Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) Managing Director Zelna Hengari shares – in conversation with Toivo Ndjebela – how she turned the hospitality company into a self-sustaining entity that no longer gobbles up state money through bailouts and heavy subsidies.
New Era (NE): You are an NWR girl through and through, having been the company secretary for a long time before becoming MD. Can you highlight some of the challenges and opportunities experienced for the past five years as MD?
ZH: NWR came a long way and I think when the company itself started it was for the right reason by the shareholder and I am glad they started this company. But somehow during the management period, something was not right, and the company was not really properly managed. So therefore lots of problems were created and lots of debts, staffing issues, infrastructures, those were the biggest challenges and still our biggest challenges, the maintenance issues that are still prevailing and not up to scratch, and customer service, although we are dealing with them now. I was appointed as an acting managing director from February 2013 up until July 2014 when I was appointed as substantive MD, but from the day I took over NWR, the main challenge was NWR culture, the maintainance issues, debts that has started to grow from the company was started and also the loans that the company acquired for its turnaround strategy, which we could not service. Today we are self-sustaining and operationally sustainable and re-paying our own debts with our own money from operational revenues. Those are the key areas of success.
NE: What did you do practically to turn around the fortunes?
ZH: On the financial perceptive, the first thing we did was to come up with a strategic and business plan to tackle the issues that were keeping the company back - meaning the culture, maintenance and training on customer service. Unfortunately in October 2015, the Receiver of Revenue, because of debts that were not being paid on time or not at all, cleared our account by taking all our money. And when they cleared our account, they took even money that was earmarked for capital projects. We were in the middle of finalising some of the projects that we have not even started, and we had to finish the Hardap Resorts and other two resorts with money from our operations. From that day, even though the money was taken on October 25, 2015 I am telling you now that we paid the salaries on time and we did not take any loan, or subsidy from government - our shareholders. We have been paying our debts on time. We are stable in a sense that we function with our operational money and did not receive any bailout or subsidy from the government. We are sustainable. On customer service even last year we receive a customer satisfactory award from the Office of the Prime Minister, where NWR was rated as top among all the institutions that were rated. We have received many awards… I also received one award as MD of the Year 2016. And we also received two PMR awards. We are in compliance with our audited financial statements, we have been paying our debts and we have entered into an agreement with Receiver of Revenue to pay N$1 million per month until all our debts are settled. As a result and we are keeping to this promise, we have received a certificate of good standing. When I took over as MD, the company was behind with six years in terms of audited financial statement. But now we are up to date, and all these years we are audited. We are in full compliance. The Development Bank of Namibia, which is one of our key creditors, has came up with new terms whereby we ask for re-structuring and there were terms and conditions. Now they gave us ten years to settle our debt, although we wanted twenty years. We are now paying twice a year. But so far we have been paying. The Khorixas Rest Camp, which has been a loss-making resort for NWR because it does not bring revenues to the company, has been converted into a Namibia Wild Resort College. We are going to link it to South Africa’s wildlife colleges, and we are also looking for ways to link it to the Kenya Hospitality School, just for us to get good lecturers and curriculums.
NE: There was squabbling in 2013 and 2014 over whether to appoint you as MD or not. Having steered the company on a positive turnaround trajectory, do you feel vindicated in having shown interest in the job?
ZH: I compare women to a piece of a tea bag, as per words stolen from the former First Lady of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt who said that until you put a tea bag in hot water you will never know how strong it is. Until I was put in this hot water, I never knew that I really have that strength but I had no doubt I was the right person for the job. When I applied for the job I knew the company very well and I knew what needed to be done. It’s not an easy company because it’s a parastatal. We have to battle, even myself, cultural issues, the culture of all the wrong things that crept into the company, people were not disciplined and me being a woman it was very tough but I knew that I could get it right. And I think I have proven that I have brought this company from where it was to a visible brand. We have tried so hard to clean the brand and put a bit of respect and visibility in a right way, and it’s not a one person job but with a team.
EN: How has your experience been as a female corporate leader - do you get the same treatment and support as your male counterparts?
ZH: I do not want to talk about myself actually, but in this particular industry, tourism, the bottom of its pyramid is crowded with women but at the top its crowded with men. When I took over, there was only one female as a resort manager, but I tried to promote those that deserve to be promoted and give everyone an equal chance. Now we are standing with 13 resorts managers, 11 females and two assistants out of 24 resorts that we are running. Most of the time we focus more on what is being said to us. I saw I was not getting right treatment but I decided to do the right thing and let my work speak for me.
NE: What is the exact financial status of NWR currently?
ZH: The fact of the matter is that NWR has always made a lot of money but the expenditures were always more than what was brought in. In 2013, the revenue was above N$200 million but the expenditures went above N$260 million. So we deliberately implemented cost-cutting measures to make sure that money stays. The revenue started growing and expenditures went down. In 2017, the costs came down and the revenues went up, this is the healthy trend that we want to keep. The shareholder can no keep us as a baby. We are a commercial entity. We penetrated North-American and UK markets that are bearing fruits. South Africans as well. Since 2015, we did not receive any bailout or subsidy from the government.
NE: When you took over as an MD, there was talks of NWR having too many employees, does that issue still persist?
ZH: That issue depends on who is saying it and for what reason. Obviously yes, at one point the company had more than what it needed. I remember when I joined, the company had 1300 permanent staff members and about 400 casuals workers. Today we have about 929 permanent workers and about 300 on contract. Remember, NWR has major role to play. As a company owned by government we have to implement government policies with job creation. So we are careful on what we are doing, and we cannot send people on streets.
NE: How is NWR affected by the current economic challenges facing the country, from a revenue perspective?
ZH: When you talk about domestic tourism the number has gone down. Namibians are not eager to spend the money as they used to. But this are the people that are sustaining us this [less active] season. The number has gone down but at least there is income coming in. For the international travellers this is a cheap destination for them and the business is booming. The problem that is really hampering us is crime on tourists but not economic.
NE: What do you say to critics of SOEs who often suggest that companies like NWR should be privatised?
ZH: I think government should keep this company. It should never be privatised. The tourism industry has for a long time been predominantly white-owned. This is the only company between the total capture of the tourism industry and sustaining it. Government has a lot to lose if they privatised NWR. Let’s advice our government carefully that NWR is the future, and can help with poverty eradication.
NE: As a company that procures a lot, how do you negotiate your way around some of these new law regimes such as the new Public Procurement Act?
ZH: It’s a problem. These things are really killing the institutions. True, the procedures should be followed any time but there are emergency situations especially for a company that does a lot of procurement. Sometimes you’re seated with visitors without electricity but cannot even procure a power generator without following some of the new procurement processes. In the end food will get rotten and tourists will demand their refunds. That’s a loss to the economy.
NE: Are you following many proportions that are coming out in the Ministry of Public Enterprise regarding appointing of board members?
ZH: I fully support that the proposed views, and I hope they will be implemented very soon. Because the problem is that many parastatals have issues between MDs, boards and CEOs. We need to have competent people, qualified for board positions.