Soraya Zoueihed, the Beirut-born MD of British American Tobacco’s (BAT) SA operations, was apparently "horrified" with the mess she found at SA’s second-largest JSE-listed company when she arrived in January. The cosmopolitan Zoueihed, who grew up partly in Nigeria, arrived in Stellenbosch with an impressive track record.
She has an honours degree in maths from London’s Brunel University, an accounting qualification, and years of experience at Gillette and General Electric in Europe. In 1998, she moved to BAT, and her most recent role before coming to SA was MD of its French business.
"I spent my time managing crises," she told a French journalist a few years ago. She’s clearly come to the right place.
Last week, Zoueihed revealed that she’d fired BAT’s private security company, Forensic Security Services (FSS), after a rash of allegations that FSS had routinely broken the law while acting for the tobacco company.
"We would not in any way, shape or form tolerate such behaviour. We wanted to give a clear sign that we take this very seriously," she said.
It sounds reassuring, but it all rings a little bit hollow, considering that BAT has actually been "tolerating this behaviour" for years, choosing instead to sweep it all under the carpet.
In fact, BAT has only lurched into action because of an affidavit which has now emerged from former FSS employee Francois van der Westhuizen in which he says he was hired to "disrupt the business of BAT’s competitors" with the help of corrupt cops and tax officials.
"Law enforcement agents ... get paid by BAT [to] do whatever they are asked to do, no matter how illegal or unjust," he said.
Zoueihed says she’s hired law firm Norton Rose to probe the claims, and promised to act on their findings.
If she does, it would be out of character for BAT. Two years ago, her predecessor Brian Finch (who has since retired) was told exactly how FSS was allegedly breaking the rules, ostensibly in a bid to "tackle illicit tobacco".
Exactly nothing happened.
This also happens to be the policy BAT adopted in 2014 when newspapers reported how it was secretly paying Pretoria lawyer Belinda Walter to spy on its rivals. It was a gobsmacking ethical violation: not only was Walter working for several of the small cigarette companies, she also headed the industry organisation representing BAT’s rivals — the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association.
This isn’t even in dispute: invoices confirm BAT paid Walter £30,500. In a letter, BAT’s Ewan Duncan told Walter it was a "mutually agreeable relationship in order to provide information on criminal activity to SA law enforcement". An interesting choice of words. Others might have used the phrase "corporate espionage".
But BAT also flatly ignored this — even though former Sars official Johann van Loggerenberg warned that by making secret payments to Walter using Travelex cards, money-laundering rules may have been broken.
Zoueihed, who was brought to SA specifically to "clean up" the unsavoury antics in Stellenbosch, needs to change this.
It won’t be easy, considering BAT is pretty clueless when it comes to crisis management. Its 2015 annual report contains no less than 10 pages of "contingent liabilities" in small print, detailing scores of lawsuits, tax disputes and arguments it has had across the globe. It’s a record that makes Hlaudi Motsoeneng seem positively law-abiding.
For starters, she could reverse BAT’s de facto policy of zero transparency. Whenever it was asked about these allegations, BAT had an unfortunate habit of reframing the debate by drifting off into a lengthy diatribe about the evils of "illicit tobacco".
For years BAT used smoke and mirrors to cloud the issues. This speaks of a broken culture, a Machiavellian approach that says pretty much anything can be justified as long as it is done in the noble pursuit of the "war on illegal tobacco".
* The writer has shares in BAT