Nestle's Athol Swanepoel's career began with a role as an overqualified letter sorter

Athol is fresh into his role as the HR director for East and Southern Africa at Nestlé.

After completing his degree in social work with psychology as a major, Athol Swanepoel, HR director for Nestlé East and Southern Africa, struggled to find full-time employment. He finally found casual work at the South African Post Office where he spent a year and a few months sorting letters. This job often included night shifts when Athol would question why, with a completed degree, he was doing menial work.

“The inside of a mail centre is a dusty place. You dress down for work because you come out looking pretty dusty and probably unkempt. I’m sure there are a few people who saw me after varsity and wondered ‘what went wrong?’”

He needed a mind shift change to embrace the work. “I got the best piece of career advice at this time: It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you try and be the best at it. I took this lesson into my job of sorting letters. I wanted to be the best letter sorter. It wasn’t long before experienced postal workers came to me to ask where letters needed to go,” says Athol.

Once he became a permanent employee at the post office he shifted into a role as a training officer. Within a year he was appointed as an HR practitioner at the organisation. This was when his HR career started – despite having no qualifications in HR. “Some HR material is deeply theoretical including organisational design and change management. While I never had the theoretical background, I made sure that I read continuously to stay up to date with the latest trends. As a trained social worker, I added a new dimension to my work by also considering how our HR decisions impact society and communities,” he says.

A parastatal champion

In 1998, Athol left the post office to join Transtel, the then telecommunications arm of Transnet with the second-largest fixed-line telephony network on the continent at the time. Transtel provided the telecommunications services for the railway, the oil pipelines and the rest of the Transnet stable.

During his nine years at Transtel, he held several HR positions in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. In 1999, his position was made redundant but he had the opportunity to move to Johannesburg to take over from a colleague who had taken a retrenchment package. “As a typical Capetonian, I dreaded the move up to ‘big, bad Johannesburg’ but the alternative was to be unemployed,” he says.

In 2002 he resigned to move back to Cape Town to be closer to his family in the wake of his father’s passing. Then, after four months working as a freelance consultant, he re-joined Transtel, living in Pretoria and commuting into Braamfontein each day. “Best case I got to work within an hour, the worst case was spending three hours in traffic to get to work.”

He enjoyed his time at Transtel believing in serving his country. “I very much respect the work that people do in parastatals. It is honourable work. But after so many years at Transtel, I needed to explore something different that was going to stretch me professionally,” says Athol.

Transtel is no longer operational after semi-privatising – a part of the organisation was reabsorbed into Transnet while the rest became the privately-owned company Neotel.

The business of doing good

Athol applied for a position at Nestlé, attracted by the company’s values and its record of excellent community work and commitment to improving the environment. Nestlé is striving to meet the company’s 2030 goal of having zero environmental impact in its operations. The company has many initiatives to meet this commitment, ranging from carbon reduction projects, water stewardship efforts, environmental efficiency projects in its operations, and working closely with its agricultural supply chain to minimise the impact on the environment. For example, globally the company has a Farmer Connect initiative, through which it works directly with more than 550,000 farmers throughout the world to improve key farming skills and strengthen agri-preneurship.

“It is critical that your personal beliefs align with the values of the company. Business is in business to do business and ultimately satisfy the stakeholders. This school of thought is becoming outdated. Today business is also in business to do good and to contribute to society. You can’t be successful today without understanding how you positively impact the ecosystem around you.” For Athol, Nestlé exemplified a business that is also a good corporate citizen.

At the factory level

Athol joined Nestlé in August 2006 as an HR business partner. Much to his surprise, he was placed near Hammanskral in Northern Gauteng at Nestlé’s Babelegi factory that manufactures the coffee creamer Cremora. “I signed up without knowing where in South Africa I would be placed. I had never heard of Babelegi before in my life. I drove out on a Sunday before I started to see the factory. I remember seeing loads of dilapidated factories and as I was driving those streets, I asked myself ‘what have I done?’ Then I turned a corner and saw Nestlé’s immaculate factory and felt immediately reassured. Nestlé prides itself on the cleanliness and safety of its factories,” he comments.

