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
“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
If a company wants to attract and retain self-starting, creative-thinking,
problem-solving people it had better have the people management policies to
“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
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
Systems take care of the boring stuff, enabling
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, 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.
Accsys, winner of the Management of People Award in the medium enterprise category
How to keep morale up in a lockdown
Here’s a Covid-19 lockdown feat that’s hard to beat: 101 consecutive days of messages to staff and 175 days of LinkedIn posts. If there was one thing Accsys staff and LinkedIn followers could count on in those most uncertain of times, it was that each new day would bring a message from then Accsys CEO Teryl Schroenn.
Don’t think for a moment these messages were the product of a team of ghost writers working feverishly behind the scenes to script the daily message. On the contrary, each and every note was personally written by Teryl herself.
“Communication is a big thing for me,” says Teryl, now a director at Accsys. “With all of us working from home, it was important to keep everyone connected and morale up.”
Sometimes external events would offer an easy entry into the message of the day to staff, such as the President’s latest speech or the first time she heard the term “new normal” being used; sometimes it would be about what the different teams in Accsys were working on, or nuggets of staff news mixed with business updates; and sometimes the daily post would be inspired by something completely different, such as the fact that the Virginia opossum can produce 16 babies in only 12 days.
“I tried all sorts of things to keep morale going,” says Teryl.
It worked, apparently.
“We all became dependent on that daily email from Teryl,” says Leigh La’Fember, PR and Marketing Manager. “It must have been really difficult to think of something new to say every day, but she did it, and we all felt connected, even though we were all over South Africa.”
The virtual meetings that Teryl began hosting added to the bonding process. “At the first meeting, about 90 of us dialled in and a lot of us were teary-eyed. It was a very good feeling,” says Leigh, adding that she had started viewing her colleagues, including senior management, differently during lockdown. “We always saw Teryl as the CEO – our boss – but she became like the head of a home, keeping us together. It calmed me and made me less anxious.”
While Teryl stopped writing her daily staff messages at the end of July 2020 and her LinkedIn messages in September, the closeness staff felt during those early days of lockdown has not dissipated. “I had a call with the sales team last night, and they say they’ve never been closer,” says Teryl. “That ability for everybody to talk to everybody else has been very positive.”
It all comes back to communication – 101 staff messages and 175 LinkedIn posts, to be exact.
Mochocho IT Consulting, winner of the Management of People Award in the small enterprise category
No free lunches for this black-owned business but its employees don’t go hungry
For a 100% black-owned company that has come up the hard way, there are no free lunches, nor would Jozzler and Lulama Mochocho want any. The exception is when they are the ones providing the lunches and the people eating them are their own employees.
“To deliver a good service, our employees need to be in a good state. Because we know our employees on a personal level, we know that some people might sometimes come to work without eating, so we make sure they all have food,” says Lulama, Chief Executive Officer of Mochocho IT Consulting.
“Then they can go back to work with energy. We don’t ever want our employees working on an empty stomach,” says Jozzler, Chief Technology Officer of this Midrand-based IT and telecoms infrastructure company, which opened its doors in 2010 and specialises in providing connectivity in rural and underserved urban areas.
It’s not just employees’ physical wellbeing that is important, Lulama adds. “We realise that frustration and depression are real and we want to make sure that no employee suffers depression under our watch.”
This means knowing and caring about what is going on inside and outside the workplace. “We ask after employees’ children and we like it when people talk about their families,” says Jozzler. “People are people before they are employees. Sometimes you realise there is something wrong at home that is affecting the person at work.”
Taking the human factor into account is only one side of the people management philosophy at Mochocho’s, however. The other side, perhaps a surprising one for such a small company, is its structured approach to policies and procedures.
Induction is an example. The office manager, who has HR training, takes every new employee through an induction programme so that they understand the company culture, dress code, and workplace etiquette, as well as the various policies that apply to employees.
