Multinationals need to ‘work around’ Africa’s challenges, says DHL boss

There is general consensus that Africa is moving forward, and slowly but surely shaking off its image as a continent plagued by war, extreme poverty and poor governance. While this may be true, many countries on the continent still struggle with issues that can make it difficult for multinationals to operate.

Charles Brewer, managing director for sub-Saharan Africa at DHL Express

Charles Brewer, managing director for sub-Saharan Africa at DHL Express

Charles Brewer, managing director for sub-Saharan Africa at DHL Express, knows a thing or two about the challenges the continent can throw at one – from political turmoil to airport fires (such as the one at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi last year) to severe weather conditions. For a company like DHL, where speed is of critical importance, such problems could have an even bigger impact than for some other companies. DHL can’t simply shut down operations while waiting for a situation to play itself out.

Brewer’s advice to other multinationals looking to make a success of their pan-African businesses is to ensure they have the right staff with the capacity to “work around” the continent’s challenges. “You have to have people in your organisation that can handle the bumps and bruises that Africa is going to throw at you. Every week, without fail, you’re going to have something that tests your leadership and your organisation’s culture.”

Brewer says DHL has delayered its management structure in sub-Saharan Africa, and that each of the country managers now reports directly to him. “This has allowed us to be more nimble and act much faster.”

Over the past 30 years Brewer has worked for DHL across the world, from Asia to the US. He has held his current position for the past three years.

“In New York you rarely have to worry about whether the lights will switch on, whether you are going to have a network to transfer your data, or whether you will be able to get your shipments in and out of a country. In Africa we have these challenges on a weekly basis.”

Brewer doesn’t seem too fazed by these hurdles, but instead sees them as an opportunity to grow the business. “It never makes me depressed. Most DHL employees see it as a positive opportunity to demonstrate to our customers that no one knows Africa like we do. [Recently] on the island of Réunion there were severe cyclone warnings, and our country manager rang me up and told me that his team is out on the streets delivering and picking up. And that’s the DHL way. We just get the job done because our customers depend on us.”

Each country requires a different approach

Brewer says he has never worked in a region where there are such big differences between individual countries or territories such as in Africa.

“Before I started the job I viewed Africa as one continent where every country is pretty much the same. I suppose the last three years have been a very rude awakening of how wrong my perceptions were,” he explains.

“Tanzania is different to Kenya, Kenya is different to Uganda, Uganda is different to Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire is different to Mali. One of the most dangerous mistakes you can make when you look at Africa is to approach each market in a similar way.”

Even though he has been to almost every country in the region over the past three years, Brewer still relies heavily on the individual DHL country managers to know what’s best for their respective markets.

To illustrate his point, Brewer describes an unusual promotion DHL ran in Ethiopia. “We were looking for ways to run promotions to attract customers to our retail points. Typically we would have a scratch card where a customer can win an iPad or tickets to a Manchester United game. However, our country manager in Ethiopia, Essete Gebriel, said none of these would work, but what would be relevant is giving customers a chicken on Easter. So she went out and bought 2,000 chickens to give out to customers.

“I trust Essete. She knows what is best for the market and people loved the promotion. I think that is what Africa is all about. You have to be dynamic. Every single market is different and our local staff knows what works far better than I do.”