Empact’s Dolf Smook turned a hobby into an exciting career


He started out in finance, but found himself immersed in the world of IT.

Dolf Smook, head of technology solutions at Empact Group, began his career in international banking before moving into the world of information technology. He worked on various trading desks in London for a few years before returning to South Africa after he felt a little homesick. “It was a great experience, great exposure that broadened my perspective,” he notes. “But I missed the community, the sun, and the braais.”

Dolf went on to work in offshore banking back here at home, working with big banks such as Barclays and Lloyds TSB. After working as a banker for several years, Dolf was able to save up enough money to venture into hospitality and bought a shareholding in a Rhapsody’s franchise. It was a good three years, he says, but unfortunately, the franchiser had committed fraud and the entire brand collapsed.

Dolf remained in the restaurant business, but in a different capacity: he oversaw operations for another restaurant franchise. During this time, he received a call from a recruiting agency informing him that he had a background in banking, finance, and hospitality and that there was an opening for someone to lead the healthcare division at Empact Food. “I believe it was simply great timing, because I had both the financial acumen and operational experience required to lead this sector of the Food division,” he says.

The Empact Group is divided into three business divisions: Facilities by Empact Group, Supercare by Empact Group (cleaning and hygiene business), and Food by Empact Group (catering business). With a total workforce of approximately 25,000 employees spread across various provinces, Empact Group is positioned to deliver on the promise of its brand architecture; Doing right by you, which is the force behind Empact Group being a purpose and service-led business.

Empact’s food division is responsible for all catering at Netcare hospitals across the country. On top of that, Supercare provides integrated service solutions (cleaning, hygiene, pest control, and more) to a big part of Netcare and other healthcare clients in South Africa.

Dolf’s main goal when he joined the company was to automate or digitise many of the company’s manual processes. He made it his mission to gather all the resources he could find in order to develop systems and applications, as well as to introduce tools and technologies that could assist him in doing so, which involved taking a few risks and placing large bets that eventually paid off.

Dolf’s passion for technology and understanding of operations was noticed by Empact’s CEO, Alan Quinn, who approached him to officially head up technology solutions at the company. “Under normal circumstances, in any organisation for that matter, operations doesn’t understand IT and IT doesn’t understand operations, so there’s a big gap in the middle and I was sitting in that gap,” he explains.

“As a result, we created a new executive project office to bridge the gap between operations and IT, and I became the custodian of the IT capex budget, which meant that all operational technology related projects went through this office, for example, if operations identified a new software or system that they wanted to implement.

“I also wanted to break down the silos between the three businesses,” he says. “Back then, the three businesses within the group would just do their own thing, but the problem with that is, you have three systems, one in each part of the business, that don’t speak to each other, and don’t integrate into each other. Therefore, my main goal was to break down these silos and ensure that everything worked from a single controlled hub,” he explains.

Dolf wears many hats; on the one hand, he is heavily involved in executive projects; on the other, he is heavily involved in operations on the healthcare side. He’s particularly involved in the Netcare portfolio due to the strong relationship he had built with them in the past, and they did not want him removed from the account. “However,” he says, “my focus now is on technology. It’s what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.”

Part of what makes the world of technology and IT exciting, according to Dolf, is that his job is no longer about living in the past, but rather about living in the future.

Dolf points out that taking the leap of faith of turning what was essentially a hobby into a solid career isn't an easy path to travel; you need someone to guide you along the way, a mentor. “I think it was a combination of figuring things out on my own and tapping into a mentor for me,” he says. “Our CEO, Alan Quinn, was instrumental in this; he was previously our IT director and CFO, so he has a strong financial background as well as a technical background”.

“It’s quite refreshing to report to someone who understands both operations, finance and IT, and not only talk business: we often have casual conversations when we run into each in the corridors, which at times turn into conversation about business,” he adds.

Dolf is an adrenaline junkie who enjoys rock climbing and skydiving in addition to his main hobby of shooting. “I shoot six different disciplines, from pistol, 3-gun, and shotgun, to medium-range, long-range, and extreme long-range.

“The adrenaline rush you get shooting from a kilometre away at a 30cm gong while the wind is blowing at 20km/h is unrivalled. However, there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with this sport; you are holding a powerful weapon that, if used incorrectly, can have disastrous consequences, so safety is of the utmost importance.”

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