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Leadership Intuition: Why top German CEO is optimistic about South Africa

Updated: Jun 7

At a time when many South African business leaders lament the difficulties of doing business in SA, and emigration of skilled professionals continues to deepen the brain drain, one top German CEO is bucking the trend because of his enthusiasm for South Africa.

Despite a booming global corporate career and all the benefits of Europe and the US at his fingertips, globally recognised business turnaround expert Michael Dorn has set up a 170-person shop in Cape Town and Europe over the past year. Dorn is the founder and CEO of international turnaround firm the RTgroup, which has clients around the world. “I’m a big believer in South Africa and its potential, and that’s why I love working in SA,” says Dorn, who moved his family from German city life to seaside bliss in Cape Town, last year.

Dorn is a surfer and ocean activist, who has made a stellar career out of turning around struggling businesses in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the United States. Being the CEO and turnaround manager for a German listed company was one of his most interesting career stints as well as orchestrating the largest wind-down in German industry history as the Chief Restructuring Officer (CRO) since World War two. He has also worked inside some of the most famous business turnarounds in recent history, including Dell, Xerox, and Afrox.

Why there is reason to be optimistic about South Africa South Africa was ranked in 84th out of 190 countries by the World Bank in 2021 in terms of ease of doing business, and inefficiencies, red tape and corruption continue to impact the business-friendliness of the country. “South Africa is not without its challenges, but the more challenges there are, typically the more opportunities there are. Solution-thinkers can find great opportunities here.”

It is important to remember, says Dorn, that the grass is not always greener on the other side. “South Africa may be challenging but so is Europe, which is far more regulated, has far more competitors operating in each industry, and is more mature, which can be stifling from an innovations and ingenuity perspective.”

Dorn recently attended a business turnaround industry conference, where he heard many negative conversations about South Africa, where the fates of companies such as Tongaat Hullet, Edcon and Ster-Kinekor were discussed at length, but also where many stories of turnaround and resilience were shared. “What is abundantly clear is that no matter what kind of market you operate in, if you have a well-run business, with a good product that people want, and stakeholders that believe in you, you can make it work, even in tough times.”

“After every recession there is always a phase of big growth, when people come up with incredible ideas,” Dorn says, referring both to South Africa and the world’s current economic challenges. “More so than many other countries, South Africa has great natural resources, including strong agricultural potential, a robust financial services sector, and a great business culture, but its greatest asset is its people. Africa has the youngest population in the world, and that is an immense opportunity.”

Dorn encourages entrepreneurs to look at what is unique about South Africa and Africa and to explore those opportunities. “There are opportunities that exist here, that do not exist in Europe or in America. Explore that, and you will find great business potential.”

“Imagine you are making a very special meal, one that you can make only with very special spices. South Africa is like that. It has all the best ingredients. Ingredients you often can’t find in other places – and true diversity is one of those elements that make South Africa a great example to the rest of the world.” Dorn believes many parts of the world, including parts of Europe, are still years behind South Africa in terms of diversity and anti-racism policies and practices. “The South African corporate sector has a world-class understanding of what true diversity means and by large sets a positive example to the rest of the world.”

Dorn regularly commutes between Europe and South Africa, but for him, to live and work in South Africa is a dream come true. “I love South Africa and I’m very positive about its potential.”

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