Spark ATM Systems

Spark ATM Systems, winner of the Management of People Award in the large enterprise category

‘There are no skills shortages for an employer of choice’

South Africa’s talent pool has never been healthier, and it’s clear that Russel Berman of Spark ATM Systems is not joking when he says this.

“There are no skills shortages for an employer of choice,” says Russel, Sales and Marketing Director. “It amazes me the number of times people who apply say ‘We’ve heard from our friends what a cool place Spark is to work at’.  We have never found it difficult to find talent.”

This is despite the fact that the payment systems industry itself is small. “We hire for attitude and train for skill,” he says, explaining that rather than recruit from just one or two industries, Spark likes to hire young graduates from a variety of industries. “They bring in their own ideas and fresh concepts.”

One of the qualities that makes Spark sit up and notice is a problem-solving mindset. “We look for self-starters who approach a problem with a solution. The team here know not to say, ‘I’ve got this problem, what should I do?’ Rather, it’s ‘I’ve encountered this problem and our possible solutions are x, y or z and I suggest y. Nine times out of 10, they are making the right call and this way we are encouraging sound decision making habits,” Russel says.

If a company wants to attract and retain self-starting, creative-thinking, problem-solving people it had better have the people management policies to match.

“One area where we are unique is that we pay two bonuses per year – in December and in the middle of the year, for star performers,” says Russel. These six-monthly stars are nominated by their managers, reviewed by a committee and confirmed by Spark’s executive committee.

Other components of the company’s work hard, play hard approach are gym facilities at both offices (in Cape Town and Johannesburg), regular wellness events and, pre-pandemic, weekly socials and team breakfasts every Wednesday.

With all this, and more, Spark is generally a happy, productive group of high-performing people. But just as it strives to identify and reward the top performers, the company knows there will also always be a small percentage of underperformers.

“We are always looking for the bottom 10% who need to be process-managed out of the business,” says Russel, referring to the 20-70-10 rule coined by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

Good people management is, after all, not only about making the popular decisions but the hard choices too. That’s what separates a run-of-the-mill business from an employer of choice.


Accsys, winner of the Management of Systems Award in the medium enterprise category

Systems take care of the boring stuff, enabling creativity

Never allow a process to happen twice without a system. Even if the process involves something as apparently simple as collecting cans for social responsibility purposes, people management software company Accsys has a system for it.

While this might seem like a lot of work, it’s more than worth the effort, says Teryl Schroenn, recently retired director at Accsys and now a business consultant at its holding company, Transactional Capital Risk Services.

“When you have a system in place for things, you stop reinventing the wheel every day and you pre-empt unproductive behaviour that happens when everyone does things differently.”

Human nature being what it is, you can ask 10 people to give you the same information and end up with 10 different versions if you have not explained what is required and preferably designed an input form.

When everyone approaches the task the same way, you get the results you want – particularly if the system you have established saves people time and minimises effort.

This is especially true for day-to-day, repetitive or regular processes, such as applying for leave.

“The average employee in South Africa applies for leave 8 to 15 times a year,” says Teryl. If done manually, this can take 10 to 15 minutes every time (and longer if there are errors). On the other hand, it can take a mere two or three minutes – and eliminate mistakes – if the company has an automated employee self-service system.

Apart from putting systems in place and making them easy to use, it is important to make sure those systems are applied consistently.

An example is the monthly staff meeting, held on the second Friday of every month. “Come hell or high water, it will take place,” she says. “People come to rely on consistency and when you have it, you create a platform for innovation because the day-to-day stuff is taken care of. Systems give you confidence. They become part of your DNA. And because the boring stuff is just done, it enables creativity.”

Systems themselves must be flexible enough to change, and Accsys has a system for that too. Any employee can recommend a system improvement by registering it on the SharePoint system, after which it will be checked and approved for use – via a system.

Teryl says its consistent approach to processes and systems is one of the reasons Accsys keeps performing well. “We never did anything that probably thousands of companies haven’t done – but we do what we do consistently.”

Spark ATM Systems

Spark ATM Systems, winner of the Management of Systems Award in the large enterprise category

How to see problems coming before they land

Many companies would pay good money for the ability to see possible problems coming and deal with them before they actually become problems. Well, that ability is not as elusive as some might think. It’s called systemic thinking.

Events – problematic or otherwise – are hardly ever once-off phenomena. Chances are that an event looming on the horizon now is not unique at all but has been seen before in some shape or form, says Russel Berman, Sales and Marketing Director at Spark ATM Systems.

And if you’ve been paying attention and adopting a systemic approach, you’ll know that the problem or event is not an isolated one.

“When you see an event, you create a system to acknowledge, document and formalise it so you can see it coming again,” says Russel.

Not only that, but you also need a lookout system. Spark’s lookout system is its executive management committee (manco), which meets once a week, every week, to review each department’s key performance indicators (KPIs).

“It’s a great opportunity for a cross-sectional view of all departments,” Russel says. “Each team leader presents the KPIs for their department and everybody has the opportunity to comment and cross-pollinate good ideas.”

Managers don’t just present their weekly performance statistics; they are also proactive. “It’s a manco mindset for each manager to come to the meeting with suggestions to do things more seamlessly and profitably. The idea is to take a view on all your metrics and turn the dial.”

Far from finding weekly manco meetings taxing, Spark managers thrive on them, he says. “It’s lovely having your finger on the pulse of the business. If you only have a review once a month, you are dealing with historical data but when you meet weekly, you can see make decisions in real time for example a new high demand area may have been identified in the country requiring rapid ATM deployment opportunities.

 “We make profitability-based decisions through sharing the full income and expenses of the business with the entire team down to a very granular level. Each manager shares a “business owner” mindset which has certainly driven profit based decisions.

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