Shoprite CPO Athene Mazijk is embracing life's second chance with purpose

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Shoprite's chief people officer, Athene Mazijk, discusses her journey of gratitude and purpose, emphasising heartfelt leadership as she navigates corporate challenges.

Athene was born with a life-threatening heart condition, the treatment for which her parents could not afford. Were it not for the intervention of a groundbreaking, open-heart surgery, which she desperately needed and that was funded by the then government, Athene’s time on earth was certain to be extremely limited.

This experience instilled in her a deep sense of gratitude and also conviction to live a life of purpose and service, to pay forward the assistance she had received. She studied HR management at the Institute of Personnel Management and began a career that would take her around the world.

Athene gravitates towards purpose-driven roles. For instance, Cadbury's founding mission in Birmingham, England, to combat alcoholism with cocoa struck a chord with her. Joining the sub-Saharan Africa business, she managed HR for the region and oversaw Cadbury's £30 million (R718 million) CSR program in Ghana, ensuring cocoa industry sustainability.

The mistake that mattered

Reflecting on her time there, Athene recalls a pivotal moment showcasing the company’s people-centric culture, describing a decision she made early in her tenure that had significant financial consequences for the business.

“I made a decision with good intentions, but I didn’t know enough about the business and I made the call without having key information on the economic implications,” she says, recalling how awful she had felt, to the point of tendering her resignation. However, the MD of the business did not accept her letter.

“He told me that I was recruited because of my values, and not in spite of them. He said that although the decision was economically short-sighted, it was unquestionably in line with the value that the company espoused, and that was an extremely reassuring moment after making one of the biggest mistakes I would ever make throughout my career,” she explains.

Athene has held two roles within the public sector, (perhaps subconsciously) repaying her debt to society after her second chance in life. She spent a year at Transnet where, as a member of the executive committee, she worked on many legacy issues.

Prior to Transnet, Athene served at Gauteng Shared Services, a pioneering initiative aimed at introducing the private sector shared services model into the public sector, by consolidating finance, HR, procurement, IT and internal audit functions for the provincial government and its municipalities. As the head of HR delivery within the shared services, Athene embraced the opportunity as her “pay-it-forward” moment.

“Post-apartheid there were limited funds because the government went from serving seven million people to 45 million people. The Gauteng Shared Services, in many ways, was ahead of its time. Despite government operations being politicised, we demonstrated the model's value by saving R200 million in coal procurement and annually recruiting 13 000 teachers, enhancing educational efforts,” Athene explains.

At its peak, Gauteng Shared Services handled leave applications for 130,000 employees, processing roughly 600,000 forms yearly. Athene’s team implemented optical character recognition technology, automating processes and reducing workforce needs. This freed up 30 full-time positions previously dedicated to manual data entry, enabling staff to focus on more valuable tasks within the organisation.

 

Around the world in 10 years

Cadbury catapulted Athene’s career towards a series of international roles. Following the acquisition of Cadbury by KRAFT International, Athene assumed a pivotal role in leading the integration of the Central Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa (CEEMA) portfolio. As head of HR for the region, she spent two years in Austria before being headhunted by De Beers to lead HR for the entire group.

She relocated to London and, early in her tenure, Anglo American acquired controlling interest, which changed the mandate of the role. Within a year of her appointment, her previous stomping ground had seen the separation of KRAFT and Mondelez into two distinct entities, which led to Athene’s appointment as the head of HR for the CEEMA region at Mondelez, now based in Dubai.

Athene subsequently relocated to Chicago to take on the role of head of global talent management for Mondelez, where she played a pivotal role in driving talent strategies across the organisation. Her leadership skills were put to the test when she moved to New Jersey to lead HR for Mondelez’s North American business – a $25 billion (R474,3 billion) operation that had been struggling to turn a profit for several years. With a small team of executive colleagues, Athene helped to steer the company back to profitability within a remarkably short timeframe.

Athene's life changed drastically when her son fell ill a decade after leaving South Africa. Returning home for his final days led to profound self-reflection, altering her views on work and leadership. She learned the vital role of self-care and balance in achieving personal and professional fulfillment, realising that investing in oneself is essential for effective leadership.

No better place

Shortly after her son’s untimely passing, Athene was approached by Shoprite and she saw the role as an opportunity to once again plough back into the country she calls home. A perennial piece of South Africa’s fabric, Shoprite is a cornerstone of the local retail sector and Athene believed she would be able to renovate and accelerate the company’s people agenda by sharing her global experience.

“I’m in the twilight of my career and I view this as a final corporate opportunity to pay it forward. I’m deeply moved by the purposeful nature of this organisation and what it stands for. It’s an absolute privilege and honour for me to be able to support Shoprite’s strategic ambitions by strengthening the people agenda,” she says.

Before she joined in October 2021, Shoprite had already begun the process of reviewing the HR function and the capabilities it wanted to build for the future. A consulting firm had done most of the heavy lifting but it was upon Athene’s appointment that the operating model came into effect and she began the implementation. While the HR function previously focused on training, productivity management and payroll, she has led a team that has successfully broadened the (now) people team’s contribution, especially in areas such as culture, leadership, recognition and talent management.

“The last two years have been quite internally focussed on the HR function specifically, giving it the unique abilities that will be necessary to steer the business into the next era of work,” she explains.

A need for speed

Athene is passionate about horse riding, an interest shared with her beloved husband, Gary.

“My mother was from a farming background and their primary form of travel where she grew up was by horse, so she never understood my preoccupation with horses. My parents refused to pay for horse-riding lessons and, even if they wanted to, we couldn’t afford it. I had to admire horses from a distance. Fortunately, at the age of 27, I was able to fund my horse-riding lessons and it was everything I imagined it would be. I absolutely love it,” she says.

Along with her husband, Athene craves exhilarating experiences and the thrill of speed. Their shared passion for adventure extends to their love for cars. They also enjoy riding motorbikes and in their later years have discovered an affinity for the iconic Harley Davidson, on which they find excitement and fulfilment in exploring the vast expanse of the open road together.

This year marks their 40th wedding anniversary and Athene cannot imagine doing life without Gary, who dropped almost everything all those moons ago to accompany her around the globe as her career took her from one country to the next. Looking back, Athene feels most fortunate to have had such a supportive husband.

“It is quite rare for women with successful careers to also be successful in long-term romantic love, so I know how it could easily have been different,” she says.

 

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