51 Countries, 60 Direct Reports, 4,000 Employees: Meet the MD Leading it All
51 countries, 60 direct reports, 60,000 customers, 4,000 employees, 14 aircraft, 2 young children and 2 dogs! Charles Brewer is the MD who loves leading all of that
DHL Express, who has been in sub-Saharan Africa for more than 36 years, is the ‘Most International Company in the World’ and has a significant operation in Africa, moving thousands of shipments every day.
At the helm of this business is Managing Director Charles Brewer, who has been with DHL for more than 30 years, has worked in all regions of the world and found himself in Africa for the first time three years ago.
“Like many who haven’t actually been to Africa, the perceptions I had were found to be very different in reality,” Brewer says. “Simplistically, Africa is the last frontier. It is the most beautiful, dynamic and exciting region I have had the pleasure to live and work in, and despite the very obvious challenges and occasional risk, I love being part of this exciting journey.”
His role, as MD, is to “motivate and excite my employees to deliver unbelievable and unparalleled service levels and to help our customers grow and be successful” and it is clear that customer centricity is at the very core of Brewer’s DNA.
So what does it take to oversee this many people and territories?
“We worry a great deal less about formal qualifications and focus far more on emotional qualities, experiences and abilities” – not surprising when you consider that he spends huge amounts of time on the front line and considers himself the Chief Energy Officer.
Every week you will find Charles in a different country in Africa – he could be with a courier in Rwanda this week, selling with a sales executive in Senegal the next, to sitting side-by-side with a Customer Service Agent in Lagos the week after. “If you want to know what your customers or employees really think about your product or your company, get to where the action is as often as you possibly can.”
A few years ago, just after Brewer arrived in Africa, he took the bold decision to completely de-layer the management structure, with an aim to bring everyone closer to the “sharp-end” and to significantly improve communication and speed of decision making.
“Africa is so dynamic and I just felt that we were too far removed and operating far too slowly”. All 51 countries now report directly to Brewer and the new structure has proven to be really successful.
“The new structure is very different and demands a very open, rapid and engaging leadership style but it is working really well, with quicker decision making, simpler communication lines and a significantly improved employee engagement level”. As an example, the couriers, who are key to the DHL service delivery promise, are never more than four levels away from Brewer and five from the Global CEO.
Think global, act local and TRUST!
One of the key lessons learned over the past three years and specifically as DHL went through the structural change, was the importance of trust. “With so many countries, all with different opportunities and challenges, you have to trust the teams on the ground”. What that means is using the global processes and procedures, but allowing a high degree of input on how best to execute locally.
To illustrate his point, Brewer describes a recent example were DHL was running a retail point of sale promotion to attract new customers to its ever-growing retail points. The typical approach would be to offer discounts and/or corporate give-aways to incentivise walk-in customers. The country manager in Ethiopia however suggested a much better idea – giving customers a chicken as part of the Easter celebration.
“When the Country Manager first suggested ‘chickens’, I had to laugh and genuinely thought she was joking, but she was serious and right – the promotion was hugely successful”.
It is big, but doable
DHL’s sub-Saharan regional headquarters is based in Cape Town, but Brewer spends a considerable amount of time visiting the company’s operations across the rest of the continent. “You have to be very visible”.
In a region as large as Africa, this is however easier said than done. Unlike Europe where one would struggle to fly a stretch of more than four hours, travelling across Africa can be gruelling. Just visiting each of the countries in West Africa can easily take two to three weeks.
“It has its challenges in terms of flight schedules and being away from one’s family, but it makes for an interesting experience and I’m still having lots of fun. Playing a small role in the African growth story is an incredible privilege and one that I am very proud of,” says Brewer.
As we leave his office I hear him call out to his assistant, “which lucky country am I going to next week?!”
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