Judy Dlamini, Aspen Chairman’s Upper Echelon interview

“I actually want to work until the very last day of my life”, Judy Dlamini

ALEC HOGG: Upper Echelon is brought to you by Deloitte – for innovative thinking and thorough strategic planning turn to Deloitte. In our Upper Echelon this week, Judy Dlamini, chair of Mbekani Investment Holdings and better known through her chair of Aspen Pharmacare, one of the hottest stocks on the JSE. In fact, since 2007 when you took over as chair there, Judy, the share price has just gone one way and that’s up. That’s always a good thing, one of the top 20 companies in South Africa. I guess that you were made for it though, given that you are a medical doctor by training and then moved into investment banking, then into entrepreneurship but let’s go back a little bit. Going through your CV I saw Vryheid came up there, Vryheid High or certainly the fact that you did your high schooling there, how did that work in?

JUDY DLAMINI: Actually interesting that you could dig that out, it’s an interesting story, I met my husband when I was at Marianhill High School and the plan was that I would do matric at Marianhill High School but the nuns were not too happy with me going out with my husband then. They had this system that they would say you can come back to do matric but we just need your dad to come so that we can talk to him and my dad was very strict. So I went back home, I said, dad, I don’t want to go back there, the maths is not so great. So my dad the whole of November, December he was looking for a school and he found Vryheid, so that’s how I ended up there.

ALEC HOGG: That’s incredible, which school in Vryheid?

JUDY DLAMINI: Vryheid State High School, not Inkamana because it was so late, the application was quite late and you get space but not for a maths and science class. I used to say to my dad it’s maths or nothing because I knew what maths could do for you.

ALEC HOGG: That’s a fabulous story and, of course, your husband Sizwe Nxasana is well known in his own right but you’ve been a little bit in his shadow, Judy. It was interesting to look through here, Discovery Holdings, you were on their board, I guess when there was a split with FirstRand, they might have felt [they] didn’t really want a competitor to be on the board and I guess it’s in your family, you must be one and the same?

JUDY DLAMINI: Not really, that’s not how it worked out. I just felt that I had too much on my plate. So every five years I actually look at the portfolio and then I’ll actually say no, I need to come off this board and focus on other things. So that was the reason really and I love low profile, I guess it’s just the personality. Maybe it’s the medical training, doctors are more your one on one people than people who love the podium.

ALEC HOGG: What took you out of medicine into investment banking first and then into the entrepreneurial environment?

JUDY DLAMINI: I wanted to be a doctor from the age of four, I always wanted to be a doctor and I loved it but I lost the passion, maybe because there was crime involved in my practice and something in me died. Maybe also I just felt I wanted more, I just needed my brain to be stimulated more. As a medical doctor I just felt that your view in life tends to be a bit myopic and then I decided to go to business school and did an MBA, which broadened the horizon, it actually…you know a little bit of something in every field, which for me was ideal. Ja, so the losing of passion was good because then it actually broadened the way I view things.

ALEC HOGG: And ignited new passions.


ALEC HOGG: Business, growing up was it something that did appeal to you?

JUDY DLAMINI: I had this focus of being a medical doctor but on the side there was the element of business because my father wasn’t highly educated, actually he had hardly any education but he was an entrepreneur, he ran his small painting contractor company and maybe from that. My mother was a primary school teacher, which is actually just streamline professional but my father is, I guess, where I got the business and the entrepreneurial keenness from.

ALEC HOGG: How do you and Sizwe get this life balance or work-life balance? I asked him the same question, when we spoke a little while ago, in this same series of Upper Echelon, I’d love to hear your input?

JUDY DLAMINI: We make the effort, Alec. You have to make the effort, you never get the balance right but we try, we always try. I was just talking earlier on that last week he had a meeting in London and I organised my diary that I actually joined him so that we had two extra days to spend with each other. We just take the time to spend with each other and also with [our] children. So let’s just say it’s our priority, it’s the main priority, family and then work.

ALEC HOGG: It hasn’t been all plain sailing, we were all very saddened when Sifiso passed away. Was there anything in his passing, your son, that has maybe changed the way you look at things? I ask this because I share that experience as well and it’s not something that easily sits with one, they never go away and it is a…

JUDY DLAMINI: It doesn’t, it’s still very fresh as you can imagine and I’ve had a lot of pain in the past, it’s just the worst.

