The people behind Cell C’s rescue

While Cell C has seen several CEOs come and go over the past two decades, Douglas Craigie Stevenson was primarily responsible for navigating the company through a critical recapitalisation process.

Craigie Stevenson served as acting CEO from March to August 2019 before officially taking on the role from August 2019 to April 2023.

The company embarked on a second recapitalisation project with Blue Label Telecoms in 2017 to help reduce its debt.

This was after the first recapitalisation, completed under former CEO Jose Dos Santos, failed to deliver the planned result.

Craigie Stevenson, as Cell C’s COO and, later, CEO, managed many aspects of the project.

Under his leadership as CEO, the company embarked on a turnaround strategy in mid-2019 after it reported an after-tax net loss of R8.03 billion for the year ended 31 May 2019.

Craigie Stevenson is considered a telecoms veteran. He has more than 25 years of experience in the telecommunications sector and served in various senior positions across the continent.

These include the positions of managing director of Vodacom Business Africa Group and financial director of Vodacom Mozambique.

Craigie Stevenson holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of the Free State and a Bachelor of Accounting Science (Honours) from the University of South Africa (Unisa).

He joined Cell C as chief operations officer in September 2017, shortly after Blue Label Telecoms completed its first recapitalisation of the mobile operator.

He joined the South African mobile operator after serving as Telekom Networks Malawi CEO since October 2015.

Cell C appointed Craigie Stevenson as CEO in August 2019 after serving as interim CEO from March of that same year.

After navigating the mobile operator through the second recapitalisation with Blue Label Telecoms, Craigie Steven resigned as Cell C CEO in March 2023.

Douglas Craigie Stevenson
Douglas Craigie Stevenson, former Cell C CEO

The recapitalisations were a lifeline from Blue Label Telecoms to Cell C.

Blue Label Telecoms was co-founded by Brett and Mark Levy in 2001.

The brothers had grown up in Delmas, Mpumalanga, with an “amazing lifestyle, riding your bicycle without a care in the world”.

However, the loss of their father in September 1980 while they were still young forced the brothers to become more independent. They also formed a strong bond.

The need to fend for themselves saw them launch various businesses while still in school.

This included selling car radios, televisions, and other electronic equipment, and Brett ran raffles twice a year during high school.

The pair built a strong electronics distribution business using parallel imports to gain a pricing advantage in the South African market.

The Levy brothers entered the telecommunications industry after winning a Telkom tender to supply prepaid phones across South Africa.

At a time when prepaid purchases could only be made using physical cards, the brothers developed an electronic top-up pin system, which rapidly gained adoption due to its convenience.

Following several challenges, they rapidly distributed their prepaid airtime point-of-sale devices to numerous merchants around the country.

Their national presence and innovative prepaid platform allowed them to expand into many new industries, including electricity and water vouchers, starter packs, prepaid data, ticketing, and financial services.

Blue Label Telecoms successfully listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) six years after its launch.

It showed strong growth over the next 10 years, with its market cap exceeding R19 billion in 2016.

In August 2017, Blue Label signed its biggest deal yet by acquiring 45% of Cell C through the operator’s recapitalisation and turnaround plan.

Brett and Mark Levy, Blue Label Telecoms co-CEOs

Following Craigie Stevenson’s resignation from Cell C, the company appointed Brett Copans as interim CEO before he handed over the position to Jorge Mendes.

Mendes is a former Vodacom veteran who held various executive and managerial roles at Vodacom’s South African and international business units for 23 years of his total 25 years of telecoms sector experience.

Most recently, he served as Vodacom’s chief consumer officer for four years, before resigning in January 2023.

Qualifications-wise, Mendes completed the Senior Executive Program Africa through Harvard Business School.

Before that, he successfully completed an Advanced Executive Development Plan through the Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership.

While Cell C remains in financial distress, reporting a R337 million loss in the six months from June to November and being technically insolvent, the company said things are looking up.

Cell C told MyBroadband that its business stabilisation efforts started yielding results in the third quarter of 2023. It also said it is positioned to return to growth and greater competitiveness.

The company said Q3 2023 was the first quarter in the year where it saw year-on-year revenue growth.

Asked about his first year leading the company, Mendes was direct.

“I expected it to be challenging, and it was exactly that,” Mendes told MyBroadband.

“One of my biggest ambitions from the start was to build and foster a great, inclusive culture and team spirit,” Mendes said.

“An amazing culture will help people navigate both good and bad days.”

Mendes said a critical focus was fixing the basics in Cell C’s core business.

This included addressing operations and structures, understanding the financial position, and identifying key business drivers.

“This has enabled us to drive high performance rigorously and focus on returning to profitable growth, which remains high on our agenda,” he said.

“There is a new energy in the organisation, with a good cadence and cross-functional collaboration, marked by strong accountability for delivery and shared project objectives.”

Jorge Mendes, Cell C CEO

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The people behind Cell C’s rescue