The conscientious CEO
When you first glance at the MTN Zambia headquarters on Zambezi Road, the building seems intimidating. However, as soon as you walk through the doors the environment is both welcoming and friendly. I met CEO Bart Hofker on a cold Monday afternoon at his office. The first thing you will notice about him is his welcoming presence which immediately warms the room. I sat down and found myself smiling and laughing within minutes; Bart has the uncanny ability to make you feel at home.
Bart is from the Netherlands and as a young economics graduate, he began his career in telecommunications at a time when the industry had just been privatised and the wireless revolution was just beginning. He shares, “It was an incredible experience of high growth and transformational change. Telecoms has never been boring. I have been part of transformational change from fixed to mobile, voice to data, data to content and now moving into the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the internet of things.”
Coming from an advanced European market with a background in marketing and branding, Bart, has a unique perspective that allows him to understand both the technology and the customers. However, he has had to navigate and learn the FinTech business as it was completely new to him before working on the African continent. “FinTech, the use of mobile money and its large reach in Zambia were all new to me. In Europe mobile services are all post-paid, and here it is all prepaid, so I think I bring a wealth of experience with me, especially with customer insights. I think in Europe we have made our fair share of mistakes by not being customer centric, whereas here we have to be customer centric in terms of services, tariff pricing and more.”
Challenges are something any career has and Bart’s has had his fair few. He elaborates, “Every job at every company provides its own challenges and as you learn from them, new challenges will always arise. Right now, my biggest challenge is to address the complications for our business caused by Zambia’s macro-economic situation. The depreciation of the kwacha has made us seek a balance between optimising costs, rationalising dollar investments and growing the business.”
Throughout his career in telecommunications Bart has had a strong desire to make his work impactful, a desire that was reinforced while working in Rwanda, South Africa and now in Zambia. He has been able to see the high growth in numbers and the direct, positive impact of telecoms and tech on the people and the economy. As for how he defines success, Bart reflects, “When I was younger, I was primarily driven to outperform competition, always eager to do better than the rest. Now that I am older, my personal motivation has shifted to impact. The desire to have a positive impact in business, in society and in people’s lives we as MTN have achieved that. I think that is also one of the reasons why I enjoy working in Africa, the impact is so direct. When you see, for example, financial inclusion and what it means for working women. When they are able to make some money and get paid into MoMo [MTN mobile money] and nobody can access it except for them. These are clear-cut examples.”
Bart’s key motivating principles as a CEO are transparency, consistency and approachability. “Every month we have a town hall session for all of the staff, which is virtual nowadays. During these meetings, the management team shares the state of our business. Anyone can ask questions and give feedback on where we need to improve.” It is this kind of leadership based on listening and encouraging dialogue that has made for a dynamic and highly motivated management team that is engaged with the company beyond their specific responsibilities. Bart adds, “I am very much hands-on. It’s in my DNA as a marketer. I believe we are successful when customers can validate that what we are doing is working. I really love to go into the field, I love to go to the call centre and to listen in and to talk to customers and to be with our MTN data champs.”
COVID-19 has had an impact on operations in the telecoms sector but MTN was prepared and had the necessary conversations with regulators and the government on how to continue doing business effectively. They managed to grow from three million mobile customers in 2020 to five million in 2021! By prioritising their customers’ needs during the pandemic and making FinTech a priority they were able to engage the largely unbanked populations and add them to their platform. Business also grew as MTN grew their distribution channels and increased incentives. They have been able to contribute to job creation with 50,000 agents in the filed running their own MTN booths or service centres.
Telecoms has never been boring. I have been part of transformational change from fixed to mobile, voice to data, data to content and now moving into the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the internet of things.”
During the pandemic they prioritised keeping customers connected and employees safe. When it came to business solutions MTN stepped up again, with flexible solutions like data bundles for MiFi and routers, bulk SMS, MoMo limit waiving and Office 365 onboarding for remote working. Bart shares, “To support families who are working and schooling from home we offered affordable data bundles and educational solutions under tele-school and eTutor in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s directive. We offered free and discounted family entertainment solutions. As for MoMo, we zero-rated mobile money transfers up to K150 and doubled the MoMo transaction limits to reduce the physical exchange of money, which could be virus transmitters.”
MTN has also included educational programmes to teach people how to deal with FinTech and also to teach customers how to use it effectively and efficiently. By doing so they are tapping into a large group of people whose first ‘bank’ account is a mobile money account, teaching them that their money can be stored safely, sent in a contactless way and cashed out if need be. Bart explains, “Our sales people, our champs, have critical jobs. Fortunately, there was no formal lockdown because that would have meant the sales guys could not sell airtime and earn a living wage and would have further pushed people into isolation.”
Before we end our conversation, I ask him what his favourite part of living in Zambia has been so far. He smiles and replies, “I think there are two things for me. It’s the people and the nature. Zambia is very open, optimistic, and the people are happy. Even with the pandemic and some struggling financially, personally, Zambians are happy people. The second one, nature is just amazing. The wildlife is unmatched. During the pandemic my wife and I have made a point to travel and see more of Zambia since we cannot travel home.”
And there you have it, a man of the people! Bart Hofker demonstrates that he is a hands-on leader. He is always looking for a way to be involved at the ground level.
“When I was younger, I was primarily driven to outperform competition, always eager to do better than the rest. Now that I am older, my personal motivation has shifted to impact. The desire to have a positive impact in business, in society and in people’s lives we as MTN have achieved that.