“A policy is a roadmap,” says Jozzler. “It tells you where to go, what to do and what not to do. A policy speaks for the company. For example, we have an internet policy that explains what to browse on company computers. If somebody browses content that is irrelevant, we show them the internet policy.”
Humanity and structure sit comfortably together in this small company that has a heart for employees and a head for business.
D22 IT Solutions, winner of the Management of Innovation
Award in the emerging enterprise category
Above all else, keep it simple
Doing maintenance is a lot like
paying for insurance: their value only becomes clear when something breaks.
With government service delivery infrastructure crumbling after years of
neglect, South Africans are starting to develop a healthy respect for the
virtues of good maintenance.
One company that probably saw it coming is D22 IT Solutions. After all, its business is creating dashboards that, among other things, enable clients to see at a glance what predictive maintenance they need to be doing.
“A simple thing like maintenance can save you a lot of money in the long run,” says Delesh Kanjee, CEO of D22, which is based in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, and first opened its doors 17 years ago. It has an extremely loyal client base, consisting of mines, farms, and factories that run machines with lots of moving parts that can break down at the drop of a hat if you don’t keep a very close eye on them.
“Some of our clients have been
with us for 11 years, 15 years … I am very proud of that,” says Delesh, who believes
the secret of D22’s success in innovation is simplicity.
“People like to overcomplicate
things,” he says. “We like things to look very simple, but with deep technical
In other words, what the end-user
sees is on the screen are colourful, easy-to-read graphs that tell them what
moving part is next for maintenance or, in the case of clients with other
priorities, such as eliminating wastage or cutting energy costs, where the
Behind those simple graphs is an intricate web of sensors, software, and data readers that are incessantly busy with the calculations and computations needed to translate complex live data into sensible indicators for good decision-making.
Simplicity also runs through D22’s
own business model. It has learnt, for example, to break large, long-term
projects into smaller, bite-sized pieces with tangible goals. These tend to be
more palatable to clients than big, open-ended projects, Delesh says.
“We also underpromise and
overdeliver, use the ABC principle to prioritise and aim to make money on an
ongoing basis to keep our cash flow consistent.”
Ventso Group, winner of the Management of People Award in
the emerging enterprise category
Let your people do the talking
One day, when Ventso Group is a
household name, it will still be doing at least some of the things that its
employees like so much about it today.
“It’s the culture,” says Nomtha
Gobe, CEO of this fledgling corporate identity and branding company. “It’s a
warm environment and we’re very close knit. The word ‘home’ comes to mind but I
don’t want to create the idea that it’s just this comfortable space.”
She pauses, then makes up her
“Okay, I’m going to go ahead and
say home. It’s a family culture. There’s the brother you always fight with and
love, and the annoying cousin who always calls you out on your outfit so that
you always make an extra effort to look good… It’s the kind of place where
you get support if you need it, or a push if you need it.”
One of the people management
practices that make Pretoria-based Ventso Group feel like family is its caring leadership
“Zwanga is the kind of leader who
knows what’s going on with his people. If he sees you’re not smiling like you
normally do, he will check,” Nomtha says, referring to Zwanga Mabaya, a BCom
law student who co-founded Ventso with Luther Mochabe in 2013, when they were
both 20 years old and had barely enough money to register the company.
“We all check on each other,” says
Zwanga, popping into the conversation briefly before deferring to Nomtha again.
“I prefer Nomtha to talk,” he says. “I don’t want to blow my own trumpet and
she says it better anyway.”
Nomtha continues talking about
what makes Ventso so special in her eyes. “We’re a company of young people –
that’s number one – and we have always felt that we can’t move without people,
which is why we are always checking in with each other. Everybody’s wellbeing
is really important.”
This checking in goes beyond
ordinary, day-to-day “how are you doing?” conversations and includes weekly
check-in meetings, a formal company meeting once a month and, last but most
definitely not least, the annual teambuilding retreat.
