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Van Zyl Botha

Van Zyl Botha: Creating a Connected Nation and Fostering Inclusive “Access to Information!”

I believe that access to information is a basic human right. Further, I believe that a functioning democracy is dependent on access to information. Therefore, to have a successful country with empowered people, you need to connect people, and you need to connect them to information; fibre is simply the best and most cost-effective way to achieve that, in a dense population, and on a large scale. – Van Zyl Botha.

Van Zyl Botha, the Co-Founder and CEO of Herotel, isn’t just talking about internet connectivity; he’s talking about bridging the digital divide that separates communities and playing a small part in fostering a thriving democracy. In the heart of his belief lies a powerful question: Can true empowerment and success be achieved without being connected?

After co-founding Herotel in 2013, Van Zyl embarked on a mission to transform the fixed wireless industry through a consolidation strategy. By 2018, he had taken the reins as CEO and brought about a remarkable turnaround. Today, Herotel stands tall as one of the leading fibre and wireless network players in South Africa, employing over 1,600 people across more than 70 offices.

Van Zyl and his teams’ strategic prowess is evident in the completion of 33 acquisitions in just four years, turning Herotel into a powerhouse. The company, under his leadership, provides services in more than 500 towns and suburbs to over 200,000 fixed-network broadband customers. Managing approximately 2,505 wireless towers and overseeing 242 fibre projects, Herotel’s impact on South Africa’s connectivity landscape is undeniable.

But for Van Zyl, success isn’t just measured in numbers. He understands the profound societal impact of connectivity.

Enter Digital Village, Herotel’s corporate social investment. With a mission to connect one free customer for every paying customer, Digital Village is his way of addressing the digital divide. Digital Village, operating as an NGO, has already provided free WiFi hotspots and access to over 100,000 people in impoverished South African townships. Van Zyl’s vision extends beyond corporate success; it reaches into the hearts of communities, aiming to empower and uplift through connectivity.

In an era where success stories are often connected to boardrooms, Van Zyl Botha and the entire team of Heroes stand as a beacon, reminding us that the true measure of success is in the positive impact we make on the lives of those we connect with.

Below are the interview highlights:

Could you give our readers an insight into your company and its inception story?

Herotel began its exceptional journey in 2013 with a simple mission: to connect all South Africans to faster, more affordable Internet, regardless of their location. Our focus has been on secondary towns, cities, and historically underserved areas. Over the years, we have overcome challenges, worked in 178 different municipalities in South Africa, and grown exponentially. Today, we stand proudly as the third largest Fibre Network Operator (FNO) and largest fixed-wireless network operator in South Africa, covering over 500 towns and suburbs.

We have united 33 partners under the Herotel banner, creating a national presence and achieving economies of scale that allow us to optimize operations and provide cost-effective, high-quality Internet solutions. Without these partners, we would not have been able to achieve this. Every WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) is part of our success. Our expansion into fibre in 2019 was pivotal. Herotel Fibre was born and co-founded by Francois Wessels, Eldred Ekermans, and Helmut Nel. Herotel Fibre enabled us to offer even more reliable and high-speed services alongside our wireless network. Wireless simply cannot deliver what fibre can.

Our unwavering commitment to our vision, “Everyone Connected,” is at the heart of everything we do.

We focus on bridging the digital divide, ensuring fast, affordable Internet reaches every South African home and business. Our dedication to customer experience, availability, and low cost set us apart as the preferred provider for all.

What do you believe are the key factors that have contributed to the rapid growth and success of your company in recent years?

A pivotal factor in our rapid growth is our distinction as the local, best-value fiber provider in 2021.

The unique differentiation lies in our approach to building, maintaining, and selling our network, which sets us apart from other Fibre Network Operators (FNOs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Wherever possible, we deploy aerial fiber networks, which are quicker to deploy and allow us to offer more cost-effective products to the customer. By selling directly to the customer, we cut out the additional complexity and cost of using an ISP-reseller model, giving more value to the customer.

Additionally, the wealth of local experience brought by the 33 partners under the Herotel banner, with a strategic focus on towns rather than metros, has played a crucial role in propelling our success. Strategically positioned local organizations for personalized community engagement also contribute to our success.

How does your company foster innovation within its teams to stay ahead of the competition and drive continuous growth?

Our success is underpinned by robust management pillars and a strong commitment to our values and culture. First and foremost, a process-driven approach, setting clear goals, and following the right processes are imperative; the right process will give you the right result. Being a large organization with complex systems, clear goals create focus, and our processes guide us to achieve these goals. Learning from process outcomes, successes, and failures facilitates constant improvement. We are not afraid to fail; we learn from our failures. Ensuring quality from the start is critical, so embed it into the process rather than treating it separately.

