Zambia: Interview with Susan Mennell

Susan Mennell

Managing Director (CFAO Zambia)

Susan Mennell

The foreign direct investment field is highly dynamic and competitive, with virtually all countries in the region battling to secure foreign investment. What would you say are Zambia’s most significant comparative advantages compared to other countries in southern Africa?

There is good business expansion ability and you have good resources and a stable economic environment. Security is also not an issue here like in many other countries and the currency is fairly stable. We have had a few issues in the last few months but generally it is not bad. If I compare Zambia to the other countries I have been in and worked with it is much more open here and easier to do business because you don’t have a problem with exchange controls. So generally Zambia is a fairly easy country to do business in, and even for me, as a woman and for other people coming in, it is very safe and secure here whereas you have other countries where security is not so good and where the business environment is not so good.

President Lungu visited Paris last month at the invitation of President Hollande. He became the first Head of State to visit France in 23 years and his trip culminated in the signing of six multi-sectoral agreements. How do you think his visit will improve the bilateral relations between Zambia and France?

I think it will improve relations a lot especially in terms of investments, and I know that French companies are looking to come here and this is going to improve things even more.

In your opinion, what are the biggest misconceptions that people outside of Zambia have about the country?

I think that Zambia is quite well-known but for people who don’t know, they tend to associate Zambia with South Africa because it is the only country they really know, and maybe Zimbabwe too. As you know South Africa is not the most stable or safe country to be in and Zimbabwe as well. If you tend to say Zambia and Africa, people immediately think of South Africa but it is very different once you cross over that border into what we call sub-Saharan Africa. So there is a misconception but this mainly comes from not knowing the geographical location of Zambia. But when you mention Victoria Falls and the game parks, then some people do understand but then again they tend to associate Victoria Falls more with Zimbabwe so you have to get them away from that perception.

A division of distribution leader CFAO Group, CFAO Automotive boasts Africa’s most extensive network of sales and after-sales service outlets. With around 6,100 employees, it markets 53 globally renowned brands to 34 African countries and 3 French overseas territories. In your opinion, what are the main reasons behind the company’s success worldwide?

I think it’s their strategy as they have a very good focus and strategy in Africa. CFAO is very good company to work for so the strengths are in the staff that they employ and I mean both the expatriates and locals. I think CFAO is a well-known name in all countries and happy staff tend to give good results so I think that in every country CFAO is in, we see the strengths behind the staff and CFAO’s willingness to invest in people and training and that goes hand in hand with good business practice.

CFAO Zambia Ltd is the Zambian subsidiary of CFAO Automotive. Launched in 2001, today it is the EXCLUSIVE distributor for Volkswagen, and also a distributor for Maxxis and Pirelli Tyres as well as FG Wilson generators. How would you evaluate CFAO Zambia’s experience here to date?  

It’s gone very well and we have gone from strength to strength. Losing Nissan was a blow to the company but we have managed to get around that and restructure. We got the VW franchise and that’s getting off the ground now. There hasn’t been a VW distributor in Zambia for about 20 years so it’s getting people to know that we are here now and that we can do all the after sales and servicing.

Then of course in regards to the generators, we are in a good position with all the power problems that we’ve had. Having been an established supplier for many years, people tend to go and see CFAO for our products because they know that CFAO is a good company and has a good reputation. So we have sold a lot of generators recently especially with all the electricity issues. That is one of the problems we have at the moment but generally we are lucky because we sell generators so all our branches have generators installed and we can carry on with daily business. This is especially important in the workshop during the day for the hoists and tyre fitment equipment.

CFAO Zambia’s services include vehicle sales and partnering with institutions for financing solutions, original spare parts and after sales service. How is CFAO positioned within this market and – given the country’s has an ever increasing middle class - why should automotive and equipment manufacturers choose to partner with CFAO Zambia?

Well let me just take a step back because not only do we have CFAO Zambia, we also have Vehicle Centre Zambia, which is the sister company that also does exclusively Ford. So when we are looking at where we are in the market in terms of Ford we are number two in the market behind Toyota, and then with VW it’s up and down, it’s about fourth or fifth in the market at the moment. A lot of VWs are imported because people like VW so they were bringing them in from other countries before we came in. Before we came in with VW there were no new VW vehicles for sale and no aftersales service.

