A professional civil engineer, MD of Franki Africa, Errol Braithwaite, has exposure in both the consulting and contracting environments. He has worked on projects in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. These projects have included large infrastructure projects as well as buildings, tunnels, marine structures and dams.
After fulfilling the role of technical executive in the concession company contracted to design, build, operate, maintain and partially finance the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link in South Africa, Braithwaite joined Franki Africa in April 2015 where he is now the managing director.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for and with several wonderful mentors and role models over the years: Gavin Byrne, my first boss at Franki nearly 20 years ago, was one of those rare people who combines technical excellence with high integrity and profound people skills. Jerome Govender, my boss at the Bombela Concession Company (Gautrain), was a man of serious intellect, vision, integrity, a good sense of humour, and always calm under pressure. Roy McLintock, my predecessor at Franki, espoused the highest levels of integrity, genuine care for his people and an insightful management mantra: ‘Empowerment with accountability’. What a privilege to have learned from each of these people,” says Braithwaite.
His appreciation of having been mentored by some top construction leaders has inspired Braithwaite to in turn mentor others. In fact, mentoring aspiring leaders is the single most important role he has, he says. “My personal vision is to grow the leadership of this wonderful company – to create a leadership culture; to build a dream team consisting of diverse leaders with diverse skills who, when added together, multiply each other’s skills, who compensate for each other’s weaknesses and who do great things together,” he adds.
One of the key requirements of a leader is being able to evaluate the character of others. There are three key criteria when choosing people to work for or with or to employ, Brathwaite says: character, competence and charisma. “By far the most important of these is character. Once or twice I’ve failed to discern poor character – it always leads to pain. To me integrity, professionalism and positive intent are everything.”
He describes one of the highlights of his career as his involvement in the Gautrain project. “It is an engineer’s dream to have been involved in the Gautrain project from the negotiation phase through construction, testing and commissioning and into operations. It was simultaneously intense, challenging, fun, exhilarating and tremendously satisfying.”
“Becoming the MD of Franki Africa and being entrusted to lead such an excellent organisation is, of course, an achievement of which I am enormously proud, and one which is simultaneously humbling. I am extremely grateful to be surrounded by some of the best engineers, managers and technologists in the geotechnical industry; and grateful that we are able to serve so many wonderful and long-standing customers,” says Braithwaite.
The challenge is now
As to what has been the greatest challenge of his career, Braithwaite claims that probably the most severe challenge of his career is “the state of the construction industry in South Africa right now”.
“As a nation we seem to have forgotten JF Kennedy’s famous response when asked to account for the economic pre-eminence of the United States: ‘Infrastructure builds wealth. Not the other way around’. Good infrastructure, good facilities, good utilities – these are the enablers of economic growth. A healthy local construction industry, a massive employer, is crucial to the future of this country.
“One feels that the construction industry is at an inflexion point – many companies are having to reinvent their business models, some will close, foreign companies are entering the market, skills are exiting the market and confidence is down. However, I remain confident about the future – in our own organisation we see wonderful young talent emerging which is more representative of our nation than ever. We are employing more women than ever before. We have unprecedented access to international expertise and technologies; as well as a local presence in ten African cities from Cape Town to Nairobi, from Accra to Mauritius and many places in between. As a company, we have energy and drive and we will emerge from the current slump leaner, fitter and better.”
Braithwaite reckons the construction industry may look quite different in ten years. “Digitisation, analytics, and lean construction are among the most promising areas of innovation in the coming years. Through our parent company, Keller plc – the largest independent geotechnical construction company in the world – Franki has the privilege of being exposed to the latest technologies and has access to the best equipment and expertise in the world. We are bringing these to the African market.”
Consequently, he urges aspiring civil engineers not to feel despondent at the current slump in the industry, but to take the longer-term view: “Quality always bubbles to the top. Make sure that you are a quality offering in your field and to the business fraternity and you will succeed. I say again, integrity, professionalism and positive intent is everything.”
Published in the Civil Engineering Contractor – October 2018 edition – by Eamonn Ryan