Sappi's Fergus Marupen comes from humble beginnings 

Like Sappi itself, the story of its HR group head Fergus Marupen is one of deep roots, local seedlings and a steady progression to international success.

Born and bred in Eersterust, Sappi group head human resources Fergus Marupen is a self-described “Pretoria boytjie”. After school, Fergus headed to the University of the Western Cape where he gained his BA (Hons) and a Higher Diploma in Education. “In those days,” he says, “the easiest way to get into university was to study teaching.” But after a few years in teaching, a new opportunity presented itself that would shape his career: Fergus joined Iscor Mining (later Kumba Resources) as a graduate in training, working his way up the ladder over the years to general manager. 

When Kumba Resources unbundled, Fergus took the path less travelled. “As the management team, we had two choices, and I chose Kumba Iron Ore. It was a new company with the opportunity to assemble a fresh management team and establish our own structures. I’ve always been proud of the fantastic work we did there.” With that process and all its learnings under his belt, Fergus looked to the next challenge and joined BHP Biliton (Energy Coal). “I had spent my whole life in essentially one company. I decided I needed to check if I can be successful out of the known environment,” he says. And from there, Barclays Absa working directly with Maria Ramos, and later Business Unity South Africa. 

What was emerging for Fergus was a career built on bold choices and applying his professional learnings to new environments and new industries. When the Sappi opportunity opened up in 2015, he saw a chance to join a company with not only a large footprint in South Africa but to participate in on a global level sitting on the boards for North America and Europe. Sappi may be known for paper, but the group is a diversified wood fibre business with over 12,000 employees spread across 20 countries. “Sometimes I pinch myself and ask: Am I really here? Having come from such humble beginnings in the township where I grew up to being part of a global team working across three continents.”

New industries, old challenges

In his role, Fergus explains, he has the opportunity to bring all of his varied experience to bear on his tasks and he likes that he’s developed transferable skills. But also, he says, the ‘people challenges’ seem to be consistent irrespective of industry.

“If you go to a mining company, there's a talent challenge. If you go to banking, there's a talent challenge. It's the same in manufacturing. We all face similar challenges in finding and retaining the right people, creating a talent pipeline, and managing the gaps that the retirement of key people creates.”

At Sappi, he has taken a multipronged approach to this. “One tactic is to ‘grow your own paper’ if you’ll forgive a forestry analogy,” he says. “We invest a lot into upskilling our existing staff, and in finding the right graduates to bring into the organisation through strategic alliances with universities and education institutions.”

Additionally, Fergus believes in giving people good reasons to stay, and chances to develop themselves. “This creates loyalty,” he says. To this end, Sappi has digitised all their learning materials, so that staff can access what they need when they need it in their personal career development journeys. 

Under his leadership, Sappi has also looked more closely at retirement as a workplace issue. Now in its 80th year of operation, Sappi has many staff members with long tenure in the company. Given this, they’ve gone through a mapping process – identifying all potential retirees from a certain level up, and assessing the succession plans they have in place. 

As group head, Fergus also works at a board level, has regular interaction with the chairman of the remuneration committee, and a strong relationship with the CEO Steve Binnie. 

Cultivating the future

It’s not just about graduates and executives though. Companies in the manufacturing industry are absorbing people at various skills levels – and the less skilled are the most vulnerable in a low employment country like South Africa. 

“We’re aligned to national imperatives like supporting youth employment and skills acquisition. We’ve started two technical training centres, one in KwaZulu-Natal, and one in Mpumalanga.” Here school-leavers can get training in one of three paths: ‘basic handyman’, ‘basic engineering training’, and ‘contracted apprentices’. First former provides nine weeks of training in either electrical, plumbing and construction, or painting and handyman. It is geared to the creation of micro-enterprises that offer the kinds of services needed in their surrounding communities. 

Basic engineering, on the other hand, is a six-month course designed to produce trainee mechanical fitters, electricians, and instrument mechanics. Contracted apprentices are then drawn from this group, and brought into the Sappi fold. “It’s amazing how many good people we’ve found through this, and how they want to be with the company. Sappi can't provide jobs for everyone, but we want people to develop their skills. We’ve seen how lives can be transformed through even small interventions like this,” says Fergus.

Education challenges

The training centres have many good stories to tell, but they have also highlighted a worry for Fergus – one that is any human resources person’s future challenge. “What is worrying for us is the quality of matriculants coming out of schools. We have been flooded with applications for the training, but too many learners are failing the basic numeracy and literacy assessments they must take. We are missing a trick in this country by not addressing our education issues. As corporates, we must invest in skills and participate in education initiatives with government and private companies. We all ultimately benefit from having a skilled workforce.”

In his personal capacity, Fergus volunteers with Partners for Possibility – an organisation that partners school principals and business leaders with a view to enabling collaboration and ‘co-action’, giving principals the opportunity to become ‘change leaders in their schools’ as an innovative potential solution to the nation’s education crisis.

Despite decades away from teaching, education is clearly still a passion of Fergus’s. In addition to his educational qualification, Fergus has a BA Honours in Psychology, a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), and several other qualifications. At Sappi, he’s overseen the implementation of new learning systems too. “I want people to take ownership of their own training, to drive that for themselves,” he says.  

Beyond compliance

Sappi recently completely an employee engagement survey, and is developing their next human resources plans and programmes based on the rich feedback this survey provided. It’s an employee-centric move in an industry that can occasionally get bogged down with regulation and box-ticking. 

The two ‘hats’ – people administration and holistic people development – are not at odds for Fergus. “We need to be asking ourselves how we drive all components of the HR business, from making sure we have the right people in place, to making sure policies are implemented, and our union interactions are properly conducted.”

“This is an important role that HR has to play, in helping business to craft these strategies to make sure that we don't just comply for the sake of complying, but we truly transform, and create an environment where employees can thrive.”