Anglo Coal's Zimbabwe-born Ben Magara (37) is known as "Mr Smarty". The handle is not a reference to his mental abilities but an acronym for the safety campaign he led at New Denmark colliery, where he was the first black mine manager in the Anglo Coal group.
Magara did not invent "Smarty" (derived from Safety Must Always Relate To Yourself). The concept came from his predecessor. But he ran with the campaign so effectively that he became inextricably linked with it.
New Denmark set a series of productivity and safety records within the Anglo Coal group and aspects of the campaign, with its associated mascots, are now being adopted at other Anglo Coal collieries.
Safety is paramount, says Magara. "Nothing is so important that it cannot be done safely. If it cannot, then we don't want it."
He adds that one of the additional satisfying benefits of coming top in the Anglo Coal safety league was that New Denmark got to throw a huge party for its workers. The live entertainment included Johnny Clegg and it was all paid for by the other collieries in the group.
Magara was born near the Zimbabwean town of Masvingo into a family of nine children. He grew up in a rural environment and recalls how his schooling was frequently disrupted in the summer months because the school he attended was on the other side of a river which had no bridge.
Despite this, Magara went on to complete a degree in mining engineering at the University of Zimbabwe and joined Wankie Colliery, then still part of Anglo American Zimbabwe.
After four years he was transferred to SA and flew into Johannesburg International on a day that is engraved in his memory: March 28 1994. That was the day the Shell House shootings took place. The scheduled introductory visit to Anglo head office in central Johannesburg was cancelled. Magara was whisked away to New Denmark, near Standerton, in southern Mpumalanga.
Eleven years later, Magara lives in Johannesburg, where his main concern is the traffic congestion he finds horrendous after the tranquillity of Standerton. His solution is to avoid it by getting to work at around 5.30 am and going home after 6 pm. But despite these long hours, Magara insists he is not a workaholic.
Arriving in the new SA, Magara found himself ideally placed for career development in a mining operation that wanted to change the way it did business. He flung himself into it.
He got his mine manager's ticket within a year and learnt to speak Zulu within six months. He worked his way through the ranks at a number of Anglo Coal operations until he was appointed mine manager at New Denmark in 2002 at the age of 34. He was promoted to GM a year later.
Asked how he set about running New Denmark, he replies: "When I was appointed to the job I asked my bosses - Anglo Coal chairman Tony Redman and Anglo Coal CEO John Wallington - what they wanted me to do there. Their reply was, Go and be Ben Magara'. Those were wonderful words. I will never forget them."
What Magara wanted was for New Denmark to be a happy mine. "You cannot be happy if you are injuring people," he explains. "You cannot be happy if your product quality is not what the customers want and your production costs are too high.
"I spent an hour every morning for the first two months just talking to staff and finding out what they wanted and what they were prepared to do. That was invaluable because through those interviews, I picked people I felt were important to the operation and who could influence others. From there we got buy-in from the entire workforce."
Magara says his management style is to "get to the coal face" and find out what his workers and staff require to improve their performance. He believes management of people is what differentiates companies and operations.
"Today everybody can buy the same technology off the shelf," he says. "The difference lies in the people. My approach is to get to know the people and they will tell me what needs to be done."
Anglo Coal is SA's second-largest coal group and produced 51,7 Mt in the year to end-December 2003.
Breaking that total sales figure down shows that 31,3 Mt of coal were sold to Eskom to be burnt in the utility's power stations and 20,4 Mt were sold to trade customers; the great bulk of that was exported through the Richards Bay Coal Terminal.
In his new position, Magara is responsible for five of Anglo Coal's 10 operating collieries. Three of his mines - New Vaal, New Denmark and Kriel - are major suppliers of coal to Eskom power stations.
Magara says his new job is essentially to be the link between these mines and Anglo Coal head office. "My main role will be to facilitate the sharing of best practice and communication between head office and the mines. My secondary role will be to participate in the strategic direction of Anglo Coal SA."
In his spare time - he does have some, he jokes - Magara plays golf and is "fanatical" about Formula One Grand Prix racing.
His own choice of vehicle is practical: a 4x4 Pajero. Not only do Magara and his wife and son enjoy the outdoors - their favourite region is the Drakensberg - but the Pajero is ideal for negotiating the rural roads in Zimbabwe, when he visits his family about three times a year.
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