework, and have some assistance. So a lot of that is visible to our teams and we encourage them to get involved, but beside all that stuff that we do, the key thing is the service we provide, they can actually see the difference it makes to the industry and the economies of the countries we are operating in.
In terms of skills for your workforce, what are the key areas that you are looking for in order to drive the business forward and what are the skills pool you are able to draw from on the continent, and how would you like to see that develop over the next few years?
There’s a range of skills of course that we look for, so if I start with technical skills for operating our plants, then our modus operandi is to employ and train local people. That’s a key focus of ours, it’s one of the values we bring, so unlike some of our competition, we will deploy our global experts into a site, and one of their roles is to make sure they are developing and training locals. Over time what we have seen is those local teams develop their skills and experience to then broaden their horizon within Aggreko and travel the world potentially. That’s a key initiative for us and actually it really pleases me to see Africans who have come up through that route now in pretty senior roles across the Aggreko business. So my head of engineering started out as a technician - he’s from Cameroon, he is now one of the leading engineers in Africa. - recently appointed as a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering Technology, so very encouraged by that sort of progress. For the other skills, we’ve traditionally relied on what I’d call the international ex-pat community, but what I’m particularly keen on and we’ve started an initiative in the past year, is making sure that we’re recruiting what I call the management talent actually within Africa itself .
Edna joined us last year as our Head of HR, she’s Angolan, based in Rwanda, and we’re increasingly making sure that the management roles, leadership roles we have are actually based in Africa and in order to support that we’ve invested in business hubs in Johannesburg and Dakaar. So office spaces where we can encourage the top talent to come and work for us.
What would be the key areas of employees experience and overall talent that you would like to improve in the coming couple of years?
There is a range – first of all our markets are continually evolving, and we’re moving into a world where we’re tailoring solutions for lots of customers, and we are particularly focused on developing expertise in specific sectors. So our market is becoming quite sectorised, - oil & gas; mining – where the skills and capabilities are often quite different. So one of the things that we’re looking to do is making sure we’ve got the specialised skills in those areas. It’s a different solution for an offshore oil and gas platform versus a mine, versus a heavy industrial user, so having those sectorised skills is very important to us. And within the context of that changing and evolving market, and all the things I’ve talked about, one of the key things is of course leadership and making sure that our leaders are globally renowned and they understand the range of responsibilities they have, so that ‘s probably the two most important areas.
As a little bit of background, how did you get to be overseeing Aggreko, and what has driven you to this point?
I did an electronic engineering degree at the University of Leeds, some time ago, quickly followed by an MBA, and I worked initially and most of my career in the telecoms industry across different parts of the world. What that equipped me with, and I developed from the engineering world into the commercial world and into business development and general management in different countries – predominantly in business to business and business to government. So that’s my experience in a number of countries in public and private companies.
So what brought me to Aggreko is I think extensive experience in general management, in business to business, business to government environments, but the telecoms world has gone through a lot of the changes we’re now seeing in the energy and utility world in Aggreko’s market, so I’ve got a lot of experience in understanding how to respond to fast moving customer demands and engaging with clients to make sure you’re seen as a trusted advisor to them to understand their evolution and their challenges rather than just trying to sell them your product. So that’s where we’re headed and that’s what I bring to the party.
What would be your top tips for aspiring business leaders across Africa?
I always use this story that, it boils down to this really, that when it comes down to leadership, it’s not about you, it’s about the team, and I think people often find that leap hard to make. It’s about making sure that if you can multiply your capabilities a dozen times with your team, then you’ve got a much stronger team than just you trying to do everything. So I think, number one is spend enough time communicating, engaging, coaching and developing people to make sure that they benefit from your experience and oversight, and avoid the micromanagement.
I talk about the story of my son who was a good rugby player and was frustrated with the other members of the team who weren’t pulling their weight, and I encouraged him to develop into being the captain, to encourage others and get them to play as well as him and multiply his capabilities fifteen times. So to me that is the number one thing for leadership. The functional skills, the expertise, is taken as red when you are at senior levels – it’s about making sure you’re sharing your experience to make sure that others are stepping up as well.
With global organisations it needs to be representative of the customer base it serves. I want a strong African leadership across a diverse range of nationalities, cultures, sexes to be represented at Aggreko African and we are working hard to achieve that.