End of year news reviews for 2016 would be incomplete without the mention of the change of guard at the helm of Press Corporation Limited (PCL), the country’s giant conglomerate with interests in diverse sectors.
During the year under review, Matthews Chikaonda packed his briefcase from the gigantic office on the seventh floor of Chayamba Building in Blantyre and descended the stairs out of the premises.
That was on December 31 2016 when Chikaonda took a bow after serving as Group chief executive officer (CEO) for PCL since April 1 2002.
In came renowned economist George Partridge, who until his new appointment was CEO of National Bank of Malawi (NBM), one of the major drivers of the PCL group’s profitability.
By all measure, this was a major shake-up in the corporate world which, if not well managed, had the potential of stirring some instability.
In fact, in sensitive markets, the change could have even impacted on the share prices of both PCL and its subsidiary NBM on the Malawi Stock Exchange (MSE). However, this being Malawi, where the market is so lukewarm that not even the death of a sitting president could move some stocks, it was business as usual on both counters as if no major development had occurred.
In February last year when KPMG, an audit, tax and business advisory firm, embarked on a search for PCL Group top executive, there was an informal debate on who could fit into Chikaonda’s shoes and steer PCL Group to even greater heights.
However, for a conglomerate of PCL Group’s stature, listed on MSE as well as London Stock Exchange (LSE) as a global depository receipt, I expressed reservations at an apparent lack of succession plan that saw the group scouting outside for potential successors.
Well, nothing really wrong with the approach, but managers groomed from within tend to have an added advantage.
In an opinion piece headlined ‘A tale of two corporate transitions’ under my Business Unpacked column in Business Review of February 18 2016, I had compared the transition at Nico Holdings Limited, yet another giant group, and PCL.
Whereas then Nico Holdings managing director Felix Mlusu retired after 41 years of service and his then deputy, Vizenge Kumwenda—a chartered insurer and chartered accountant—fitted in his shoes from January 1 last year, the same could not be said of PCL.
I argued that the Nico Holdings transition model sent a message of stability and continuity to stakeholders, including shareholders and business partners. A big plus for a business empire of its size.
On the other hand, the PCL arrangement of opening the top job in the group to all and sundry was equally good as it exposed a lack of planning in a big corporation. PCL used to have a management development programme where several people were drilled and groomed for such top jobs. Sadly, some of them retired or died along the way.
Experiences elsewhere have shown that where boards of directors hired external CEOs, most of the boards also did not retain the same business executives at the end of their contracts. Here William Peres of Nike and Revlon’s Jeff Nugent come to mind.
That said, Partridge is no stranger to PCL Group either. He has come from within and, without necessarily bragging, was among the top three indigenous business executives I expected to take over from Chikaonda. I will keep the other two names very close to my chest.
Who is Partridge? He is an economist and career banker who started his career with the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) back in 1983 after graduating with a distinction in economics at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima).
Prior to joining RBM as a bank clerk, Partridge served as a staff associate in Unima and worked in various departments on his way up to director level (head of department) during his 11 years of service.
While working for RBM, he pursued a master’s degree in finance with the University of Southampton in England. He qualified as a chartered accountant at 31 before he was “poached”, as it were, by the then expatriate CEO of NBM to work as treasury manager in September 1994.
Two weeks ago, he was appointed into the Unima Council, an institution that earlier conferred on him an honorary doctorate in economics for his achievements.
Now, Partridge has officially taken charge at PCL Group, leading a highly diversified company.
He faces the daunting task of revitalising a conglomerate that in recent years has resorted to burying “sick babies” such as Press Bakeries, Malawi Pharmacies Limited and Tambala Food Products instead of developing turn-around strategies.
Moving forward, PCL should have greater focus in some of its divisions such as People’s Trading Centre (PTC) which in 2016 closed some of its Peoples supermarkets.
PCL should learn from the approach of the eagle in its corporate logo. Fish eagles exploit the situation to their advantage. In a storm, the eagle tends to be at its best to overcome. n