Meet The Resilient Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita

 “I know that talent emerges from the most unexpected places, so in the process of recruitment, a big part of my role as CEO, I actively strive for diversity so I can draw inputs from far and wide,”

CEO of the South African arm of Luxembourg-based global steel company ArcelorMittal, the largest producer of steel on the continent, Nyembezi-Heita has had a difficult year after the firm reported drooping returns and pessimistic projections for the future coming quarters in late July when stock prices hit their lowest low since 2008, slumping to roughly $9 a share. Nyembezi-Heita has attributed the fall to the worldwide economic situation and a slowdown in construction. She has been in her post since 2008, having begun her career as an engineer at IBM’s Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. She then worked for IBM in Dallas before returning to work for the company in South Africa. Nyembezi-Heita then switched direction to head the financial services group, Alliance Capital Management before joining Vodacom as head of its Mergers and Acquisition division.

Nyembezi-Heita is well-spoken, articulate and to the point, and one glance at her highly impressive credentials – she holds a BSc Honours degree in electrical engineering from the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology, a Masters degree in the same discipline from the California Institute of Technology, and an MBA from the Open University in the UK – and you know, without a doubt, that she very comfortably fits this very distinguished seat.

She concedes that race issues have impeded the success of others. In a recent interview, she said: “Battles I’ve fought are not different to any other black person. The race issue is much bigger than the gender issue. That is a very real hurdle.” She dismisses the notion that her gender in a male-dominated industry has been any kind of obstacle. “I can’t say I have ever felt marginalised, and I have been in a male-dominated environment most of my career. If competence and capability define a woman in her career, you can’t hold her back,” she states matter-of-factly.

Success in Nyembezi-Heita’s case has to be attributed in part to a shrewd recognition of South Africa’s need for engineering skills. Also, she has a lifelong aptitude for mathematics and physics, which she smilingly admits she used to do “for fun”. She says:

“I am one of those lucky people who finds a way to fit into the cracks. I suppose I studied engineering at a time that not many women did,”

Then there’s the hard work factor. “I’ve held myself to a punishing standard of excellence. Luck needs a little helping hand in hard work. If people do prep for two hours, I do four. Excellence drives me. Excellence is not an act, it is a habit.”

A priority in Nyembezi-Heita’s job is the tightrope walk between shareholders who want to maximise profits and a government that wants cheaper steel. She has to maintain ArcelorMittal’s position as a low-cost steel producer to retain the company’s competitiveness globally which, with a total procurement bill of R25 billion in the last year, is not easy. ArcelorMittal is also navigating the recession, of course, as well as coping with the controversy over its scuppered R9 billion BEE deal involving President Jacob Zuma’s son and the Guptas. It is weathering tough times right now, with the share price at a serious low. But it is in times of adversity that leadership mettle is tested, and in this regard, Nyembezi-Heita has proved resilient. “Keeping people motivated in testing times is difficult but, irrespective of any insecurity I might feel, I have to project a confidence that we have what it takes to get through this. I have to believe that. I also believe that a sense of humour brings sanity to a situation. It boils down to character. I’ve discovered my strengths, and they are that I’m a people person and resilient. I’m able to bounce back,” she says.