With 40 years of service under his belt, Andrew St Clair-Laing holds the esteemed title as one of Tsebo’s longest-standing employees. He credits Tsebo’s success with insightful leadership, agility, and strong partnerships with local stakeholders. A proudly African company.
I believe it’s more important to be a person of value than to chase success. Being a person of value is about being a team player. I learned that lesson fairly early on in my career and have always had a passion for involving other people in what we do and achieve.
It began 40 years ago
Andrew began working for Fedics at the-then Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa) on 1 September 1980 with a starting salary of R90 a month. As a newly married man, he left the hotel sector for more favourable working hours, but he couldn’t have imagined the rich and varied career he was about to embark on.
“Medunsa was quite a political hotspot at the time and there was a fair deal of demonstration, but we were there to serve food as best we could and to ensure the satisfaction of our customers. We later opened an a la carte restaurant, which was a first in Fedics Pretoria. There was quite a lot of unknown territory in those days. Fedics was a growing organisation and we were the people who had to make it happen. Most catering was in-house at that time, so outsourcing was a new concept to many of our clients.
“Catering in those days was called ‘industrial catering’, which didn’t give it a great shake in people’s minds. We wanted to move away from that label and take the canteen business into the staff-restaurant environment. We felt it was much spicier and good for our margins.”
A learning environment
From his starting position as Unit Manager at Medunsa, Andrew climbed the ranks to become District Manager, then Quality Manager, Operations Manager to General Manager, gaining valuable experience across the business before being appointed as a Director.
“The great thing about Fedics was the fact you could work your way up the ladder. Fedics was an excellent school and I always felt that we were blessed to undergo such intensive training and development as aspirant young business managers. It would be fair to say that Fedics was the university for this fledgeling industry.”
Andrew cites one of his proudest moments as completing his MBA through the Charles Sturt University in Australia, where he majored in the Theory of Project Management and Management of Organisational Change. Tsebo’s strong transformation agenda during the early years of South Africa’s democracy allowed Andrew to build many case studies around what he was experiencing in the company. Fedics challenged Andrew to apply his learning and experience in large catering establishments when Tsebo won the tender for catering, cleaning, hygiene and housekeeping services at the All Africa Games in Alexandra in 1999 and again in Nigeria in 2003.
Diversity and transformation
Tsebo’s transformation agenda dates back to 1983 with the implementation of the organisations’ first affirmative action programme, as well as its sponsorship of the SA Chef’s Association to develop black chefs. In 1995, The Black Management Forum bestowed its Most Progressive Company of the Year Award on Tsebo and Andrew is proud to have attended the event.
“We knew we were nominated but didn’t realise that we’d won until that evening. It was a very prestigious award, and I think we are still proud to have been one of the early recipients and to be recognised as worthy pioneers in the field of transformation in South Africa.
“As a company, we are progressive in our thinking and committed to transformation, as reflected in our current Level 1 BBBEE certification. We were the first organisation in the catering industry to achieve our Level 1 BBBEE status. We also employed a full-time AIDS counsellor to guide the organisation through this very sensitive time. Transformation is in our mindset and what makes the organisation special is the vision we had and the authentic commitment of our leadership.
“From the very start, we’ve had really solid people in our company with forward-thinking leadership. The whole learning experience for me was dynamic, and the other thing I liked was that I mostly got to do the things I liked to do.”
A proudly African organisation
For Andrew, part of doing what he liked to do was helping to set up business for Fedics Site Services (as it was then known) in remote communities across Africa. This involved partnering with local stakeholders and helping them to develop their businesses. In turn, creating sustainable and reliable supply chains across the continent.
“We quickly realised that to set up business in Africa, we needed local partners because you can’t be street smart in someone else’s country. Our approach has always been to offer respect and recognise each and every country’s uniqueness, which seemed to be part of the recipe that fostered our growth in Africa.
“At Tsebo, we have always had a passion for involving other people in what we do and what we achieve by working with local teams and uplifting communities. A Legacy mentality is captured in that simple saying, ‘give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for the rest of his life’.
“My experience with some of our large public utility clients’ was a real eye-opener in this respect. The local community was actively partnered with Tsebo and they learned from us, while at the same time, we learned from them. We listen and learn from the guys on the ground who understand the local nuances and we upskill and train local people to grow as part of our business community.” This business philosophy has been mutually rewarding and has delivered some very successful reference points for Tsebo.
Aside from achieving his MBA and the All Africa Games, Andrew has a long list of career highlights, including serving on a number of boards, working across Africa, and being part of the team holding a Guinness World Record for hosting the deepest underground catering experience.
“We sat together and thought, what could we do to challenge Jack Ferreira [who held the record for the largest serving of fish and chips]. So we embarked upon hosting a fine dining experience deep underground at one of the Gold Mines in Johannesburg and invited 15 of our top clients to attend this lunch; we first did our homework to confirm that this was indeed the deepest gold mine in South Africa at the time.”
One of Andrew’s proudest moments, however, was being made a Director on the Fedics Catering Board and assuming responsibility for the future direction of the organisation and for the careers of the people in it. “I don’t think anyone is born to be a director; you become a director and you learn to think like a director by watching your colleagues and other smart people around you. Not only was that a proud moment for me personally, but my family was proud of me. One of the proudest moments is being a hero in your own home.”
Now in semi-retirement, he still plays an active role as a Management Consultant for Tsebo; allowing the organisation to draw on his vast experience and expertise. “I like to keep my hand in the business. I think if you’ve spent 40 years with an organisation, it would be difficult just to cut ties. I’ve chosen a path to stay attached and connected, which excites me. I think that Tsebo is a magnificent organisation and it is indeed my privilege to stay linked to the latest developments in the organisation.”
Celebrating 50 years of Tsebo
“I believe that agility and relevance are what has allowed Tsebo to achieve this 50-year milestone. We have a great recipe for getting stuff done by developing and implementing good systems and investing in our people. In the instances where we’ve needed to reinvent ourselves, we’ve always bolted on to our core business skill set and that is what we’re really good at”.
“ In essence, we have given back to move forward, not only in terms of putting money back into developing the business but also through the people in the organisation and being prepared to share experience to develop others – so you have this constant stream of people who are aspirant within the organisation”.
“I hope that our employees have a long and happy stay because Tsebo is the kind of organisation where you can achieve whatever your heart desires. I think it’s an excellent organisation in which to develop your career”.
“Achieving a milestone of 50 years is indeed an awesome achievement. It sets us apart from many companies in the country. We are now a long-standing company with many long-standing clients. While it is our birthday, let’s not forget we should also be celebrating the loyalty of many of our clients. Congratulations Tsebo, on this magnificent milestone and I hope that the organisation will be blessed with many more years of prosperity.”