A man who says what he means and means what he says


James Espey, OBE and MBA alumnus of the 1968 class, has spent 50 exceptional years in business building brands and people. He talks to us here about going from rural Zambia to a high-flying international career, the scourge of mental health in the workplace, and the challenges facing a new generation of leaders squaring up to AI.

Q: Let's start with your MBA. What did you take away from your time at the GSB?

The best part of my career was triggered by my MBA at the GSB. It was an accelerator and gave me breadth and confidence, and made me realise that you don't have to know everything that is going on - you need to understand what is relevant. And because it is a generalist degree it was wonderful to understand how things fit together. The MBA also taught me the value of ethics and integrity - a lesson that has stood me in good stead. When I was working at a retail chain early in my career as an assistant marketing manager, I was offered a bribe to get a particular product onto the shelves. At the time I was earning just R120 per month and driving a battered old car. This person approached me and said if I influenced the awarding of a contract to his company, that he would buy me a new car. He actually put the keys to a brand new car on my desk! I threw him out! Morally, if I had taken that bribe I would have been finished.

Q: What is your opinion on the relevance of an MBA in the current and ever-changing market place? Has its weight in the commercial world been diluted?

I think that although the MBA has obviously had to change and adapt to keep up with the modern workplace, some lessons in business - like ethics and integrity - stay the same. And for this it is still a valuable degree. What it has to offer in terms of giving you confidence and understanding of how things fit together is also still as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Q: Did the MBA change your career trajectory in any way?

Up until my MBA, I was going to be a Chartered Accountant - and it is just as well because I think I would not have been very good at that. Instead I followed my passion into a career in marketing. My MBA thesis was a feasibility study into the use of cans for soft drinks in SA. At the time soft drinks were only sold in bottles. My personal forecast following my research was five times higher than anyone in the business predicted. And it turned out that I was right - cans took off!

The CEO of Gilbey's SA then offered me a job as National Sales Manager based in Stellenbosch, which I took. I believe to be a good marketer you need to truly understand the route to market (i.e the journey from customer to the consumer). I later became the Marketing Director in charge of both.

In 1977, I was about to set up my own consultancy practice but was approached by International Distillers and Vintners (IDV), who owned Gilbey's, to relocate to London as the Global Marketing Director on a six month trial. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse which included an offer to sit on their board - if I succeeded in the role - or be shipped back to South Africa.

Q: How was it to transition from South Africa to an international career - and do you think that starting out life in Africa has shaped your career in any particular way?

I remember that I arrived in London on May 18th 1977. I knew no-one and was quite lonely. Fortunately I played rugby and so did meet people that way. Initially I encountered some attitude from people in the workplace - asking who was this upstart from the colonies who had come to manage them? But I think I proved my worth to them quickly enough. My first assignment in my new job was to build the brand Baileys Irish Cream - a brand invented by Tom Jago that failed in research. Luckily he kept that research hidden and we went on to build it into one of the world's best-loved brands - now No. 1 liqueur worldwide at 7 million cases per annum. In November that year, at 34 years of age, I was invited to join the Global Board.

I do think that coming from a humble background in Zambia and having had a tough upbringing where things did not come easily - and then studying in South Africa - I learned to appreciate the importance of multiculturalism and adaptability. One of my mantras is think global, act local. Whenever I go to a new country, for example, I always insist on eating the local food. I have always had an attitude that wherever you go, you need to respect the local culture and be prepared to learn from people and also appreciate that for many - English is their third or fourth language! If you work with, rather than against people you get much further.

Q: Throughout your career you have been credited with changing cultures in various organisations - you were the first to hire a black manager for instance during your time at Gilbey's in the early 1970s in SA. What are the things that people need to grasp about successful culture change?  

I have been accused of being too direct and outspoken at times in my career, but I believe that you have to be prepared to say what you mean and mean what you say if you want to get anywhere. Directness and integrity are important. I won't play politics and I don't believe in committees - although I do believe in advisory boards. Taking the right advice is critical.

Other than that, I think teamwork is vital to successful culture change and also for the smooth running of any organisation. You are only as strong as your weakest link. There is no "I" in the word TEAM. Together everyone achieves more. And part of this is about delegation. You can't keep a pack of dogs and do the barking yourself!

