From a dollar a day, to lighting up South Africa’s fibre market – meet Seacom chief Byron Clatterbuck

Seacom is in a growth phase. The telecoms firm will add eight new Points of Presence (PoPs) across Africa, allowing more businesses to connect to cloud facilities globally, as well as to the continent’s first Microsoft Azure data centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

BusinessTech spoke to the man tasked with driving business in a difficult economic environment, Byron Clatterbuck, chief executive at Seacom.

From his first job as a newspaper delivery boy, Clatterbuck is now in the business of fibre assets, and lighting up the high-speed data market in South Africa.

Q: How did your journey start at Seacom?

A: My journey at Seacom started on 4 June 2012. I was asked by the, then CEO, Mark Simpson to come on and help out with sales. I came on to consult for Seacom. I was aware of Seacom having worked for TATA for some years and the two companies had built the cable together. My team was responsible for helping build the cable.

Q: What would you consider to be your greatest professional achievement?

A: The honour to lead the people at Seacom as the CEO. I’m happy that the board saw potential in me and gave me the opportunity. It has been an honour to work with incredible people and do what we do to drive the vision of Seacom forward.

Q: What excites you about your job?

A: I’m excited everyday about my job as we have a solid vision that adds value to our communities and the markets that we work in. I think while the internet today has some negative connotations, overall, I would still say that connectivity and communication capability and the educational opportunity is a good thing.

There will always be people misusing it, but overall, I think it is a platform that drives an incredible amount of good in the world and I believe it is doing this in Africa. It also drives opportunities for jobs, investments for businesses to grow and allows them to do things more efficiently.

Q: How would you describe yourself in one word?

A: Enthusiastic.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: When you are a global company with international shareholders, staff, and international customers, you deal with different cultures, lots of different ways of doing things and sometimes its challenging to translate that vision across all those cultures around Africa and internationally.

People have different cultural backgrounds, different things drive different people in their cultures, and they have to be treated in a different way, but always with respect to get the most out of them. We tried to create one culture at Seacom but that culture itself is made up of different, very ingrained cultures across the board.

Q: Who do you admire currently?

A: I was a history major. If you admire someone currently, you don’t really know the outcome. I admire people who stand up to their principles. I, being American, have lived outside the United States for more than 40 years.

However, I still value the fundamental values of freedom and equality and respect for people and that we all count.

Additionally, if I think of the people I admire, I can’t help but go back to history. I admire the people who have driven the vision of freedom and equality and basic human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt is, therefore, probably the person I admire most.

She established the charter for the United Nations on universal human rights around the world in 1948. There was a woman, standing at the United Nations and she says everyone should have equal human rights. There was chaos in the world after the second World War and it was quite shocking, as governments did not believe in that.

Q: What was your first paying job and how old were you?

A: My first paying job was to help my brother deliver newspapers and I think I was 8 years old. I used to get up in the morning on Sundays, whether cold, wet or rainy and would have to do all the inserts in the newspaper.

They all weighed 3 kgs each; massive Washington Post. Next was my job as a distribution analyst in 1972 and I used to hate it. I also got paid very little and would only make around a US dollar a day.

Q: How do you handle stress?

A: I handle stress by exercising, going outside, and spending time in nature. Dogs help, as does anything that takes your mind off what you’re doing. Nature takes your mind off the relative importance that you think your problems are.

When you look at animals and plants and how they live; opening your mind to see how things happen around you in the world. Animals are a good testament to that. They just live their lives without carrying any historical baggage and they live in the present with no stress about the future.

Q: Do you have a go to quote/philosophy that you try to live by?

A: Sometimes you have to live in the moment and not worry too much about the past or too much about the future.

Q: What would you say are the top skills that are needed to be successful?

A: Preparing yourself and not dwelling in the past or your mistakes and not worrying too much about the future. Doing the best you can and letting nature take its course.

Providing vision, leadership and drive, I believe you do much better when you have people working for you who want to achieve objectives together and know what is expected of them. The key is communication and leadership from the front and enthusiasm that becomes infectious.

Q: What laptop do you currently use?

A: Apple MacBook Pro.

Q: What smartphone do you currently use?

A: I have got the new iPhone 10S and iPhone 7. I am not sure which one I like more. I think I might like the old one better.

Q: What is the best gadget you have ever bought?

A: Garmin Fenix 5 watch. The heart, step and sleep monitoring and the golf app are great. The battery lasts 3 times as long as the iPhone.

Q: What was your best ever investment?

A: My best investment is probably doing my MBA. I paid for it and I put in 3 years. It has paid off for me as it was in the University of Hong Kong which gave me great cultural insights. It has taken me up a level to understand all the aspects of running a business and has taught me how to be a better leader.

Q: What was your worst ever investment?

A: My worst investment was probably a property in Thailand. It gave me some great enjoyment but in an investment perspective it was my worst investment.

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: The Three Musketeers are Heroes, Germs, Guns and Steel by Gerald Diamond Scramble for Africa and some sailing books.

Q: What are you currently working on at Seacom that excites you?

A: We bought FibreCo that gave us an incredible fibre asset around South Africa. We are very excited from a fibre asset perspective and by lighting it up, will revolutionise the high-speed data connectivity market in South Africa.

At the same time, we are upgrading our Seacom subsea cable system. When you are adding the kind of capacity we are and you know what’s coming, for example, the fourth industrial revolution, it enables things like 5G and IoT.

Inherently you need to have the backbone transmission capacity at a significant scale that can support all the other initiatives. We kickstarted everything back in 2009 when Seacom went live and we are continuing to do it.

Now we are initiating a massive update of the data network which will drive into South Africa and East Africa and change the playing field in Africa, while presenting a lot of opportunities for network service providers.

There is a lot more in the ecosystem today from security to how data is used, IoT and driverless cars. It will start coming and Africa will become more involved in that world. That is what excites me.

Read: Seacom is expanding its presence across Africa

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From a dollar a day, to lighting up South Africa’s fibre market – meet Seacom chief Byron Clatterbuck