Respect for people is another fundamental pillar, promoting active employee engagement in improving their daily work. Recognizing that individuals at all levels possess in-depth knowledge of their tasks, engaging them ensures a comprehensive understanding of challenges and opportunities for excellence.

Continuous improvement is woven into our culture, challenging everything and fostering an atmosphere of perpetual learning. In a dynamic business landscape, being adaptable is key to seizing opportunities and avoiding pitfalls. Encouraging our talented individuals to actively seek and implement improvements is crucial for sustained success.

In what ways has your company adapted to market trends and changes to sustain its growth trajectory?

Our adaptability to market trends is evident in our strategic initiatives. We think of ourselves as being technology agnostic; we use the best technology solution for the customer.

Introducing prepaid options in select markets demonstrated our responsiveness to the need for flexibility. Furthermore, our shift towards humanizing the brand in the past year, moving away from hard selling, reflects our commitment to understanding and meeting customer needs. Continuous monitoring of market trends and being adaptable in our processes allows us to stay agile, sustaining our growth trajectory. We understand that customers don’t want fibre, they want to be connected.

Can you highlight any specific strategies or initiatives that have been particularly instrumental in the fast-paced development of your company?

A strategic decision that significantly fueled our fast-paced development was the focus on larger towns rather than metros. Opting to proceed with infrastructure builds only in areas devoid of overbuilding or the presence of other Fibre Network Operators (FNOs) has allowed us to effectively expand our reach and capture markets that might have been overlooked by others. We ventured into towns where no one else would go.

How does your company prioritize and invest in talent acquisition and development to support its growth objectives?

Our commitment to talent acquisition and development is demonstrated through our internal Herotel Academy. We identify, train, and empower candidates in the communities that we serve, providing them with certification and subsequently transforming them into brand ambassadors. This initiative not only enhances our workforce’s skills but also creates opportunities for personal growth.

Remarkable success stories include candidates advancing from brand ambassadors to junior area managers and, in some instances, evolving into small office managers, exemplifying our dedication to internal talent development. We have 34 courses on the online Herotel Academy, our employees have signed in 54,688 times, and we have issued 9,054 certificates. Training and upliftment are a cornerstone of our business and part of our culture.

What role has technology played in the growth of your company, and how do you stay abreast of the latest technological advancements in your industry?

As a network operator and an Internet Service Provider (ISP), technology is at the heart of our operations.

The dependence on technology to keep our business running presents both challenges and opportunities. While we don’t attempt to stay abreast of every technological development due to the vast landscape, we prioritize awareness of key advancements, including AI technologies and marketing technologies, to ensure our business remains efficient and competitive in the already competitive environment that we find ourselves in. We do most of this in-house, using best-of-breed where we need to.

We build Content Distribution networks or CDNs, it’s like our own edge data centers, and we do this in all our major hubs. This means that a large part of our content is always local. The advantage is that we save money and can pass this on to our customers and that our user experience is faster with less lag and less buffering. None of our competitors do this.

Share successful experiences or challenges faced in entering new markets or demographics.

Our expansion into new markets involved introducing a product named Hero Prepaid, accompanied by intensive training of local brand ambassadors.

The challenges encountered included initial resistance from some markets, necessitating our integration into communities. Overcoming these challenges emphasized the significance of community engagement in successful market entry.

Once accepted, communities opened their doors, highlighting the importance of building trust and relationships by being local and not sitting in some far-away head office.

How do you maintain a customer-centric approach in a rapidly growing environment, ensuring that customer satisfaction remains a top priority?

We present the customer at every level of the organization and at every function. We are developing customer-centric metrics and targets for the entire company that will be monitored daily.

Please provide us with a few client testimonials as well as any awards or recognition that accurately reflect your achievements in this industry.

Our achievements include being acknowledged by Analytico as the best-value fiber ISP in South Africa in 2022, a testament to our commitment to providing exceptional service.

Another significant achievement is attaining recognition as the third-largest fiber network operator in South Africa within just four years of our first build. This remarkable transition signifies our pivot from a wireless ISP to a major player in the fibre landscape.

In addition to industry awards, our success is echoed in the positive feedback received from both customers and event organizers. Engagements such as the Tembisa Mile and the Idiskie Nine-Nine Soccer Tournament have not only allowed us to showcase our services but have garnered testimonials highlighting our dedication and impact on our communities. One customer who was cut off from their copper line because of a discontinued network thanked us after deploying fibre by saying, “We can now speak to our families again; you have given us back our humanity.” This is what keeps us going.

This is our commitment to connecting the unconnected.