By Yanga Ziwele | BKCOB
In December 2020 BKCOB bid farewell to a man who has been its anchor for the past 29 years, Les Holbrook. I had a virtual conversation with Les, to discuss his history with the Chamber, as well as his retirement. Below is an edited version of the extensive conversation we had.
Q Everyone knows you as champion for business, and the executive director of the Chamber, but who is Les Holbrook?
A I am, first and foremost, a firm family man, husband to Tish, and a father of five. And I think that the foundation to a good, happy, healthy, and stable life is a solid background in family. Before I joined the Chamber, I worked for 17 years in the Transkei, managing a footwear factory for ten years, until it closed down because of the homeland concession arrangements. I then went on to work for the Transkei Chamber of Industries, which subsequently formed part of the Border-Kei Chamber of Business, from 1992 until 2020. For the past, almost thirty years, the Chamber has been a great part of my life.
Q What is one of your proudest or most significant moments within the Chamber in the past 29 years?
A I often say to people that in the chamber, and often don’t see the rewards, but certainly the work is endless, whether or not translates to rewards. So certainly, over the past twenty-nine years there have been a lot of ups and downs. The BKCOB translates to the amalgamation of five Chambers, which all started off as smaller Chambers. And then going forward, there was a much more focused approach and it was easier to speak to particularly to government with a stronger and more visible and viable voice. This was an achievement on its own.
One of the biggest achievements for us were the gains that we found in reducing the cost of flights. We were very instrumental in overcoming the dominance of South African Airways in East London. And of course, they pretty much dictated the way business was done in East London. So, after many years, we realized that the only way that we were going to achieve any kind of success was to bring some competition into East London. And we did that single-handedly. Nobody actually believed that we would be able to do this. We were able to convince Nationwide that East London could be a good Market. and the very next day we saw the price of tickets and airfares drop more than 50%. So that was a fantastic achievement.
Q Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently as Executive Director of the BKCOB?
A One of the disappointing lack of achievements, I think, is being able to turn around Komani. We used to Lobby strongly for Queenstown but it unfortunately is where it is. It’s in a very sad situation, despite many efforts. One of the successes for any business association is the way in which it relates to the government because it is probably the most important, stakeholder for business. As the BKCOB in Komani we tried desperately to build relationships with local government but unfortunately, there’s still very little stability. So, the challenge is, how do you go forward and how do you build a working relationship with somebody that isn’t there the next day?
But also, the Chamber itself in Komani did have a little bit of instability in terms of an administrator. Now, I think we have turned that around. I think we have got a very good administrator in Adre Bartis. She is at last being able to work very closely with the Chambers non-executive leadership and the subcommittee that they have there is moving forward. But definitely, maintaining a stability and relationships in Komani was a big challenge.
Q What has been the biggest driving force behind Les Holbrook, with work, family, and the business community?
A I think that one has to have a passion for what they believe in. I’m a firm Christian. And I do believe that maintaining solid Christian principles is very important. But also, a determination to make a difference, and to be able to say that we were able to fix something. So, I think that the ongoing struggle was something that itself put the fire inside my heart. But I think that family as I’ve indicated earlier, is very important. Having a strong foundation within my family has been my anchor in life.
Q An organisation such as the Chamber has different leadership every two years, how did you manage with the task of different with all these different personalities, who come from different business backgrounds?
A Every two years we have an annual general meeting and we elect a new president. I’ve been involved with 11 different presidents. And I can assure you that, not one president was the same. Every president was a leader in his own business. Somebody at a high level within their own organization, and so it was my job to be able to maintain, facilitate and coordinate harmonious relationships between the administration and obviously, the non-executive leadership. So those again are our challenges. But I always saw them as something that was my duty and my responsibility to make it work. And I would like to say that, unless anybody can say otherwise, I did that very successfully.
Q You spoke to us as staff many times about the importance of disconnecting outside the office. How were you able to find a balance between family time, and the business community, emergency calls, and such?
A I think communication is a very important part of our lives. So, if you have a good communication with your family, and a good communication with your employees, as well as the leadership of your organisation, it makes life very much easier. Remain interested in what’s going on, ensure that everybody understands that you do care, and always be empathetic towards everybody around you. The media has also played a larger role in putting my life and my job into perspective. They have sometimes kind of put me on a pedestal, which has been a little bit embarrassing, but be that as it may, it’s always nice to have the media talk well about you. And then that filters down and it helps people to look at you in a different perspective. People suddenly understand the role that you have and the work that you do.
Q Now, where would you like to see the Chamber go, and what advice would you give to your successor?
A The BKCOB is first and foremost, a voluntary membership, business association. Often, it’s not what I think or want. It’s about what is best for and how do you serve your members.
I think that the chamber should continue to do what they are doing, which is providing a solid, reliable, and reputable service to its members. Ensuring that it tackles the current issues, regardless of what they are. One of the Often, biggest issues, at the moment is the negative economy. The fact that there are too few taxpayers, and that quite frankly the government is itself almost broke or insolvent. There’s very little money to go around in terms of capital growth and capital development. We have a struggle in the sense that South Africa is strongly moving towards a consumption state instead of a productive state. And I think that the chamber has a big role to play there. So, to ensure that it’s still focused, and that it’s still serving the needs of its members, the Chamber must do regular strategic planning as well as a lot of introspection.
For the new executive director, I’d say, hit the ground running. Trying to absorb the role and the work that the chamber has / is obviously going to be quite a challenge. Change however is good, and perhaps it’s time.
We do know that Lizelle comes from a background of Business Women’s Association. She has also been very proactive in Tourism. We all agree, tourism is one of the areas where SA has struggled in the last 18 months. So, she’s going to need to anticipate what those, and other issues such as Infrastructure, LED and Government Liaison are. Perhaps engage firstly, the staff of the chamber then, of course, the leadership of the chamber, as well as Members / stakeholders.
Q Where to from here?
A Firstly, I certainly don’t feel guilty about not rushing out of bed at 06h00, rushing to the office, and being there from 8 to 5. I do however, realize that the value I could add elsewhere is an important one, that’s why I would like to refer to myself, going forward as an advisor, and somebody that can assist small, medium and large business on a range of issues. I’ve indicated to a number of organizations that would be willing to facilitate an assist if they require some assistance / guidance.
But certainly, I must admit that I am taking a break. I think after working quite literally 18 hours a day for five and a half days a week for 29 years, one would like to be able to just take a break. And of course, as everybody knows, I had a great break going down to the Western Cape and spending a couple of days. I’m also catching up on things that I haven’t been able to do, ranging from DIY, odd-jobs / handyman / gardener, you name it. At this stage, my retirement is going well, and of course, Tish and I are enjoying having much more time together with one another. And obviously, we’ll, plan our way forward.