Meet the Boss: Johnnie McMillan, managing director, Tropical Power (Kenya)
1. What was your first job?
Cutting grass, trimming hedgerows and weeding flowerbeds [in Scotland]. I was 18 and I was working with a bunch of hardworking Scotsmen. I was the young lad that had to make tea, make jokes and try to fit in. I then went to art school and made wooden sculptures, stained glass windows and mixed-media collage paintings. But I dropped out after a couple of years because I thought I couldn’t make a living from it. I had a farming family on my mother’s side so decided agriculture was a good general degree that could get me into different sectors. The thinking was that I could keep art as a hobby because very few people can make it as a career. So I went to agricultural college, and for my placement year went to Zimbabwe and I fell into the export industry.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
The pace of the power purchase agreement (PPA) process. I think the process of working with different stakeholders to get to that point where we can legally supply power, needs to be both faster and easier. I know the government wants the same thing, so I don’t think there is any resistance to making it better. It’s just that this sector is much slower than I am used to – which is a fast pace perishable produce supply chain where everything happens every day, very quickly. But in the energy sector it is long-term pay-offs. In the export trading environment you get pay-offs every day , whereas here the project has taken two years from planning and execution to get to this point. So it’s slower than I am used to but I have learnt a lot throughout the process. I am immensely passionate about being involved in developing clean energy.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My colleague James Cartwright whom I admire because he is a very strategic thinker and has been a mentor for probably 20 years. He has been a great supporter and friend, and I’ve learnt a huge amount from him.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Be focused and work hard. Being focused means being in the right space doing something you enjoy. Working hard doesn’t mean long hours. It means working relentlessly on learning about your business and your sector, and being passionate about it. It gets you ahead because you develop an understanding so that everything becomes much easier. If you flit around too much, you don’t learn enough – and then things will always be difficult.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
Probably the number one thing is I am a good communicator. I think I get on well with people, I establish rapport, I’m quite easy to meet and can therefore develop relationships well. I think I am honest and fair. Those things around integrity, honesty and building friendships are probably the things that have served me best.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
Education is very important. I had been working for six or seven years before I went to business school. I was a general manager and had acquired a lot of operational experience, but felt I was struggling to find new ways of thinking because my education wasn’t strong enough. In my time at business school I was working with very talented people so it pushed me academically. It also made me good at team work. But more than anything business school establishes a strategic way of thinking. After business school you are able to distil complex problems down into simpler frameworks, allowing you to see the point more easily. In today’s world, business is complex and problems are often complex. And if you have established that way of thinking, you can really add value to your company.
7. How do you relax?
I walk my two dogs. I do boxing with my personal trainer who is a friend of mine. I love skiing but don’t get to do it enough. I recently started yoga and my aim is to do that a bit more.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I generally get up at 6:15am. I then take the dogs for a walk, and I sit down at around 7:20am to have breakfast and check my emails.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
If you were an animal what would you be? That question for me often is the most interesting because it reveals whether the subject has a sense of humour. My experience is that skill set is easy to establish because you have qualifications, but cultural fit is also important. I like working with people with a sense of humour. And if I were an animal I would be a male lion because they are iconic. They are an iconic symbol of pride, strength, rigour and leadership. I can imagine no other image that brings out strength more than a male lion. But my nickname is the Chimp: In my family everyone has animal names and it really brings out a lot of laughter and banter. It’s a fun family tradition.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
I think at the heart of any value proposition is what makes you unique. Relentless focus and understanding around how to be different in a way that adds value to your sector would be my overwhelming message. Working in a business where you have something different, unique and special, makes business fun. But working in a business where you are simply scrapping at the table for price is not a fun place to be unless you have established a cost leadership position. I think either you establish something special in your business about the way you do things, and that means you can compete on price – or have something unique that nobody can compete with.
Johnnie McMillan is managing director of Tropical Power Energy Group, an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company building renewable energy solutions in Africa. Tropical Power has built and commissioned a $6.5m biogas plant in Naivasha, Kenya. The Gorge Farm plant generates 2.2MW from organic crop waste and will also house a 10MW grid-connected solar PV plant. Tropical Power plans to build renewable power assets across Africa producing over 130MW of power by 2018.