ALEC HOGG: Judy, but the contribution that you’re making to this society as a whole is immense through Mbekani. What got you to think along those lines, women empowerment and I was fascinated to see that you are really an all-girls club…

JUDY DLAMINI: Oh ja [laughing].

ALEC HOGG: …have you got any men at all that work with you?

JUDY DLAMINI: I actually do, I started off with an all-girls club because it’s important for me to show the young girls that women can do it for themselves but after five years I said we’ve proved a point as women that we can do it. The reality is in life there are boys and girls, I have a son and a husband and they are brilliant people in my life. So we started employing men, let’s just say they are more a token because – [laughing] – out of a staff of 60 I think it’s about five or six men but we’ve ticked the box, men are welcome at Mbekani.

ALEC HOGG: [Laughing] Talking about a token, do you ever feel like a token on some of the boards that you serve on or do you make sure that they know you aren’t?

JUDY DLAMINI: You actually choose how to feel about yourself, fortunately I’ve never felt like a token but I’m very aware that I am there for a purpose, it might be because you need the numbers but what you do with that position actually allows other women, especially black women, to be accepted. So I actually take it as a gift and a privilege, and I try to make sure how do I make it better for other women, how do I ensure that because I was here another black woman will get an opportunity to serve.

ALEC HOGG: It’s a big responsibility.

JUDY DLAMINI: You do feel like it’s a big responsibility but you can only give your best shot. I think it’s important for all other women to remember that you can only give it your best shot.

ALEC HOGG: But to serve as a role model, particularly in this society of ours.

JUDY DLAMINI: Oh yes, oh yes.

ALEC HOGG: Judy, those boards, Northam Platinum is an interesting one, I can understand Aspen and we’ll talk about that in a moment but Northam Platinum that seems a long way away from the medical field

JUDY DLAMINI: Yes that’s true and a short story about that one, how I got into the Northam board I was called by Eric Molobi, I had a lot of respect for the late Eric Molobi and he said I actually want you to serve on the Northam board, I’ve recommended your name to Tokyo – Tokyo used to be the chairman at the time. I said but Eric, I don’t know anything about mining. Then he said but you see, you’re limiting yourself, if you don’t join the board we’ll never know anything, we’ll teach you, we’ll take you to the mine and having changed careers I thought why not? We tend to limit ourselves and at the end of the day business is business and unless you expose yourself to different sectors of business you’ll only know that particular area.

ALEC HOGG: But it is interesting that the whole mining area is now opening up because of changes in legislation, long overdue, you’re also looking to get maybe an interest there as well through your Masibulele Resources?

JUDY DLAMINI: Actually maybe, maybe not, we’ll see. Maybe, maybe not, it really depends. If the opportunity comes we will look at it.

ALEC HOGG: Again is that through an all-girls team?

JUDY DLAMINI: After my son’s passing I’m actually looking at using the company that he had started. As you might know, he had started a Nonduna Investments, which is a family investment company and in honour of his name I intend to use that vehicle going forward. Maybe it’s an all-girls club because my daughter is there [laughing]. So ja.

ALEC HOGG: Also in honour of his name – and this I find fascinating – was that Stephen Saad, the chief executive of Aspen, pushed himself to the limit in a physical manner, how did that all come about?

JUDY DLAMINI: He was at the funeral, Steve always has ideas and Steve always thinks of the underprivileged, the person who doesn’t have a voice and he thought how can I change this and make a positive out of a negative. As you can imagine, Alec, it’s priceless, I couldn’t believe it, I was so stressed though prior to the race, I just thought, oh my God, what could go wrong and I prayed [laughing]. But it’s so special.

ALEC HOGG: I think he needed all our prayers; he was on our radio show a couple of days before and sounded terribly nervous that he was going to make it through.

JUDY DLAMINI: Ja, he had been to the US, he didn’t have enough training, so ja.

ALEC HOGG: And that relationship, it’s an enormous company now, it wasn’t at the time that you got involved in, it’s doing some fascinating work, how do you relate to Aspen?

