Mxolisi Mgojo was awarded Business Leader of the Year at the 2022 All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA) at a glittering ceremony in Sun City, South Africa in June, at the pinnacle of a four-decade multi-continental career in business that has seen him work as a software engineer, a banker and now for the last 21 years, in the minerals and renewable energy environment.
CEO of Exxaro Resources for the last six years, Mgojo was educated in the United States (US), South Africa and the United Kingdom (UK), with a BSc in Computer Science from Northeastern University in the US, and an honours degree from what is today the University of Johannesburg.
He’s a graduate of Wharton School of Business’ advanced management program as well as Singularity University’s executive program, but perhaps the degree he is most proud of is the MBA he received from Henley in 2000.
“I’ve never been scared of change, I’ve actually lent into it,” says Mgojo. “I decided to do an MBA when I went into mining, because I needed to learn the management skills. I had great specialist skills, writing code for Unisys in the UK and doing investment banking for Société Générale, but I’d never run a team before. I’d always been responsible for my own output.”
The MBA and the ‘soft skills’ he learned, he says, were invaluable for at first leading a marketing and logistics team of three, including himself, at Eyesizwe Coal and then successfully competing for the position of General Manager Base Metals and Industrial Minerals of the newly-established Exxaro Resources. From there he was appointed head of the coal division.
“The MBA taught me how to build relationships. A lot of the work is done under pressure and in syndicates because not everyone has the same skills, so we had to learn to find solutions and teach the other members and learn from them.”
“You won’t find many MBA graduates who have done their degrees without relying on their syndicates. Coming into mining, I drew on exactly that principle. I was upfront about what I didn’t know and what I need to learn.”
It was a vital attribute for the future; when other mining companies did not see the opportunity to enter the renewable energy sector, Sipho Nkosi and Mxolisi took up the opportunity. “I never saw myself as ever becoming a CEO, I’m an introvert. I saw Bab’Nkosi (the legendary Sipho Nkosi who became Exxaro’s CEO) as one. But Sipho said to me ‘you don’t have to be like anyone else, you just have to be the best version of yourself’.”
Inspired, he set about pursuing his fascination with change and especially as to why some iconic companies – like Kodak, Nokia, Blockbuster – had failed after being undisputed market leaders. As part of Exxaro’s executive team lead by Nkosi, he played an important role as far back as 2009 to transition Exxaro into a significant coal producer and a player in the renewable energy sector.
The other game-changer for him was the vote of confidence that the industry itself gave him, voting him president of the Minerals Council and then extending his tenure as he went out to defend their interests when certain ministers tried to interfere and work with them to break legislative logjams and find mutually beneficial solutions for the country and the industry.
On June 3 this year, he says the Business Leader of the Year award came as “a total surprise”.
“Our stakeholder relations department asked me to sign some forms some weeks back and I thought these were standard POPI (Protection of Personal Information Act) forms, so I didn’t give them another thought. Then all of a sudden, I found out I’d been nominated and that I was a finalist!”
Mgojo couldn’t believe he was one of the finalists in an African leadership competition.
What amazed him more was to be nominated together with Ralph Mupita, the Group CEO of MTN. Mgojo was part of a finance team that provided the initial loans when MTN was founded in the mid-1990s. Today, MTN has grown to become a telecoms powerhouse the length and breadth of Africa.
And then he discovered that he had won.
“I thought it was a mistake. Then I thought, ‘God, you have a wonderful way of creating the greatest finale of a person’s working life’,” reflecting on the fact that he retires as CEO at the end of July.
When he finally steps down, he is planning to take a sabbatical for a year, ride the infamously tough Cape Epic mountain bike challenge, pick up his grandkids from school – and spend time with his wife. But when that time’s up, he wants to give back.
“It dawned on me when my grandson was born that I had a sense of responsibility. (My generation) created this mess. We have to be part of the solution to fix it.”
For Henley Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley, Mgojo’s victory is an incredible affirmation of precisely what the business school set out to achieve.
“It’s heart-warming – and humbling – to hear someone of Mxolisi’s status underscore the importance of his MBA to the trajectory of his incredible career, as he reflects on this wonderful and well-deserved accolade.
“His story is precisely why we teach the MBA: to unlock the incredible potential that lies within people and build the leaders who build the businesses, which in his case, literally build Africa.”
Henley Business School Africa is a leading global business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and Africa and the only business school in Africa to hold quadruple international accreditation. It has the number 1 business school alumni network in the world for potential to network (Economist 2017); and is the number 1 African-accredited and -campused business school in the world for executive education (FT 2018, 2020), as well as the number 1 MBA business school in South Africa as rated by corporate SA for the last five years (PMR 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022). It holds Level 1 B-BBEE ranking and is committed to transformation.
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