Ex-Post Office CEO on why he quit
He came in with a vision for the Post Office but now Mark Barnes has resigned because of his differences with the powers that be
HE PUT his hand up long before “thuma mina” ( send me) became President Cyril Ramaphosa’s rallying cry for South Africans to get involved with the upliftment of the country. Mark Barnes had identified the cause he wanted to help: the cash-strapped South African Post Office. He told himself he wasn’t going to watch the organisation die a slow death. He had the expertise, he had the passion and he could make things happen. Just watch him. So he approached the then-deputy president, who was in charge of SOEs (state-owned enterprises), outlined his vision, and in 2016 he was appointed CEO of the Post Office.
In three-and-a-half years he managed to turn the ailing state-owned enterprise around. Once R1,49 billion in the red and on the verge of having to shed 5 000 jobs, it was on track to becoming profitable by 2021.
But Mark (63) has had enough now. On 1 August he handed in his resignation, disillusioned by the government and the Post Office board who were no longer buying into his vision.
His plan was a bold one. He’d wanted to turn the old dinosaur into a forwardlooking, integrated delivery channel that encompassed e-commerce, logistics, financial services and mail.
“That’s an international model now,” he says. “The Post Office is just infrastructure with a technology backbone.
“In Europe and other countries, they have inside them deep financial services because they’re your access point. In fact, in many instances they’ve replaced the bank network as the first point of access for the people.”
But he eventually gave up. “The reason I left is they want to separate the bank from the Post Office and that’s not a survival strategy.
“I just don’t think that could work.”
M ARK is sipping black coffee in the newly opened The Houghton Hotel in Johannesburg after a business meeting. His phone hasn’t stopped ringing since his resignation, he says, and he’s exploring many options for the future. But he’s done with the Post Office now that his dream has crumbled.
Part of his strategy was to make the Post Office profitable and inject money into the treasury by making it far more than an entity that delivers mail.
“You should [be able to] do everything in the post office,” he says.
“Why can’t you collect ARVs [antiretroviral medication] or download Unisa lecture notes at your local branch?”
Mark was starting to enter into talks with the Turkish post office and other post offices in Africa to create an e-commerce business that “was going to challenge [e-commerce giants] Alibaba and Amazon”.
“But if you decouple all of that and say, ‘Mark, this is just the Post Office . . .’ Well, that’s actually not a growing business. If you want this to be just a post office that delivers letters then I’m afraid you’re going to be subsidising it for the rest of your life, Mr Government.”
Under Mark, the Post Office took over the payment of social grants, which was “a big deal”, he says.
“When we were awarded the Sassa contract, people said, ‘ You can’t even deliver letters – how can you deliver money?’
“It was a big job to take on,” he admits. “It wasn’t perfect when I left – we were still learning. But we were getting there. We were going to end up saving the state – and we were saving the people who rely on that money.”
Mark brought with him decades of financial experience when he accepted the Post Office job.
He’d served as an investment banker at Standard Corporate and Merchant Bank, as head of private equity firm Brait, and as executive chairman of Purple Group, an investment and trading solutions company.
He knew he had a big responsibility on his shoulders.
“If you drive a boat onto the rocks, they don’t ask who sent you there, but who’s driving? And you know the rocks because you’ve been a captain of so many ships,” he says.
“If you’re in an operating theatre and there’s a cardiologist doing a transplant, do you think the owner of the hospital has the right to tell him what to do?”
In the end he had too many people telling him what to do and it took him “half a second” to make his decision to quit.
“You can’t employ an expert and tell them what to do.”
HE’S still committed to South Africa and determined to play a role in its future. “I want to be part of this world,” Mark says. “My children are here, my money’s here. It’s not going anywhere and I’m not going anywhere,” he emphasises. This is my country. I was born here and I’ll die here.”
Although he feels he could’ve done more in his years as CEO of the Post Office, he believes he ultimately achieved a lot. “The thing I’ve changed is how people [who work at the Post Office] feel about themselves. We gave people the prospect of financial prosperity.
“We changed a culture of failure, in which success and effort were scorned.”
Mark says what the country needs is time, trust and “to hold hands to work together”.
He also believes SOEs can’t keep on changing hands.
“At some point we’re going to need
someone with the courage to say this isn’t working.
“And the only way you can do that is through leadership and common purpose.”
Being the leader of an SOE isn’t a walk in the park, he acknowledges, but it has its rewards too.
“At the end of the day I’m just an ordinary human being with flaws – but I have a passion to serve.”
He might raise his hand again in the spirit of
thuma mina, but this time he’d have to get to play by his own rules. Meanwhile, he hopes the new interim Post Office CEO, Lindiwe Kwele, will be given more space to do the job.
But yes, he repeats, he still feels he could’ve done more.
“The only person who had no regrets was Frank Sinatra. I could’ve done it smarter, quicker. And I failed to convince them [of my vision].”
All is not lost, though, he adds. He learnt more about business in the past three years than in the 30 years before that.
“I went to the Post Office to teach and ended up learning. But I’m not done yet. I still want to be part of the solutions.”
Now that he has a bit of time on his hands, Mark wants to write a book. He’s also talking to various institutions about getting involved with teaching.
“I also want to wander around Kommetjie beach [near Cape Town] where nobody knows my name, and spend time with my six children.”
There’s a part of him that wishes he’d stayed at the Post Office to make his plans a reality and he hopes it eventually succeeds.
“Because if it fails, I would’ve failed too,” he reckons.
He says there are hundreds of people like him with business experience who are ready to step up and share their expertise.
“And we’re for free. We’ve got money already – we’re looking for higher-order satisfaction.”
‘We gave people the prospect of financial prosperity’
LEFT: Former Post Office CEO Mark Barnes says he hopes the new acting CEO, Lindiwe Kwele (RIGHT), will be given more freedom to bring about change at the beleaguered entity. They had a fantastic working relationship when she was a group chief operating officer.