JUDY DLAMINI: Aspen is very special, it’s special because of what it stands for – making quality medicine affordable. It’s special because of the team led by Stephen Saad and Gus Attridge, you feel like you are part of a family that has an objective of doing good. Everything else that flows from that is just a side effect of focusing on doing good, good for the nation, good for the continent and now the products are in 120 countries and going to more. So it’s a very special relationship. There’s just a short story that I would like to share, one of the things that maybe contributed in losing the passion as a GP was around the time when there was Aids, HIV and at the time there wasn’t much hope in terms of treatment. You always have those few cases as a GP that just stay with you, one of those is a young beautiful girl who walked into my practice, she had just passed her masters and she was changing jobs and she did an insurance policy and had to do an HIV test. It came back positive and I drove home and I was feeling so despondent because at that stage HIV meant a death sentence. In some odd way I’m now part of a company that has solutions to issues like that, which are big issues. Not only do they have solutions but it’s also affordable for that girl that I saw so many years ago. So life has a strange way of coming full circle.

ALEC HOGG: And we get used by the big boss in interesting ways…


ALEC HOGG: …I was reading through your chairman’s statement, intrigued to see that the Aspen HIV positive rate is 5% and you mentioned there that the national average is 11%. That’s clearly not happened by accident.

JUDY DLAMINI: Yes, I can’t remember which year where Steve actually took the test just to motivate people that…volunteer, come and take the test. The staff are very aware of one of the main things that we produce, obviously we manufacture so many different drugs but we tend to be known for HIV antiretrovirals. So that helps and as you say, it’s not by accident, you know there is a lot of initiative internally, where people are encouraged to come and know your status and also encouraged to take treatment, including their families. So it’s paying dividends, which is good.

ALEC HOGG: It’s sad though that it’s almost off the agenda in the national debate, HIV. When one goes into the heartland of the country, people are still dying at a terrible rate from this but we aren’t paying as much attention as clearly you are at Aspen.

JUDY DLAMINI: I wouldn’t say so, I believe we’re very privileged to have the minister that we have, Doctor Aaron Motsoaledi, I think he’s been at the forefront of talking about HIV. You remember the initiative that he had, where he said know your status and his objective I think was to test 15m people or more over a certain period of time and he roped business in to try and assist, and Aspen also assisted, amongst many other businesses. So it’s unfortunate that people are still dying because the objective is that no one should die from Aids but the numbers, the infection rate has decreased. What has increased is that because people are living longer because of the antiretrovirals it seems like there are many people who are HIV positive but that is partly because of the treatment that Aspen, amongst other companies, is affording people and making it affordable.

ALEC HOGG: So there is progress, which is…

JUDY DLAMINI: Ja, there is.

ALEC HOGG: …I guess something to celebrate. Just to celebrate your career as well, you’ve got a long way to go still, Judy, are you going to be focused on business like Warren Buffett, who is now in his 80s, is that the intention?

JUDY DLAMINI: You’re kind if you say I have a long way to go, thanks Alec. I actually want to work until the very last day of my life, if the higher powers allow that because the brain has to be functional, the body has to be functional but I don’t see myself retiring ever. One of the things that we’ve always done as a family is to give back and we’ve done it in an ad hoc way in the past but from 2009 we registered a trust called Mkhiwa Trust. So Mkhiwa Trust is actually one of the things that Sizwe and I will do forever and my business, and believe it or not I still want to have a doctorate and I’m hoping maybe December 2013 or 2014 I will achieve that.

ALEC HOGG: Another doctorate, what would that be in?

JUDY DLAMINI: In business, ja. I’m doing it through UNISA.

ALEC HOGG: And how do you see the way that we in this country can promote entrepreneurship?

JUDY DLAMINI: I think the youth especially gain a lot by having mentors, so the more people [who] are visible, especially people of colour, who are doing well in entrepreneurship, not only just buying 26% here and there but starting something is the more that should be able to mentor young people. I actually mentor a few young people and I’m happy to say that. It’s unfortunate obviously that the youth unemployment is this high but what I’ve noticed over the past five years or so is that young people are more keen to start their own things and they do. So there is hope for the country and I guess business people, especially those who actually started their own things, have the responsibility to actually take one or two young people under their wing, especially the graduates that have no jobs and reskill them. I’m actually quite positive about the future.

ALEC HOGG: Judy Dlamini in our Upper Echelon this week. Upper Echelon was brought to you by Deloitte – for innovative thinking and thorough strategic planning turn to Deloitte.










Closed Period

Aspen is in a closed period from 1 January until the publication of our interim results on the JSE SENS platform scheduled to be released on 1 March 2023.

The live presentation will take place in Cape Town at 08h30 on 2 March 2023.