As the leader you need to learn to prioritise and delegate. I always tell people, try and solve problems and bring me suggested solutions. We then discuss and are thereafter united whatever the outcome. And, of course, you need to treat everybody with respect - no matter who they are. In the end it all comes down to people and how you treat them.

You also need to be patient. Changing cultures - just like building a strong brand - takes time. People are often in too much of a hurry!

Q: The world of work is changing. Artificial Intelligence and the 4th Industrial Revolution are bridging many capacity gaps, but what are the knock-off effects from a "human" perspective?

In business, really, everything is about people. It is people who make the world work - only people. The problem is that often in modern workplaces people are treated as numbers - but they are not numbers. As a result you see more and more mental health problems in the workplace. AI and the 4th Industrial Revolution I think are accentuating this tendency to treat people like numbers and this is concerning.

People are hiding behind tech far too much. There is no doubt it is useful but it should be used as an aid to judgment not a substitute. When I chair board meetings - I make people switch off their phones and I only take a pen and note pad. When I am talking to you, I concentrate on talking to you.

People are the capital that make it happen - AI doesn't really change that. I have done a lot of things wrong in my career but the one thing that I am proud of is that I have hardly ever lost staff. It boils down to how you treat people.

Q: "Humanness" and "EQ" in the workplace are becoming more and more sought after - how do we develop leaders who want to build their leadership capability in the face of what AI and the 4th Industrial Revolution are bringing?

Just because certain things will be replaced by machines does not mean we won't need people any more. In fact, I think that now more than ever we need good people skills and good self-awareness to be effective in the workplace. The best thing that leaders can do therefore is to build their self-awareness and hone their capacity to work with and influence others. 

Q: You have made public that you have suffered more than one mental crisis during your career and one of your key projects now is as President of the Shaw Mind Foundation, an organisation that is dedicated to fighting and redressing mental health injustices. Are we looking at an epidemic of stress and mental illness in the workplace?

One of the terms I like least in the world is HR. Don't talk to me about HR - I call that human remains. If you treat people like numbers - it will have an impact on their mental health. Instead you need to ask; what are you doing for the well being of your staff especially in the age of AI and job insecurity?

What happens in the workplace is that often people are not functioning properly, as they are scared to talk about mental health; they are scared to say anything and instead try to live with it. A survey of employees conducted by the Shaw Mind Foundation in 2014 found that 31% said they would not feel able to talk to their manager if diagnosed with a mental health problem; 33% said that if they told their boss they were stressed at work, they felt that their ability to do the job would be questioned.

But these are issues that have to be confronted - not only because of the cost to business, but also because of the human cost. The UK economy as a whole is thought to be negatively affected by mental health problems in the workplace by approximately £70 billion annually. In the USA, estimates for the total cost of mental health and substance abuse to businesses annually are considerably higher. Meanwhile, according to research in Australia, a massive 20% of suicides are linked to work pressures.

Q: Collectively, employers spend upward of $8 billion a year on wellness programmes — yet these under-perform by most measures, and barely 25% of employers even try to understand how well their programmes do - according to Harvard Business Review. Can you comment on this? What should organisations be doing differently? 

There is much that organisations can do to deal with this crisis. Managers should be better trained to pick up mental issues and to support staff who are suffering. Additionally, they need to work to reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace and also ensure that workloads are not unreasonable. Work hours should be restricted. Consider limiting email on the weekend for instance. In addition, businesses also need to ensure 'buy-in' from all employees on the issue. As employees make up the bulk of any business it is crucial that they also play a pivotal role in supporting each other and building a culture that does not stigmatise mental illness.

Q: Should business schools be concerned about this issue at all?

Business schools have a huge opportunity to teach the next generation of leaders that mental health is an issue which has to be understood not swept under the carpet. Our future leaders have to understand the value of people - I believe that's foundational. I think there is also space to help them understand that not everything is about money. One of my criticisms of the modern world is that there is too much greed at the top. We need to stop and take stock of how we treat each other before it is too late.




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