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.

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