Ricky Zililo, Senior Sports Reporter
AFTER serving four years as Highlanders’ chief executive officer, Nhlanhla Dube believes there is a need for the club to spell out the roles of the head of secretariat to avoid clashes with the executive.
In an overview on his tenure, which ended on December 31, Dube feels defining roles of officials would strengthen the CEO’s office.
Dube also spoke about the successes he enjoyed at the club, and below is a question-and-answer session Dube (ND) had with Chronicle Sports (CS):
CS: Now that you are leaving Highlanders, what’s your next move?
ND: I’ve not left Highlanders, it’s not possible to leave Highlanders. Highlanders is an idea, a very broad-based idea to which you become a member.
Some of us chose to be members for life, which means it’s inscribed in our DNA. So, I only leave a particular office as I’ve done before.
I was a committee member, I was secretary and every time I left those positions, I remained an active member of the club.
My current reality is that I’m no longer Highlanders’ CEO after serving for four years, for which I’m very grateful. Now it’s time to relax and recharge my batteries.
CS: Which role did you enjoy most and why?
ND: It’s difficult because I think the roles were different and also incremental. They led to the next step in the sense that it was a learning curve.
As CEO, I enjoyed the most because it was a time of synthesising what I had learnt as a member and in corporate life.
It was time to expand my knowledge and implement my ideas without the burdens of political office. Executive offices are political because they are entered into via votes.
The role of CEO couldn’t have done it when I was a committee member because then I had the temperament I had then. There are so many things I was able to take, pivot and interact with people without my emotions coming to the foe.
CS: Obviously, there were ups and downs, take us through the successes you had in the last four years?
ND: When I joined, it was at a point when the club was looking at reigniting its fires in a sense, to recharge itself and revamp engines.
We had gone through a process of stability with the sponsorship of BancABC, but in terms of success on the pitch we were stagnant.
We needed to change the trajectory and find a bit of inclination in our trajectory. First, we had to balance our books, we were losing (coach) Erol Akbay, we had to look at the playing staff and say what do you need? We had three or four foreign players in our squad, so we had to find a way of disengaging the players without getting the club into a quagmire and we managed to do just that.
Then we brought in a new coaching structure based on what the club wanted to do. We engaged Madinda Ndlovu, who brought Mandla Mpofu and Bekithemba Ndlovu. We had defined ourselves on the back of a three-year programme.
First, we needed to recruit players so that we rejuvenate the Highlanders’ institution based on what the identity of the institution was, the type of football that will bring people to the stadium.
The average age then was 22 and we managed to create a playing style, create an attractiveness again and people started coming to the stadium as our brand became attractive again.
I think at the time, the club had more fans attending football matches more than any other club in the country. That was the first success of being the leading stadium supported club in the PSL and numbers can support that.
BancABC was leaving, so we needed to find sponsorship. We rejuvenated a conversation that was going on with NetOne. We had to start talking to NetOne before the BancABC deal had lapsed.
We had both corporates in one room so that the handover take over was smooth and we managed to do that.
Lazarus Muchenje, then head of NetOne, was understanding. The then Minister of ICT Supa Mandiwandzira was at the very core of the NetOne deal, he was very instrumental in making sure that the deal sailed through.
NetOne assisted in various ways, assisting in arresting our debt. The greater part of the debt was from monies owed in signing-on fees and in some spaces winning bonuses.
So, we structured the sponsorship in such a way that all signing on fees were paid directly to the players as well as winning bonuses and salaries. What we earned on the sidelines was channelled towards other responsibilities.
Securing NetOne sponsorship and structuring it in a way that the club wasn’t tempted on how to spread the money. We only had to find money for the developmental sides, as the first teamhad been catered for.
If you look at the programme we had set, we said the first year was all about recruiting players and coaches who understood the Highlanders’ culture.
The second year, if you look at the strategic notes, they’ll say the second year we wanted at least to be in one final, we only happened to be in Chibuku and we won it. We went beyond what we had earmarked as our measurement.
