Wayne Samson’s rise to the office of CEO of Ellies Holdings Ltd. is an interesting and noteworthy story. It is so noteworthy in fact that we were contacted by a very persistent young man who was adamant that we needed to sit with Samson so that we could share Samson’s story in this forum.
It is a story characterized by hard work, long hours, and a dedication and loyalty rarely seen in this day and age. Most notably though, it is a story of a man’s rise to an office and position usually reserved for those with advanced qualifications and a history of leadership in other organisations…both of which, Samson does not have. More on that later though.
Samson joined Ellies in the early months of 1989 as an assistant in their dispatch department. Within months he was called into their factory and manufacturing division to work as an assistant manager. Following this, he made two more moves before being asked to assist as Ellies’ General Manager. All this in the space of three short years.
He would remain as the GM until 1997 when he was pulled further up the management ladder and became the Operations Director. As such, he oversaw all the operations of this rapidly growing Southern African electronic products manufacturer, wholesaler and distributor.
Over the next ten years, Ellies would expand both their product offering and regional footprint as they spread into Namibia, Botswana, and Swaziland, with new products including satellite, audio, telephone, and other electronic accessories.
Samson’s final move would occur ten years later as he was asked to fill the seat of the CEO, a promotion that would occur on the eve of Ellies listing on the JSE’s AltX in September of that year.
Since then, Ellies has continued to enjoy sustained growth as both its bottom line and market position have increased, and much of this we can attribute to the leadership of their CEO.
Samson has a number of key focuses that he emphasises as he continues to take Ellies forward and upward. These include always being on top of the facts, making sure that one knows how things are operating and even “what orders are on the packaging floor”. He describes himself as very “hands on” and his history with the company and working in various departments therein, convinces me that this is so. He says that this approach is all about making sure you don’t make “strategic decisions in a bubble”.
A defining moment in Samson’s life occurred when, at the age of 20 and enrolled at Wits University, his father suddenly died leaving him with R400 and nothing else. As a result, he had to leave his studies and go and work. He says that very little in his life has been “handed to him on a platter”, and he has had to fight for a great deal. What has resulted is an abiding testimony of the fruits of hard work and discipline:
“I am a great believer in hard work and don’t believe there is any substitute for it.”
This belief has driven Samson to enjoy accolades on the sporting front as well, where he has sailed competitively and has also achieved a Second Dan Black Belt in the Karata discipline within Korean martial arts.
Samson feels a leader should trust his or her instincts and natural inclinations. We certainly agree. Too often, especially in leaders still trying to prove themselves, we see individuals trying to be everything to everyone. As a result, these leaders don’t allow themselves to enter into or fill a niche where they might have risen to the top, making themselves identifiable to those above them.
In order to hone these instincts, he also believes that one must be allowed to make mistakes because mistakes assist one to know where weaknesses exist and what might be done to overcoming these.
Knowing yourself is critical, he says, but we also need to trust in the skills and abilities of others: “…we must learn how to draw on other people’s experiences and expertise because there is no one person that has the skill-set necessary to tackle every facet of a business. If we can compliment what they are sharing, then we mustn’t fear doing so, but we must learn to draw and rely on those in our teams.”
I began this article explaining that a young man had asked us to feature Samson here, and I would like to dedicate the rest of this article to him. When sitting with Samson, I decided to ask some questions a young mentee might and share his answers in the form of the following Q&A section:
LP: What are critical skills that older generations have, that future leaders from the next generation perhaps lack and need to develop?
WS: The ability to work hard. I have found that a large number of individuals coming from university feel entitled. They seem to think that because they have a degree that they are entitled to positions that require hard work and experience to gain. While tertiary education is essential, particularly these days, future leaders need to work hard and gain valuable experience too.
And in order to gain that extra yard in a very competitive world, one cannot be a clock watcher. If there is a job to be done, you can’t clock out at 5pm, job incomplete, and expect to achieve anything.
LP: There is a perception that being a CEO means golf in the afternoons and international trips every few months…but what is it actually like at the top?
WS: Very stressful! And there are multiple kinds of stresses – the stress of needing to guide a listed entity in a difficult market; the stress of managing different stakeholders; and probably the greatest stress is that decisions I make don’t just impact me, but all 2000 employees, and their families, who rely on me. Since we’ve listed, I’ve lost more hair, and the remainder has gone greyer, than ever before. It isn’t just roses.
LP: What have you sacrificed in being a leader?
WS: Time with my family. Although I am able to provide my wife and children with a good life, I regret not being able to be with them more. Material possessions can’t make up for the time you will never get back. I have missed nine of my eldest daughter’s birthdays…it is a regret and one of the sacrifices I have been called upon to make. I suggest that future leaders learn to balance this more effectively.
LP: If you were able to go back and tell the 25 year old you three things, what would they be?
WS: 1) Finish studying. 2) Spend more quality time with your wife and kids. 3) And one that I still hold to today, is to stay true to yourself. You can’t be one person here and another person somewhere else. Stay true to yourself.
Samson’s story is both inspiring and thought provoking. His leadership has been cut and polished through years of dedicated service to Ellies Holdings Ltd for which they have rewarded him.
And so the question I pose to you: If your goal is to be a CEO, what is it that you are willing to give?
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