Every year (except for 2021 when
Covid-19 got in the way), Ventso takes off for a camping weekend. “We go all
out – we glamp,” says Nomtha. “From the Thursday to Sunday, we go to another
province for team-building and self-building activities to connect as a team
and understand each other better.”
This annual retreat is definitely a tradition that Ventso plans to keep no matter how large it becomes, says Nomtha. And it has big plans; very big plans.
Accsys, winner of the Management of Innovation Award in the medium enterprise category
Now, why didn’t I think of that?
Keep your eyes open, try different things and do the research. This in a nutshell is the innovation ethos that has kept software company Accsys on top of its game for 40 years.
That’s no mean feat considering how many companies birthed in a pre-digital era have quietly faded away as their products or services become obsolete. Think overhead projectors, video cassettes, compact disks, phone books and fax machines – all products that were standard business issue not that long ago.
Accsys has been a leader in payroll and people management software for so long because it knows very well that having a market edge today does not guarantee you’ll still have one tomorrow.
“You need to be looking all the time at what you can do differently to keep current. That means being open to new ideas and keeping your eyes open for ways either to serve a need or create a need people didn’t even know they had,” says Teryl Schroenn, director at Accsys.
Many urban drivers, for example, consider parking ticket machines at office blocks and shopping malls to be a necessary evil. Teryl used to be one of them until a few years ago, when she noticed a sign up for Admyt, a pay-to-park app that gets rid of parking tickets. “Never having to worry about losing a ticket is a key part of my happiness,” she says, adding that there are countless inconvenient aspects of modern life and business just waiting to be transformed in this way.
Something that Accsys is seriously looking into in the access control part of its business, for instance, is padlocks that can be software-controlled so that companies no longer need to have keys for them. Teryl read about this concept somewhere in her quest for new ideas and then alerted the organisation to start working on it.
But being constantly on the lookout for new ideas is not just the task of people at the top. “In smaller companies especially, everybody needs to think about what we can do to add to a solution or make it more stable, or to get systems talking to each other better.”
While innovation is often perceived as developing something completely from scratch, the ability to tweak and tailor something that already exists is a key element of being innovative, says Teryl.
A good example was how Accsys and one of its partners, ZKTeco, partnered to move their offering from tactile biometric readers into state-of-the-art thermal detector readers to assist clients in safely managing access to their premises when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
Whether an innovation is brand new or an adaptation, it has to be backed by proper research, lots of conversations with clients, and a good, solid business case. “There has to be innovation with stability,” says Teryl. “If you are running a payroll and you can’t trust the results, all the innovation in the world won’t help you.”
Finally, a company must be willing to invest in innovation, she says. “Good ideas take money to create.”
Spark ATM Systems, winner of the Management of Technology Award in the large enterprise category
There’s more to Spark’s ATM machines than meets the eye
It’s well known that repeat customers are more profitable than new customers, and that the costs of retaining an existing customer are significantly lower – up to five times, some studies say – than the costs of acquiring a new customer.
Which means that Spark ATM Systems is on to a very good thing.
Its business is to deploy, install, support and maintain ATM machines on behalf of banks, for which purpose it signs five-year contracts with host merchants such as retail outlets and petrol stations.
After five years, the host merchants can decide whether or they want to stick with Spark. By far the majority of them do, according to Russell Berman, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer.
“We’ve got something like a 92% renewal rate, which is a statistic that we’re very proud of,” he says. “I always say to my team that it’s free business because you’ve got them to come back for a second and in some cases a third term.”
Russell says this enviable renewal rate is driven by dedicated customer service and the top-notch systems in place at Spark, the wholly owned South African subsidiary of US-based Cardtronics, the world’s largest ATM operator.
So what does Spark, which has over 4 500 ATMs across South Africa, do so well when it comes to managing technology?
“We’ve always had a policy of developing our systems in-house rather than buying software off the shelf,” he says. This includes the operating platform on the ATM, which Spark developed in conjunction with its South Korean machine manufacturers, the data monitoring platforms and its own switch.