As to why to choose CFAO, we are a well-established group and we have good financial backing. Also CFAO is in many countries in Africa and their primary business is doing business in Africa so they understand Africa and the needs of Africa from the financing for vehicles to what happens on a day-to-day operational perspective. Most of the staff at the head office have worked in Africa so they know exactly how it works, especially in a lot of countries with financial constraints and foreign currency sourcing. So we have the backing of the big group and I think that’s what VW liked as well was the fact that we are part of a big group. We are not going to default on payments and we are going to make the investments that are required by these manufacturers to take their products.

CFAO Group is diversifying its operations in Zambia, with Missionpharma, - a part of the group’s healthcare unit – recently launching here. Does CFAO Zambia specifically have any plans to expand/diversify in any way?

We are looking at getting a new truck franchise in the near future. We are also looking at investing in renovating these premises. We are expanding our workshops and putting in fast fit centers. We have opened our first one under Ford last month in Lusaka, which is called Quick Lane. That does express service and tires, and we’ll be building another on this site as well hopefully this year. We are looking at upgrading all our facilities and showrooms, and getting new franchises where possible. We are getting a new parts franchise hopefully in the next few months, which will help us to service the grey import car market so we are always looking at ways of expanding the business in areas that are relevant.

During our interview with Ambassodor Cohet he insisted that when a French company arrives to Zambia, they strive to have a long-term partnership with the country, contributing for example to the capacity building of the people they hire as well as the development of the country. Can you give some examples of corporate social responsibility initiatives that CFAO Zambia has been involved in or other ways the company has supported President Lungu and the People of Zambia?

In lots of way we have supported the people of Zambia. We support a hospice called Mother of Mercy and for that we run an annual bowls competition and all the proceeds go to the hospice. We sponsor the annual Elephant Charge in Zambia, which is an off-road race that obviously goes together with the automotive industry, tires and the generators because we sponsor all those and that raises funds to look after the wildlife of Zambia. We also sponsor the Zambian Golf Open, which is now part of the Sunshine Tour and is like the African tour for the southern professionals. We also support farming shows and expos.

Then, for our staff we have education programs and support non-management staff with scholarships for their children. We will then even support their tertiary education if it’s in the field of what CFAO does so in other words automotive, marketing and pharmaceutical type degrees.

In terms of health, we support any staff members and immediate family that have HIV. We do a lot of family days when we get families involved and we have health professionals there doing counseling and checks, whether it is eyes or blood pressures. Every year on annual world aids day we have a lot of people coming and we do checks of eyes, breast cancer, HIV, diabetes and   blood pressure so we do try to look after the staff as much as possible.

We also sponsor their future education, if they are studying degrees or diplomas in the relevant position for the job. For instance our HR manager has just got her MBA and we’ve got another person doing a MBA. We’ve also got sales staff doing sales and marketing degrees, and a lot of purchasing people are doing purchasing diplomas or degrees so we support all that and if they pass we refund all the costs of that education. So we do look after our staff and also on the family side we have a lot of corporate social responsibilities as well. We try and do what we can!

Your career with CFAO in Africa spans nearly 10 years. Prior to your current role as Managing Director of CFAO Zambia, you were Regional Project Manager. Given your wealth of experience not only in this company but also the region, what vision do you have for CFAO Zambia for the next 6-12 months?

At the moment I think we’re going a bit though a tough time in Zambia because of the economic crisis with the copper prices and mines and the power problems as well. For us the biggest problem is that companies that would normally buy new vehicles to replace aging vehicles, are keeping their older vehicles on the roads for longer, so the sales of new vehicles is suffering this year. But then again the after sales side is doing fine because they are keeping their older vehicles on the roads. It looks like copper prices are going up and once the elections are over, everything will hopefully stabilize and go back to normal then we’ll be back on track.
Finally, the readers of L’Express include many of France’s most influential political and business leaders. What final message would you like to send them about doing business in Zambia as well as CFAO Zambia?

We would welcome them here for sure because obviously being a French company, we like to support other French companies as well and I think, out of the English speaking countries, Zambia has got a lot of potential in terms of economic growth and wealth. It is a stable and safe country to invest in and we don’t have foreign currency controls or exchange controls so doing business in Zambia is really easy and we welcome new people to come in, especially French companies to come and do business with us as well.