TWP: Nigel Townshend

TWP: Nigel Townshend


You started TWP at the age of 25. What are some of the toughest challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I arrived in South Africa from the United Kingdom at the age of 22 with about R500 in my pocket and no real support structure to speak of. Setting myself up in a foreign country and establishing the business was therefore a significant challenge. I’ve also experienced the challenges that many company founders face. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and one goes through periods of loss of confidence. In such situations, one can end up being too afraid or unsure to make any decisions, but I’ve learned to make the best decision one can given the facts at one’s disposal. It’s something we teach our people at TWP – the only people who make the wrong decisions are those who don’t make any decisions at all.

You listed the company in 2007 after having grown it from scratch. What were some of the challenges involved in this change, and what structures did you put in place to manage them? Going from what was essentially a family business to a public company answerable to around 1 500 shareholders was a big step. One of the most significant changes involves the new responsibility to shareholders. However, we had the benefit of five years’ careful planning during which time we put in place the necessary corporate governance, shareholder relationship and management structures.

What are you most proud of having achieved?

Starting this business from nothing in a new environment and building it into Africa’s largest organisation of its type has been incredibly gratifying. Being the first engineering professional services company to list on the JSE was also a defining moment.

Was there a particular area in your industry or in business that didn’t come naturally, and that you had to work hard to master?
I am not naturally an outgoing person and public speaking does not come naturally to me. Initially, this wasn’t a problem because the other member of the executive team had these strengths. However, he left the business and this created a sense of insecurity among some people. Life is not only about reality; it’s also about people’s perceptions and the only way to dispel uncertainty and change people’s negative perceptions is to communicate. It was critical at that time in the business that I learned to master that particular skill sufficiently to instill a sense of security in our staff and clients.

Your business employs highly skilled professional people. What have you found to be the most effective way of getting the best out of them?
You need to give them latitude to make decisions and get on with things, while providing a support structure in case things go wrong. And you have to ensure that people are comfortable enough to come to you if they are feeling out of their depth, before things start to go wrong. So setting up a culture of support instead of blame is important. You also need to provide an environment for people to grow. We try to encourage our people to make themselves redundant in a particular role so that they can evolve and move into a new position.  The least effective way of managing this kind of workforce is to be rigid and dictatorial.

What is the best and worst advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve received – and taken – lots of bad advice. I think that the mistake people sometimes make is to look at the person giving advice, and not at the advice itself. It’s easy to believe that someone should know what they are talking about, but their stature, position and even their experience is no guarantee that the advice they give is sound or that it’s the best advice for you. The best advice I’ve received is that in life you need three people: a good doctor, a good lawyer and a good bank manager.

Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.