Leading the charge

Sbu Shabalala believes in delegating to capable people.

5 December 2016
Sbu Shabalala, Adapt IT. (Vernon Reed)

Some previous winners of ITWeb’s IT Personality of the Year Award have been flamboyant characters, mavericks with a flashy persona or a daring streak that makes them stand out in a crowd.

This year’s winner, Sbu Shabalala, is the exact opposite. The CEO of Adapt IT seems a careful, considered and measured kind of man. He’s someone who thinks about every angle, stays out of the limelight and quietly gets things done. He’s a solid pair of hands, which is exactly what’s needed in these times of economic and political instability.

Shabalala founded Adapt IT 13 years ago, as one of the earliest black-owned, black- run IT organisations.

“It’s been a very rewarding journey,” he says. His goal was to use South African skills to form a software development house to create products that could be sold internationally. That international reach is still in its infancy, with 73% of the revenue generated within South Africa. But Shabalala believes a big growth spurt is imminent now that Adapt IT is well established, and its JSE listing confirms it meets global levels of corporate governance and transparency.

The company serves customers in the manufacturing, education, financial and energy sectors in 38 countries. Its revenue for the year to June 2016 was R803m, up 38% from R578m the previous year. Shabalala intends to hit R3bn by 2020. “We are just over a billion in revenue now and we employ close to 950 people in and around South Africa. So I don’t believe R3-billion is a big goal to achieve in another four years because of the market potential that we see. We use the adage, you build it once and sell it many times, and the building was the effort we have been expending in the last 13 years of existence.”

High-performance culture
The next phase is to create the sales and distribution channels for its software, and that is happening steadily. In the last year, it has set up a presence in Mauritius and Botswana.

Shabalala describes himself as having the entrepreneurial flair and leadership ability to drive his vision to fruition. “Every business needs to have a person that does that. I may seem like the personality leading this charge and I believe it certainly requires a person to lead it, because it’s not an easy feat. But Adapt IT has a team of capable software engineers, managers and technical experts who allow us to be a market leader,” he says.

My management style is to robustly debate and be sure we are clear on where the company is going. Sbu Shabalala

“Because I work with capable people, my management style is to robustly debate and be sure we are clear on where the company is going. So I spend a lot of time defining and discussing strategy with my team, then I give them the room to execute on that strategy by delegating to the people who are best at it.”

He runs a high-performance culture, he says, where everyone works towards the goals in an agile, but highly accountable environment.

Software engineers with big aspirations can join the team because Adapt IT is making a difference by exporting African technology to the rest of the world, he believes. “That’s why creating a software company that employs software engineers was very important, because what tends to happen is that multinationals bring their software into the country and we hardly every have the opportunity to export our intellectual property.”

Immense market
South African players have a great deal of intellectual property that deserves a global stage, he adds. Developers here have an advantage over the rest of Africa because South Africa's economy is more advanced. That means their products have an immense potential market in the rest of Africa as those countries modernise and develop. “That creates an immediate market for any South African software business,” he says.

“Now we are looking at the globe and asking, what are the lessons we have learned from our African markets? South Africa is a leading country from a governance perspective if you look at how much governance and controls we build into our software. We are able to talk to the international businesses and say, yes, we can adapt some of the controls, because they may not need all the controls we have in our African environment. It puts us at an advantage over solution providers that have only worked in First World countries.”

Shabalala has a wife and a daughter at university, and he’s an avid golfer. “When I play golf, I make sure I clear my mind from non-stop thinking about what’s happening in the following week,” he says. “I have had to learn to be quite measured in my approach to things, but I also enjoy the fun side of work. Working must be fun for me; it’s in my nature to always be finding something to be happy about.”