"Jonah became one of the wealthiest individuals in Ghana as he held lucrative international directorships as well as profitable investments. It was for his contributions as an African businessman and philanthropic work, especially in education, that he received an Honorary Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II."
I regrettably kept Sir Jonah waiting for an hour as I battled the notorious traffic on Jan Smuts to get to his Illovo office. Thankfully, despite the rushed interview, he recommended his biography "Sam Jonah and the Remaking of Ashanti" by AA Taylor as a source of additional information.
The book is as much about the Ghanaian mining giant, Ashanti as it is about Jonah. The Ghanaian author wrote it when completing a doctorate thesis on the company's economic history and as such it has plenty of financial statistics whose potential monotony is frequently broken by the often-humorous intrigues of Jonah's family, political and corporate experiences. My brief interview and reading of his book provided me with the following three aspects to Sir Jonah's profile: his challenges, his successes and his character.
Jonah's challenges began when he joined the Ashanti mine as a shovel-boy at the age of 19. Plunged into the deep underground with his A-level education, other illiterate miners made his life hell. He went on to pursue a mining diploma in England and on his return, steadily rose to the position of CEO of the entity whose main shareholders were the Ghanaian government and the London Rhodesian Mining and Land Company (Lonrho).
As the first African CEO of a company in an industry dominated by white male leadership, Jonah 'felt the weight of his colour on his shoulders'. Even his own father Thomas had previously declared that the day a black man runs Ashanti would be the day he (Thomas) would leave town.
Jonah and his CFO Mark Keatley made a judgement call that gold prices would continue to drop and used hedging instruments as a result. An unexpected move by European central bankers changed gold prices dramatically which thrust Ashanti into a debilitating financial crisis. The then Ghanaian president, J.J. Rawlings (who the book states held a personal grudge against Jonah), shareholders and journalists accused Jonah and his team of mismanagement. Minority shareholders weakened the Ashanti board through a case in the Ghanaian courts and a group of American shareholders sued Jonah individually for compensation of financial loss.
Jonah had this to say about the ordeal: "It was character forming and called for every experience I had gone through in my life. The lessons I learnt are too many to recount."
Jonah's Master's thesis was instrumental in the drafting of Ghana's Minerals and Mining Law of 1986. He became the first African General Manager of the Obuasi mine and under his command the resource produced the best quarterly results in five years. He managed the significant reduction of the injuries per million working hours as well as improving the organisation's environmental focus. Jonah was the first African to sit on the Lonrho board.
Under his tenure as CEO, Ashanti became the first African company outside of South Africa to list on the London Stock Exchange. The company was the first African operating company to list on the New York Stock Exchange which also allowed them to join the stock exchange in Toronto, dubbed the mine finance capital of the world. The takeover of Cluff Resources marked the first time an African company had taken over a listed British company.
Jonah steered the company through an expansion programme that saw an addition of new resources in Ghana, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Australia and Tanzania. As a result, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Camborne School of Mines.
I asked him what it is about his management and leadership style that has made him so successful.
"I believe in a consensual management style that encourages the free flow of ideas because wisdom does not reside in the head of one person. I take active interest in the development of people and understand that they may make mistakes. I am very passionate about what I do and try to instil the same passion, work ethic and discipline in the people who work for me. It is important to get their buy in and align them to the vision which then allows you to step back and delegate as I often do."
The book states that Jonah became one of the wealthiest individuals in Ghana as he held lucrative international directorships and profitable investments. It goes on to assert that he managed to silence friend turned foe President J.J. Rawlings by financing opposition candidate John Kufuor's successful bid for the Ghanaian presidency.
With the help of financial experts, he managed to steer Ashanti out of the crisis and the friendship he had with SA's largest mining entity's CEO Bobby Godsell set the tone for discussions leading to a successful merger that brought him to Johannesburg as the Executive President of the merged entity Anglo Gold Ashanti.
"Moving here was a good experience for me as the country is world class. My experience in employing and being an expatriate is that sometimes we are judgemental and fail to understand that we should show sensitivity to socio-cultural differences because after all we are guests and must therefore show respect to the people whose hospitality makes it possible for us to be here."
Jonah is undoubtedly hard-working and often descends to the ground level to get things done. This is what earned him the respect of fellow miners as a boy and made him achieve phenomenal success as a mine manager. As an African pioneer in the corporate space, he does not shy away from challenging the status quo and can be credited for changing some of the perceptions of Africans in management.
The author observes that "Jonah was determined to build a 'First' World company, to dispel the unspoken belief that coming from the 'Third' World implied that he would be a third-rate businessman."
Jonah also seems to understand the limits of his ability. The book notes that he twice turned down an offer of the vice-presidency of Ghana, a move which also illustrates his humility.
"Part of the problem of political leadership in Africa is that everyone thinks that they can be president," he said to me. "I do not believe that the skill set I possess as a business leader is necessarily applicable to the political arena. I have been available to a number of African heads of state for consultation but taking up a political role has never been part of my calculations."
His modesty is further demonstrated by his pushing for the merger even when it appeared as though his role would be diminished as a result thereof.
Loyalty and trust are also fundamental to his management style. He defended his CFO Keatley a number of times when other players were happy to have him sacrificed as a scapegoat for Ashanti's financial difficulties. Sir Jonah's ability to stay strong during this turbulent time, when others were noted in the book to have experienced strokes and hypertension, also shows his physical and mental strength in times of adversity.
Jonah also gives back. It was for his contributions as a businessman and philanthropic work, particularly in education, that he received an Honorary Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.
"That was a humbling experience and so was receiving The Star of Ghana which is my country's highest award. It imposes a certain obligation on you to stay on course and motivates you to bring others along as others did for you as management is certainly not a one man show."
It is in this spirit of bringing others along that he now chairs Jonah Capital, the entity he founded following his retirement from Anglo Gold Ashanti in 2005 after 37 years of service. It is based in Johannesburg with a second office in Ghana and is geared towards igniting the economic progress of the African continent by acting as a viaduct to increase foreign investment. Jonah continues to serve on the boards and advisory councils of many prominent entities including Standard Bank.