A decision was made with members, that we won’t go to Africa because we did not have the financial muscle and didn’t want to drag the club into debt.
The third year was for us to challenge for the title, but then Covid-19 happened. In that time, we lost coach De Jongh, who went to FC Platinum because he wanted to play in the Champions League. We then brought in Mark Harrison whose style we felt suited our club.
We were again successful that we managed to secure sponsorship for the coach we brought from outside when Madinda left.
So, when NetOne left, without sponsorship, we managed to look for other ways of creating income or finding income we hadn’t focused on in the past.
We managed to recoup the development fees of players who had gone through the Highlanders’ system and had been exported, while playing for other clubs. (Bosso got about US$43 000 development fees for Teenage Hadebe and Marvelous Nakamba).
We managed to fulfil the obligations of the club during Covid-19 when there were no activities and without sponsorship. That on its own was a huge success.
Another thing we did was to start working at the clubhouse fields, because we said we need to be able to measure success away from the playing field and during Covid-19 it was the best time to be able to sharpen other activities that we should be undertaking administratively.
So, we found partners and progressively we started to create spaces and show value.
We started leveraging on the brand, managed to leverage ROAR when we had no sponsorship and struck a relationship where we got a kit without paying a cent in the hope that when they structure themselves, they supply kits and replicas, but that didn’t happen.
During Covid-19, we leveraged on the brand and got Looks on board who brought in four kits and a whole lot of equipment. That for me was a success.
The launching of the Bosso canvas shoes where the club takes 20 percent of sales was a success. We signed up with Sanctuary Insurance, a deal that sees someone insuring with the company and saying put it under Highlanders without an extra cent and Bosso makes money.
We managed to equip the offices, managed to buy two vehicles to be used by the office and the team when they want to move their equipment.
CS: And the mining claim?
ND: I’m just cherry picking on a major success story, but again, that will not be complete without mentioning the gold mining claim we got during the Covid-19 period.
We used to write letters and give uMama (Bulawayo Provincial Affairs and Devolution Minister) Judith Ncube when she went out of the country so that we could find interlinks.
From one of her trips, she came and said: “why don’t we think about what other companies and other clubs are doing, why don’t we find a mining claim?”
That’s how conversations started and then we went to State House, met President Mnangagwa and he then listened to us, was very happy with the thinking process of the club because the idea was outside sponsorship, we need to find something that is sustainable that the club can use to be able to compete in the market.
So, we got the mining claim as a special grant. The idea was always that it be developed, we spoke to the President about this, because the club is not an expert in mining and he said how do we equip the mine and sponsorship in the interim, while you are growing your own mine.
The President said allow me to go and talk to people who I’m sure will want to work with you. He wrote back to the club and said he was still speaking to people around sponsorship issues.
So, I’m not going to try and extend myself how sponsorship happened and who His Excellency spoke to.
But gladly then we had Utande coming before Sakunda. Utande came, what they had was able to look after the first team salaries and we were happy because we were dry.
As we were talking to Utande, Sakunda came and we structured the deal in a way that the two can co-exist contractually.
For a start, I am thankful to former Minister Mandiwanzira, I must thank the support by uMama uJudith Ncube, but also behind the scenes uBaba Tshinga Dube did a lot of behind the scenes work up to the time we went to meet the President.
I must be very thankful to the President for listening to us, what he promised to do and we began seeing things happening a few weeks after meeting us. He understood the Highlanders’ plight, understood where Highlanders sit in the sporting ecosystem and was committed to making sure we don’t lose Highlanders to the economy.
I’m thankful also to the board led by chairman Luke Mnkandla, the mayor of Bulawayo, His Worship Solomon Mguni and the Bulawayo City Council for consideration towards free use of the stadia, which benefited other clubs following our initiative.
I’m thankful to life members who supported me during my tenure, we mobilised resources, training equipment and whatever the coaches needed. Even when we were doing the fields, they responded well.
