BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ

The industrial processing, distribution and service company we know today as Barloworld was founded by Ernest Barlow in 1902. Almost four decades later, during World War II, the company’s shares started trading on the Johannesburg Stock exchange for the first time; the opening price was seven shillings and sixpence a share. The war years (1939-45) were difficult ones for the global economy, badly affecting the South African economy too, but skilful management saw the company – under the leadership of its founder’s son, Charles Barlow – emerge in good order. Fast forward seventy-five years, and the world is in the grip of another equally testing crisis, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc on economies, locking them down to the point of stopping normal business activity. This time, the man at the helm of Barloworld is Dominic Sewela, whose leadership skills are set for a severe test. Just as the pandemic starts to subside, war breaks out in Ukraine, disrupting the company’s operations in that region. Sewela navigated Barloworld through these storms and emerged successful. This warrants a closer look at this experienced business leader, an inspection which reveals that what he achieved was not by accident.

Sewela is a seasoned executive, a qualified chemical engineer with over 30 years’ experience in the energy, petroleum, oil and gas, and agricultural sectors. He grew up in Soshanguve (the place name is an acronym for Sotho, Shangaan, Nguni and Venda, a reflection of the region’s diversity) near Pretoria. He attributes his business skill to his great grandfather, who was also an entrepreneur. According to Sewela, difficult family circumstances compelled him to become entrepreneurial at a very young age. His first “business” was selling peanuts at his school. Sewela says he was fortunate to be surrounded by women in his family who influenced his thinking about, and approach to, diversity. These experiences helped shape the manner in which he approached his career.

Sewela was a co-founder of oil and gas company Exel Petroleum, the first wholly black-owned fuel retail company in South Africa, and was instrumental in the establishment of the African Mineral and Energy Forum (AMEF). He has also worked for some of the leading oil companies in South Africa. His first stint at Barloworld saw him establish one of its business units, after which he started his rise through the company’s ranks. At one point he left, but later returned to assist with Barloworld’s transformation objectives. In 2017, he became Barloworld group’s chief executive officer, leading the global company from South Africa. Barloworld has two primary areas of focus: industrial equipment and services; and, consumer industries (food and ingredient solutions). The company has operations in 16 countries around the world. Barloworld has a proven track record of long-term relationships with global principals and customers.

The company has managed to develop and grow businesses in many countries, including in challenging territories with high growth prospects. Sewela attributes Barloworld’s staying power and longevity in South Africa – the company has operated here for 120 years – to the manner in which it builds relationships with partners, clients and employees. A case in point is its working relationship with Caterpillar. For 95 years, Barloworld has remained one of the leading CAT® dealers, and it continues to provide customers with reliable, high-quality solutions and service.

Barloworld has now gone on to open the largest CAT® rebuild centre within Caterpillar’s global dealer network. As a business unit, it currently employs more than 4 500 people, as well as providing education to future earthmoving industry professionals through its PJB Learning Academy. Barloworld has been able to support countless businesses through Cat Financial. Very few companies can sustain a business for almost a century. The relationship it has with Caterpillar speaks volumes about the importance Barloworld places on building such relationships.

Barloworld Consumer Industries business, Ingrain, has been a positive addition to Barloworld since 2020. Ingrain is Africa’s largest producer of unmodified and modified starch, glucose and related products. The acquisition of Ingrain is a strategic pivot for Barloworld in its journey towards sustainable growth for the future. Ingrain solidifies Barloworld as an industry leader that is deeply rooted in the South African heritage.

Sewela prides himself on the manner in which the company has maintained relationships across regions. Barloworld has a presence across the globe beyond Africa – in Europe and Asia, including some of the more difficult regions in which to conduct business. Over the five years of his tenure at Barloworld, Sewela considers diversity to be one of his top achievements. When he took the reins at the company, it was not diverse. Today, Barloworld is one of the most transformed companies in South Africa. Currently, 55% of Barloworld’s board members are women, while the group finance director and the chief executive officers of two of the business units are African women. More than two-thirds (67%) of the executive committee are African, 44% of whom are women. Its chairperson is an African woman, Dr Nolulamo Gwagwa, while across the group the company is led by executive women in various areas of the business.

Another exciting milestone in Barloworld’s Transformation journey has been the launch of the first Gender-Linked Bond in Africa in which the company is planning to raise as much as R1 billion in three-year and five-year bonds, with the rates linked to goals for women in its leadership structures, as well as participation of businesses owned by black women in its supply chain.

As someone who grew up among powerful women in his family, Sewela has remained a champion of empowering women, an ethos that shows in the composition of his leadership team. Sewela has delivered positive results for Barloworld under difficult circumstances. Throughout the Covid-19 lockdown period, he remained a caring leader while ensuring continuity of operations. Barloworld has built quality relationships with its employees. Barloworld remains steadfast in its goal to provide equal employment opportunities for all its employees and to build a diverse workforce that reflects the demographics of its operational environment. Sewela has been direct in ensuring employees’ mental health is taken care of during the pandemic, a period that has challenged society psychologically. One of the toughest calls he had to make was shedding staff due to unavoidable economic circumstances.

Innovation & Future

While Barloworld is conscious of its socio-economic environment, it is also future-focused. In its 120th year, Barloworld wants to reaffirm its commitment to innovation, inclusion and ethical leadership in all the markets in which the company operates. A closer look at the company shows it to be a technology driven one. This is exemplified by the mining operations using Caterpillar equipment, which has turned them into tech- empowered environments.

As a business, Barloworld will retain its equipment and food ingredient businesses into the future. The Barloworld Business System (BBS) that has been central in enabling Dominic’s strategy will continue to permeate the group structure. Coupled with a focus on effective transformation and people at the centre, Barloworld will continue to spearhead diversity and inclusion in its business while growing a pipeline of ethical leaders who will add value to the communities they serve and the economy at large. The aim, according to Dominic is to leave Barloworld better than he found it.

Barloworld’s approach – under Sewela’s leadership – will ensure the company is able to withstand the cyclical nature of economies, and is well prepared for whatever the future may hold.