About business and governance: The Border-Kei’s Les Holbrook always calls it as he sees it

BY TAI CHISHAKWE - NOVEMBER 10, 2015

Les Holbrook, Border-Kei Chamber of Business Executive Director, has never been afraid to call it as he sees it – whether it be about corruption, crime or public maladministration. Les has made it clear that he strongly believes that society needs to bring back the values of accountability, ethics and morals both in business and in governance.

“We have forgotten how to trust people and organisations and instead of placing faith in one, we start ‘another one’,” he explains to Business Link magazine.

“If there is one thing our country needs right now, its stability and continuity – especially in our provincial and local government leadership. In my tenure at the Border-Kei Chamber I have been confronted by six different Mayors, and six Premiers. This averages out at 3.6 years per term.”

But confrontations are not what defines Holbrook’s accomplishments to date. If anything, it should be his deep desire to see socio-economic growth in the East London-Border region, his home, as well as the Eastern Cape as a whole.

Who is Les Holbrook?

Holbrook was born in Kabwe, Zambia, and his involvement with business in the East London-Border region dates back to the 70’s.

“I am a proud product of the ‘old,’ apprenticeship scheme. Back in 1975, at a weekly pay of R11.65, I started as an apprentice Marine and Automotive machinist/engine rebuilder; something generally referred to as a Millwright – but somewhat more precision machining,” he describes.

“I studied at Block-release school in the evenings, to achieve the necessary NTC certificate. In between that and now, I have been a Brewer, Truck Technician, Production Manager and General Manager for a large national footwear company. I have successfully completed a number of courses including Rhodes University’s Certificate in Management Practice.”

After having acted as a volunteer secretary for the Transkei Chamber of Industries for 16 years, in 1991, he was appointed as its first full-time Director. That was when the former homelands were being reintegrated into South Africa.

“At the time, I was only assured a six-month contract, in which time I had to make the Chamber sustainable. When people tell you they worked from the boot of their car… this was no exaggeration as I literally did,” he describes.

“In the course of the next six years, five of the former Chambers of Commerce & Industry in the Border, Transkei and Ciskei were merged, and in 1997, the Border-Kei Chamber of Business was founded. At that time I had only two options – leave or apply for the position of Executive Director of the ‘new’ association.”

After a “very stringent, rigorous and transparent” selection process, Holbrook was appointed Executive Director in 1999 – he still holds the position today.

“The reason why this is so relevant is because many of our members perceive that I simply transitioned from the former, to the present position.”

Business in uncertain times

Holbrook says East London, as the region’s business hub, has a bigger role to play in helping to shape the economic fortunes of surrounding districts – which is very challenging.

“Unlike the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, much of what we do and how we operate impacts on the rest of the region. We cannot, and up till now, have not ignored the importance of the surrounding districts. The sense is if they succeed we will – if they fail, so we will too,” he explains.

He says other challenges faced by business in the region include aging infrastructure, unequal distribution of revenue and resources, high costs of doing business “and up until recently, a divisive leadership in local government”.

“Much has also been said about incentives, without which we cannot realistically compete with locations with real advantages of efficient ports, lower cost of airfares, better roads etc. Just offering lower/subsidised municipal service costs will only address short-term needs and responses,” he notes.

He adds that the public sector needs to be more proactive in supporting local businesses and not always rely on consultants from the bigger cities.

According to Holbrook, another challenge the Border-Kei Business Chamber continually faces is convincing decision-makers on priorities.

“As an example, we all know that our biggest challenge is jobs. However, the only sustainable way to meet this challenge is to have more viable enterprises. Hence, greater cooperation between the private and public sector is needed.

“Leaving the private sector out of planning and policy formulation is never going to work. Making decisions that almost exclusively impact on business without asking business is also counter-productive. We feel that business must be represented on all boards of state-owned entities. Presently there are few, and some of those are not from the Eastern Cape,” he describes.

“By no means last is supply chain. Government in the Eastern Cape spends over R45 billion on goods, services, tenders and contracts annually. In many cases, huge sums are wasted because the systems they use are fraught with mistakes. Because of this, much time and money is wasted on litigation, retendering and failed tenders.

“We have proposed that an advisory forum of experts, albeit retirees from the private sector be asked to assist, to coach and to mentor.”

Holbrook says he would want to see the province grow from being the second poorest in the country to at least being the fourth most prosperous.