I worked through a time when we had to be creative to get things to happen. For instance, Mawenziwe Sibanda and Khumbulani Malinga created and donated a website to us for free.
The pictures we took and posted on the website and social media spaces resulted in us being among leading social media e-commerce clubs in Africa.
To look back and see how, from nothing, we got to where we are, to a point that as CEO I’d walk from home to the office during Covid-19 to make sure things were done, my secretariat would beat the roadblocks to organise papers for the AGM or doing sponsorship, I can only say a lot of it is due to the dedication of the people that work for the club.
At that time, they (secretariat) could easily have said they can’t come to work because of the lockdown. I must thank the police as well for allowing us to fulfil our job.
People supported the work we did. I must hasten to say it’s impossible for me to talk about what I did as an individual because there was always someone or some people, there was always a team in a formal or informal nature. I don’t know how to spell team TEAM with an I.
In all that I mark as success, there’s nothing I did on my own because I had a team that always spurred me on and supported me. I’d like to mention the executive as led by Retired Colonel Kenneth Mhlophe, who in my view started to see the role of the CEO in its expansiveness. They started to give up some of their roles and achieved their roles by directing them through the secretariat through the CEO.
CS: In terms of limitations, where do you feel you fell short?
ND: I wish we could have finished training fields quickly; I wish we had finished equipping the club house, equipping Hotel California and making it a place where the team can camp. I just wish we had been able to tie down the sponsorship for development football.
Now they have sponsorship from Eyethu. But I wish we could have extended the Looks deal beyond the first team to development football so that we have a seamless deal where development football reflected the first team.
I think there’s a reason for that because we had to sell replicas, there was Covid-19, so we couldn’t develop the market in the same way. I also wish our social media could have grown faster than what it is today.
CS: Your parting shots? What do you envisage for Highlanders?
ND: I’m exiting the CEO’s position with pride because there are a lot of things we planned and we achieved. I’m thankful to the club for affording me an opportunity to serve the institution I love and want to see grow for generations to see.
The one sad reality that I’ve got is that the CEO’s position needs to be clarified by the constitution. The constitution created the role of CEO even before Club Licensing required for clubs, but it didn’t clean up the roles of secretary and treasurer.
Unless in that office you have people you work well with, like I did with Donald Ndebele and Israel Moyo, who understood that they were driving their roles through the CEO, you are bound to have clashes.
The clashes emanate from the constitution. So, clarify that and strengthen the role of CEO so that he/she delivers.
If we do that, we will depoliticise the office of CEO. I think one of the worst situations I went through was a politicised office CEO whereby an understanding that the CEO principally serves through the executive by reporting on a day-to-day basis to the chairman of the executive, who reports to members at the AGM was not understood clearly. I think we need to refine that.
I long for a Highlanders that understands that when there’s a contest for office, it’s a competition, we should contest fairly and honestly with credibility.
After all, elections come and go because elections have been at Highlanders for a very long time.
I think what we should focus on is the institution and to find unity and understand that at any given point, there can only be one person that wins a competition in an election.
When that is said and done, we should focus on making the institution successful through that person we’ve elected. I think remaining encamped in different groupings that existed for the purposes of an election is unhelpful.
We should understand that when we say at Highlanders we are one, it’s exactly that.
When all is said and done, we want the club to win. No one celebrates and jumps up and down when it doesn’t win. You can’t cut off your nose to spite your face.
Yes, elections are divisive by nature, but we should find a way of overcoming that. A clever institution finds a way of dealing with finding togetherness past elections. What remains supreme is the club.
It’s incumbent on all of us as leaders of the club at one point or another to understand the burden of leadership. The burden of leadership is such that we don’t belong to anybody, we belong to the club.
Once we get into leadership, we belong to everybody, those that elected us and those that didn’t elect us. We cease to have any opinions that are ascribed to ourselves, but we only speak an opinion that represents the club. — @ZililoR