“Ordinarily in the payment space, the switch is an off-the-shelf package that comes with significant costs and transaction fees. We’ve run and maintained our own switch since 2013.”
The benefits of in-house development are substantial. “It allows us to operate at a lower cost per machine and a lower breakeven number of cash withdrawals per month per device,” says Russell.
While Spark develops its own software, it sources the hardware, the ATM machines, from a South Korean company. Designed to Spark’s specifications, these ATMs have up to now arrived in South Africa fully assembled.
But change is in the air, says Russell.
“Importantly, what’s coming up this year is we’re actually going to be assembling our own ATMs in South Africa for the first time. The components are going to arrive from various parts of the world and we’re going to put it together and do a lot of the engineering ourselves at our labs in Paarden Island in Cape Town.”
Local assembly of ATMs has not been done in South Africa before, Russell says, and will reduce the cost of ownership. Known as the Touchline, the new machine has a 22-inch touch screen, much faster transaction times and a Linux operating system, further reducing costs. “It will be the state-of-the-art device and very quickly become the gold standard in the country.”
Accsys, winner of the Management of Technology Award in the medium enterprise category
What drives technology is time – specifically, not wasting it
Meet Teryl Schroenn, Director of payroll and people management software company Accsys and lover of poetry. One of her favourite poems is TS Eliot’s The love song of J Alfred Prufrock, he of the immortal line, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled …”
While Prufrock agonises over the passing of time and whether he will have enough of it to finally profess his passion to the subject of his admiration, Teryl and her team at Accsys know how to make the most of time.
After all, this is what technology is all about: “The concept of not wasting time has driven technology. The human race is an impatient group and our expectations are just exponential,” says Teryl, pointing out that if something takes 10 minutes today, we want it to be five minutes tomorrow and then are extremely unhappy if it takes six. “The constant demand that we humans are not wasting our time has driven technology intensely in the last 12 months.”
Being in the payroll business, time has always mattered to Accsys. Clients’ employees must receive their salaries on time and to the cent, and there is no tolerance for delays and mistakes. “If you can’t pay your people, you can’t do business,” Teryl says.
So when the COVID-19 pandemic reached South Africa and the hard lockdown was announced, the pressure was on to ensure clients could continue to pay their people without skipping a beat.
Accsys sprang into action.
“In three days, we were able to move from an on-premises businesses to an at-home business in March 2020,” Teryl says. “Fortunately, a lot of our stuff was already in the cloud, so that enabled us to run everything from home, including our outsourcing department, services, sales, training – everything.”
Even before the hard lockdown started at midnight on 27 March 2020, every one of Accsys’s 100-strong staff was working from home, equipped with computers, connectivity and SIM cards to ensure that clients could pay their people without skipping a beat.
Then government introduced COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits and the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (TERS), followed by a quick succession of changes in regulations to adapt to the unfolding pandemic. “At that point, there was a lot going on and, along with managing the technology, we had to become experts very quickly in the statutory requirements because that’s what our clients expected.”
Not content with that, Accsys started looking at what else it could do to assist its clients in coping with the fallout from the pandemic from a people management perspective.
“What we saw immediately was that businesses were going to have to go back to work and their first challenge would be to keep their people healthy.” Realising that its biometric readers for access control could come in handy with this, Accsys worked with one of its partners, ZKTeco, to introduce thermal detector readers to the market.
“These readers can detect whether someone is wearing a mask and their temperature, and is actually more accurate than those handheld temperature devices,” says Teryl.
Accsys wrote the code to align with the hardware, and within six weeks, by mid-May 2020, the first installations were done.
Hand in hand with this, Accsys and ZK hosted weekly webinars to demonstrate live how the software and hardware worked together. Hundreds of people attended.
“What this experience showed us is how quickly we were able to come to market with a solution as well as advise companies in making people’s workplaces safer.”
It also shows just how much can be achieved when time is of the essence and it is wisely used. Dream on, Mr Prufrock.