Seelan Gobalsamy: An Inspirational Story With Care At Its Core

Meet Seelan Gobalsamy, Omnia Holdings’ Transformational Leader

By Fiona Wakelin & Koketso Mamabolo

The Omnia Group comprises a diversified range of complementary chemical services businesses across mining and agriculture with a broad geographic spread. The Group extracts operational synergies and efficiencies across its businesses. It has been in business since 1953 and is listed in the Chemicals sector of the Johannesburg Securities Exchange.

Getting Back on Course

In late 2018 Seelan, a former CEO of Stanlib, joined Omnia’s board as a non-executive member after serving in various senior positions in financial services. When he arrived the chemicals company’s finances were in a dire state with their debt sitting in the billions of rands. In March of the following year Seelan, an entrepreneur at heart, had a chance to move from an oversight role to a more hands-on one as the Chief Financial Director and, a few months later, he was appointed CEO after having served in both roles during a transition period.

Being in a position to have a more direct impact on the operations of the business aligns with what Seelan enjoyed as a child. “I always knew that I enjoyed tactile experiences and seeing things happen,” he says. When he joined the board it became clear that the company needed restructuring if it was to survive and preserve not only the jobs of the thousands of people Omnia employs but also the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives their work has an impact on.

“So I thought, ‘let me put my shoulder to the wheel and see if I can change this,’” he recalls. “My contribution was just to help guide, to bring together the the banks, shareholders, board, staff and other stakeholders. We’ve had a very good and successful four or five years after that.”

This success is driven by a shift in focus, change in management, restructuring of debt, selling of businesses in Europe and South Africa, as well as buying businesses in Canada and Indonesia. What makes this change even more remarkable is that much of it was done under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic which collapsed many businesses. The numbers speak for themselves: In the 2022 financial year Omnia made a billion-rand profit, with no debt and more than R2-billion in cash available.

One of the company’s great success stories in the products and services they offer is based on the provision of precision – Omnia is able to operate explosives with extreme accuracy both in the built environment and in the mining sector. Precision also plays a huge role in agriculture with regard to advising farmers on crops and soil content; the chemical analysis of enzymes in plants enables Omnia to assist farmers in quality control. “We can tell you how crispy an apple is going to be!”

Caring for Everyone

Omnia’s transformation journey is marked by working towards the diversification of staff, not just in terms of demographics but also in thinking. “What I’ve done is not disrupt the company but actually bring in more and more people that think differently,” explains Seelan, pointing out how a diversity of thinking brings a ‘special’ edge to the organisation.

Over the years, recruiting actuaries, chartered accountants and CFOs, he realised that each person brings with them a unique perspective. He says that people who have an artistic side to them, coupled with a great understanding of maths and science tend to be the “people that change the world.”

Another element to Omnia’s transformation has been giving shares to every employee, regardless of their role in the organisation. The goal was to “make everybody feel included, not only from a culture perspective but also from a financial perspective.” And, as Seelan explains, the company continued to give back to its employees, spending more on them as the profits grew.

This reflects an approach which genuinely puts people first and one which ensures that everyone knows how important they are to the organisation’s success. “We’re now bringing in partners to do it on a greater scale,” says Seelan. His approach is to “care for them first and make sure that our people are okay. It’s not just from a work perspective, but it’s from an entire life perspective.”

It’s All About People

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As Seelan says, a chemicals business is one that reaches millions of people. Many industries rely on it for their work and a significant amount of production cannot take place without chemical products. “My expectation would be to see how we can be more inclusive, to have smaller businesses, communities actually involved with us. But that must be done on a basis that is underpinned by good values, underpinned by hard work, underpinned by wanting to make a positive difference.” And, of course, the Omnia spirit which underpins the company’s service ethic, brings innovation to the fore, creates value for its customers and ensures integrity in all that it does.

“Oil is an example of that. We use millions of litres of oil in explosives and a few years ago we started testing used oils and said, ‘why use a new oil?” He explains how new oil looks much like the vegetable oil you use in the kitchen, a golden colour. Dirty oil, which they started testing, is a dark black. They recognised that dirty oil, which is harmful to the environment, was not being recycled.

“Our explosives now look like marmite instead of honey as we’ve used dirty oil. And in that space what we’ve done is we’ve got locals; we’ve got a supply chain, in some instances, of individuals, SMMEs, folk without work gathering points for this used oil.”

“Ideally, if we can do more of that, it would be good for us. My dream would be to employ thousands and thousands more people, and just have that positive impact not only in South Africa but also in all other countries that we operate in.” The company’s audited results reflect important ESG achievements: reduction in emissions, an increase in the use of recycled water and in the use of renewables. Caring for the planet through sustainability initiatives is a further reflection of Seelan’s core component of care.

With everything the company has been through in the last couple of years, the people within it have become a family. “I think my challenge was to focus on the family here, but also to see what’s positive and what needs to change – retaining the strengths and changing what is holding us back from being globally competitive . There’s always things we need to improve,” says Seelan, taking the approach of thoroughness which was instilled in him by his father, who taught him the value of hard work.

“My leadership ethos is to say: ‘Let’s do things, let’s do them properly, from a values perspective, from an ethical perspective. But let’s do them big; let’s win.’” What drives Seelan is seeing the results, seeing the impact the company can make on the lives of its people. “One of the takeaways from my career path is that business is not about machines, it’s not about buildings. It’s actually about people.”

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