Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys seems uncomfortable talking about himself. He deflects questions about his personal life by either relating them back to work somehow, or by ignoring them completely.
A question about his kids gets an answer about how children are so technology-savvy these days, while asking about his hobbies sparks off a story about a road race sponsored by Vodacom. Uys not only talks the corporate line, he also looks the part, and admits he’s only removed his tie to honour the idea of an ‘informal’ interview. He’s earnest, yet eager too, and if you persist, he gradually opens up enough to share some personal thoughts and philosophies.
Uys has emerged as something of a media darling after brilliantly handling some glitches and network outages that irked Vodacom customers. Uys was the one tweeting at almost midnight, saying he was still working to get a network crash resolved.
His actions prompted marketing guru Chris Moerdyk to write: “The affable Uys has proved beyond any shadow of doubt that there is enormous power in apology.” He gained a lot of respect by taking personal responsibility, Moerdyk said.
ChallengesUys has been with Vodacom since its creation in 1993, serving as chief operating officer until he became CEO in October 2008.
“The recession kicked in the next day and all the wheels started coming off,” he recalls. “When I took over, it was relatively peaceful and I didn’t expect the world economy to crash. That made it a lot harder. We had to change the way we thought about everything because customers’ behaviour changed as they started counting every cent.”
The local landscape also shifted as Cell C became a far feistier rival, Telkom launched a mobile division and Rica registration laws saw customer subscriptions temporarily plunge from one million a month to 250 000. All this made his job ‘interesting’ and ‘a challenge’, Uys says.
Thankfully, he thrives on interesting challenges, including the challenge of dancing in front of a large audience. His dance-floor debut took place at a staff braai to launch Vodacom’s summer TV campaign, which features a new dance routine.
“Thousands of staff came. I’m not a dancer – I can’t dance to save my life – but the advert is all about The Shuffle by the group LMFAO. See, I’m cool!” he says, delighted to have remembered the group’s name. “We’re taking the campaign to malls and beaches and I had to lead by example and do The Shuffle. It’s not easy,” he says.
A more business-oriented task was to make Vodacom sustainable for the next 15 years, partly through an exercise to refresh the brand. “It was more than just a R200 million colour change. We thought about what we stand for as an organisation. It’s not just about making money, it’s about Vodacom leaving something behind and making a difference in the country. It’s about connecting people, creating possibilities and changing lives.”
Vodacom is striving to become more customer-centric, he says, because people can easily go elsewhere. “We have to make our customers smile. To achieve that, I can’t have my employees not smiling because they won’t make the customers smile. So I thought about how to take employees who have been with us for 15 years and re-energise them.”
Uys asked the staff to suggest how they could do things better. Some complained about the dress code, so Uys said they could dress any way they liked, and he trusted them not to abuse that policy. Others complained that his office door was closed to them, so Uys moved out of his expansive office and set up his desk in the open.
“They said I sat on the fourth floor and there was access control so it was a place people couldn’t go to. I found out it was true. I’d never had a problem because my access card worked, so I told them they now all have access to the fourth floor. I moved out of my office so everyone can see me. I love it – people come up in the lift and say hi and I have had so many positive ideas just from people walking past and saying something.”
Uys also dismantled the executive boardroom and dining room and set up an informal meeting room instead. “We’d sit in the boardroom for two hours and not do anything. In the informal meeting room, within 20 minutes, we have solved the most difficult, complex problems. It’s amazing how the environment makes a difference.”
Then, what should have been one of the greatest days of his corporate life turned into one of the worst. Uys was in Khayelitsha to open an internet training centre on the day Vodacom’s network collapsed spectacularly. Uys left the embarrassingly useless internet centre and flew back to Johannesburg, where he spent the next few hours with technicians and tweeted updates to livid customers.
“That day I learned how powerful these communications devices are,” he said. “I could see customers were upset but it was too late to get anything on the radio or TV so I logged onto Facebook and Twitter and said I’m going to make sure we make you smile again. I personally replied to most of these angry customers and it was amazing to see just how powerful it was. Not having all the answers isn’t the point; just don’t hide away from things. Being open and available makes such a difference.”
Away from work, Uys is a dedicated mountain biker. Cycling clears his head, so he looks forward to Saturdays when he can switch off and take a ride through the bush. “If you are out there in the open and can focus on something different, solutions just appear. Many times I’ll go out on my bike with a big problem I don’t have an answer for, and time and again, when I come back after two hours on my bike, I have subconsciously found a solution. I’m addicted to it now.”
He has also taken up kite-surfing, and says both pastimes keep him sane.
At 49, Uys says he doesn’t feel too old to run a company that has so many young customers, because the staff and his children keep him young. He is married to Irma and has two children, Pieter, 16, and Irmilee, 15.
“You have to make time for family and for the kids because they grow up so quickly, so you have to do things with them. And you have to find time for yourself because you have to have balance in your life or you will go completely crazy and stop having new ideas.”
Media-savvyUys is amazed by the way his kids are always communicating. “Kids communicate 24 hours a day. I find them lying in bed and I think they’re asleep, then you see there’s a light under the sheet.”
When Vodacom realised some users on its R59-a-month BlackBerry package were downloading full-length movies, Uys wanted to cap the downloads to ensure other users didn’t suffer slow throughout speeds. Vodacom drew flak for planning to throttle the service, and again Uys used social media to backtrack. “We hadn’t implemented anything, we were still talking to BlackBerry about it, but it got out and created a really bad impression with our customers. So I had to say we have this issue and we don’t know how to solve it, but when we know, we will share it with you. Having a few guys downloading 30Gb isn’t normal.”
A few weeks ago, Vodacom launched its Mobile Education Programme, which aims – like endless schemes before it – to use technology to improve education. Uys is passionate about it, yet recognises that similar efforts have failed. “A lot of issues in the country boil down to education not being up to standard. A lot needs to be done, but if we all sit back and point fingers and say someone else must fix it, nothing will be done,” he says. “We have to step up and make a difference.”
Vodacom is creating ICT resource centres in every province, making sure the latest educational material is available, and training teachers to use it. “The biggest problem is that some schools are still living in the 19th century. It’s a big task – there are 26 000 schools in the country and only ten percent of them have access to the internet. That’s scary,” he says.
Then he starts talking about a ‘web book’ computer Vodacom has launched for R1 500, and his eyes light up as he reaches for the device. Uys was always a geek at heart, but he’s talked for more than an hour before even touching one of his beloved gadgets. “Geeky stuff can make a difference,” he jokes.
His gadgets and the nature of his job mean Uys is rarely off duty. “I’d say I am actively thinking about work at least 12 hours a day. With Twitter I can see if a customer has a problem at 22h00 and I can’t ignore it. So it never stops. But I love it – I love making a difference.”
Yet life isn’t about using technology to keep in touch – it’s personal contact that counts, he says. “It’s not about sitting there playing with Facebook or your iPad. It’s about emotionally connecting with people. I really believe relationships are what make life worth living. That’s what it’s all about.”