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How to farm your way into the high life

Submitted by on Wednesday, 20 August 2008One Comment

De Beers Consolidated Mining MD David Noko tells DAVID GEMMELL about his life journeys from the farm to great heights in the business world.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in what I think is one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa – in Sabie, on a farm.

What did your parents do?

They were farm workers.

Did you have a health conscious upbringing?

Being born on the farm, even today I cherish visiting Nelspruit, Sabie and that part of the world. These are food production areas; we farmed in maize and fruit so there was very little that would separate me and the natural environment; it was healthy in that sense. What is disappointing though is how we have tended to become so easily urbanised. I recently attended “The Age of Turbulence” conference and I was saddened by the stats that were displayed there, that showed that South Africa is a net importer of food – which is ridiculous. Anyway… I was born in an environment of good health on a farm, so in that sense I had a health conscious upbringing.

Were your parents healthy?

(Laughs) Yes and no. My mom yes definitely; but my dad would have the odd serious drink and he smoked.

Did you have a decent childhood?

Looking back I had a good childhood. There were eleven of us children, although we are nine now, we lost a brother and a sister, but we grew up in a very large, family environment. I am number 10. Three sisters have stayed in the Nelspruit area and the rest have migrated to the cities. But we are a very, very close family.

I see you did an MBA in Scotland?

No, that was distance learning. I only went there to pick up my degree. But I have travelled extensively in my career – especially the three years that I spent with Pepsi Cola.

What did you do for them?

I was the Technical Operations Manager which involved building, commissioning and operating plants.

I see you were also at Air Chefs (Pty) Ltd?

Yes – I started as general manager of the Johannesburg operation and in less than two years I was chief executive.

What do you think of airline food when you travel now?

(Laughs)… It’s good food in general. I mean one wouldn’t expect to have refined cuisine when you are 11 kilometres up in the atmosphere. You have to consider the conditions under which the food is served in that tiny fuselage in the sky. There is so much detail that goes into airline food, you would be surprised; but what I can guarantee you is that it is safe and good quality.

That’s very loyal to your old industry, back to your health; what time does your day start?

Five, five-thirty. I get up and do light exercises, without equipment – things like stretching, and then I have a glass of bottled water. I usually have breakfast at work which normally is cereal – I’m addicted to my cereals and green tea (laughs), I’ve matured out of Rooibos. I try not to miss breakfast.

How seriously do you watch your diet?

Very seriously – I never eat a lot of red meat and I eat chicken minimally.

A farm boy who doesn’t eat meat?

I only eat meat now under duress; but no I don’t. I never got the taste right. It might have been informed by the fact that I’ve seen lots of slaughtering of cattle on the farm…but mind you I’ve seen lots of chickens slaughtered too. I enjoy fish, so I don’t know; I just don’t like meat.

What would your death row meal be?

A vegetarian meal – a salad with a few deboned sardines.

What sport do you do?

I do gym, most evenings – in fact one of the criteria when I travel, is my PA must only book me in hotels that have a gym.

What do you do at gym?

I first warm up by cycling or running on the treadmill, and then I do a circuit. Usually no less than three times a week and sometimes up to six times, and always for an hour minimum. (Laughs)…in 2006, I was at the London Business School and I used to spend two hours in the gym; I was continually looking for the sweat! (Laughs).

What depresses you?

I don’t like being unhappy, obviously. But I believe it is a personal choice to be unhappy. You create an expectation in your mind about the outcome of some event; then when the real outcome doesn’t match your expectations, you are unhappy. In business the way I deal with it is to be proactive, which helps. It’s been easier in the work environment, but it is more difficult I have found in my private life, when there are issues between siblings, when there are issues within families, and so the same formula doesn’t apply there necessarily.

How do you deal with that?

My conviction is simple; resolve issues quickly – there must be an outcome. The issue about whether you like the outcome or not, is secondary; resolve issues quickly, then you are beyond the problem and can move on.

Following in the footsteps of some famous names and running a huge company like De Beers with the inevitable insinuations of tokenism, is presumably quite stressful, how do you deal with those pressures?

I personally have never been confronted with any insinuation of tokenism. So I think my situation has been very different from that perspective. I feel I was appointed when our economy had matured from matters related to political appointments, and we had gone beyond tokenism. I also hold the view that I have yet to come across a company that is willing to put a person in charge, but have another person doing the job elsewhere and have to pay both of them. I am happy that in the environment I operate, I am quite simply the man at the top of the company and everyone else in the company sees me as such. I have to deliver. I have been supported fully by all the shareholders in the company, by my staff, the board, and I have had the support of the workforce. I wake up and I want to go to work.

Not many people can say that. Are you optimistic about this country?

I think 1994 was a success story for this country. But I think to a certain degree since then we have rested a bit on our laurels. I have been disappointed by what has transpired in the leadership; apart from Mandela’s times. I am disappointed to angry, at the post Mandela era. I think we need to all get engaged in turning the country in the right direction. I think the emphasis on whether you were in the struggle or not, got us a long way in this country, but we must change that and put competent people in the right positions. And people must be held accountable. We have to work for the country not demand to be rewarded by the country, because otherwise we are going to run out of resources. I think it is also important to note that all black people struggled for this country. The ones who stayed in the country also struggled, but we have to get out of the struggle mentality and the solution is education. Give children grants for going to school, especially young girls and the HIV and AIDS would disappear. If given a grant for being at school, young girls would say a big no to any advances.

You haven’t considered getting into politics?

(Laughs) No, not at all. I don’t mind working closely with politicians, but I am not one of them. I can’t articulate my views as well as they do… (laughs).

To more mundane stuff, what do you do for holidays?

I love travelling. On holidays I get into a car or I fly somewhere to relax. I enjoy meeting people and going to places I haven’t been to before. I have a number of places on my list I still want to visit. Vietnam is on my list, China is on my list and another is India. But also in South Africa there are some wonderful places I have not been to.

Do you have any unusual hobbies?

Yes. Every single country I visit I tend to bring back something – whether it is a piece of furniture or a piece of crockery, I bring back something. I have more material from places than I have photographs. I have quite a lot of stuff.

If you could choose to be stranded anywhere in the world, where would it be?

A place called Papua in Indonesia.

Who in the whole of history would you like to sit next to on a long flight?

Ex-President Mandela; although we know a lot about him, I think he still has a lot to offer a young man like me. But also the Dalai Lama; I’d like to ask him ‘What’s in your mind?’ We know about his teachings, but what is in his mind, how does he think?

Have you ever bought a diamond and if so how big was it, and who did you buy it for?

Yes I have. (Laughs), I won’t disclose the size but I did, and strangely enough it was for myself. It’s not your usual diamond, it is semi-polished – part of it is rough and it is mounted. I have fallen in love with rough diamonds or ones that are partially polished.

Tell me something about David Noko that no-one else knows?

A lot of people take me for being a city boy, but I’m not. And in fact my best time out is when I’m outside town, and when I’m having a quiet moment. There are times I feel crowded amongst people, even family – I like my own company.

One Comment »

  • Kelly Brown said:

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