The time spent at Babelegi proved to be a pivotal moment in Athol’s career. The factory had been without a dedicated HR business partner for almost 18 months. He worked hard to set up HR as a credible department again and built strong relationships with trade unions. This achievement was especially noteworthy considering he came from a telecoms background into an FMCG environment at a factory level.

In 2008, he moved back to an HR business partner position at Nestlé’s Belville plant in Cape Town. Then, in January 2009, he moved back up to Johannesburg to take an HR role at Nestlé’s head office.

A local retail icon

In 2013 Athol’s itch to try something else returned. In August 2013, he joined Edcon – an experience that gave him insights into working at an iconic, home-grown business that employed about 35,000 permanent and part-time employees. At that stage, the business was already experiencing financial difficulties and carrying a debt burden of R19.5 billion. It was also a time of increased competition as international brands like Zara and Cotton On entered the local retail scene.

For HR, the main objective was to steady the ship and keep the people costs down. In the years to come, the company was set to experience several rounds of retrenchments. “I did a bit of homework before I joined but probably not as much as a should have. Edcon’s primary focus was on securing business continuity and that came with a very different people agenda than what I had anticipated. I had set out to grow and develop in a particular way. In reality, I grew and developed in a very different way,” comments Athol.

He spent three years with Edcon before being approached by Nestlé to return to the organisation in a different capacity. “Being asked to return to a company is a sign that that value you added was recognised. There are a lot of learning from an environment where you are constantly fighting for survival. I took so much from my experience at Edcon that stood me in good stead when I re-joined Nestlé,” comments Athol.

Back to Nestlé

In October 2016 returned to Nestlé as a regional HR business partner at Nestlé Nutrition. For him, the continuous learning curve that Nestlé offers keeps him engaged. As a result, he has worked as an HR generalist across at least eight portfolios while at Nestlé.

“I always joke that I went out to do some industry research at Edcon. In those days you didn’t see people returning to Nestlé often, but today I’m seeing this more and more. I think it’s a good thing. They will have experienced a completely different environment and would be able to add value in new and unexpected ways,” says Athol.

This new position gave him new perspectives into working on the African continent. He was responsible for HR in the nutrition business in Central West Africa (which includes Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, etc.), Equatorial Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe) and South Africa including Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland. “The position was a good opportunity as it gave me exposure sub-Saharan Africa with a reporting line outside of South Africa. It came with global experience and touchpoints,” he adds. During his four years in the role was also the HR lead on a large transformation project at Nestlé – a project that went live successfully and something that he is very proud of.

In November 2019, Athol was appointed as the talent manager at Nestlé looking after East and Southern Africa. He was preparing to take up a new role in Ghana when he was approached to take over from Tania Hector in the position of human resources director for East and Southern Africa. He jumped at the opportunity. He shadowed Tania for three months before taking over the role officially on 1 February 2021.

The challenges ahead of him include preparing the organisation for the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Last year made it clear that HR is indispensable. It has also accelerated the digital transformation of many organisations. I am under no illusion that 2021 is going to be an easy year, but we are more prepared now despite the challenges ahead. Covid-19 made flexible work come to life. It gave us a glimpse of what future skills are required. The age-old conversation of HR having a seat at the table has been put to bed. It is clear that HR is at the forefront and leading organisations.”

Embracing Johannesburg

While Athol is a Capetonian at heart, he has learnt to enjoy living in Johannesburg. “I always saw my future connected very strongly with Cape Town. I always saw myself settling there, even though Joburg has always been the economic hub. I spent my first years in Joburg with a strong sense of reluctance, but it dawned on me that life was passing me by while I was waiting to return to Cape Town. I had an important mindset change. There are a lot more binding me to Joburg at this juncture.”

Athol spends his spare time with his wife and three boys as well as his mother who is based in Johannesburg. “My two younger kids were born in Johannesburg and I’ve grown to appreciate this city. With my life and career, I count myself as being incredibly blessed,” concludes Athol.