From factory floors to ocean shores: Francois Swanepoel’s exciting IT journey

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Discover how Oceana Group’s CIO engineered his way into the dynamic world of IT.

Francois Swanepoel, CIO at Oceana Group, is an industrial engineer by training and got an opportunity to work for Nissan South Africa during his engineering studies. He spent a subsequent 10 years in industrial engineering, production and quality management, where he was exposed to IT.

Francois calls the Jacaranda City (Tshwane) home, but these days, he’s fishing for innovation with Oceana in the Mother City.

“Getting some exposure to IT at Nissan sparked my interest in the discipline and I set out to find out more about this industry,” he explains. “Industrial engineering opens up the door to many touchpoints in IT, like ERP systems and process automation, for example.”

However, Francois’s real start in IT was as a business analyst and some years later, he ended up completing his master’s in computer science. He worked at Clover South Africa as a business analyst in the early 2000s, where he spent 17 years.

“My exposure to manufacturing at Clover led to a project management opportunity, during which I was part of a pivotal project that involved the establishment of a factory in the Eastern Cape,” he says.

This was a great opportunity for Francois, but he still couldn’t get away from this burning desire to go further into the world of IT. As a result, he worked very hard to ultimately head up IT at Clover, in what became close to a 10-year tenure at the dairy producer.

Exploring the fishing industry waters

Francois later went into the fishing industry and joined Oceana Group – a global fishing and food processing company – as CIO. “Given Oceana’s global operations, I gain significant exposure, particularly through our New Orleans business,” Francios explains.

Oceana has several businesses, but mainly operates through three core brands: Lucky Star, known for its canned fish products in South Africa, Blue Continent Products, a quota-based, wild-caught seafood business operating in South Africa and Namibia that exports hake, lobster, squid, and horse mackerel across the globe, and Daybrook, a fishmeal and fish oil business with operations in both South Africa and the United States.

A typical crazy day for Oceana’s CIO usually involves a hands-on approach to multiple projects on the go. He has to navigate the day-to-day delivery of these projects, while ensuring that daily service levels are met, not forgetting the risk component: cybersecurity.

“A typical day is hectic, but it becomes even more so when I have meetings with our US office, which usually start between 4pm and 5pm. Given the time difference with South Africa, these meetings can significantly extend the workday.”

Identifying talent and sharpening softer skills

There are similarities between Clover and Oceana, both being food and manufacturing companies, so one could assume that Francois’s move to Oceana was easy sailing. But there was a spanner in the works: he joined the group and a month later, the country went into Covid-19 lockdown.

“Having to adapt to a new business during that period, while ensuring that everyone could still communicate and collaborate, was a challenge,” he says. “However, the biggest hurdle in my career was balancing technical and managerial skills. I think a lot of execs struggle with that.

“I believe technical expertise is crucial, but strong leadership, strategic thinking and business skills are just as important. So, for me, transitioning into a role that required these broader skills was challenging.”

Francois leads a team of about 40 people, which he calls quite a lean IT shop, considering the size of the group overall. He’s also passionate about closing the skills gap, and applies various initiatives to enhance and develop his team. One of his favourite initiatives at Oceana is the 360-degree feedback programme. “We gain input and feedback from various parties, including line managers, peers, colleagues and suppliers, to help identify improvement areas,” he adds.

Francois’s leadership style centres around collaboration and inclusivity. “I prioritise creating an environment where every team member feels valued and heard. I believe that when everyone is involved and their contributions are acknowledged, it leads to a more motivated, cohesive and high-performing team.”

One in the chamber

You don’t have to search very far to find an exec who’s into playing golf. However, there are very few like Francois, who are passionate about hunting. “I’ll rarely turn down a hunting trip,” he says.

“Being in the bush for a couple of days really helps you switch off. It is a great outdoor activity that not only tests one’s skills and patience, but also fosters a deep appreciation for nature and wildlife conservation.”

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