The chess player

How Teddy Daka – the 2018 IT Personality of the Year – turned technology company Etion around.

Teddy Daka, Etion (Karolina Komendera)

Teddy Daka has a minimalist office. The walls are white, and there’s only a small monochrome reproduction of the Union Buildings. There’s almost nothing on his white desk.

It’s from here that he runs his technology company Etion, previously called Ansys.

Daka was named the IT Personality of the Year 2018, by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA (IITPSA), in association with GIBS, Gartner, Brainstorm and ITWeb.

Daka takes some persuading to talk about himself, and repeats what he said when accepting his award, that it’s his team to which credit is due.

How do we enhance humanity, using what we do best, which is technology?
Teddy Daka, Etion

Refocus the business

Ansys changed its name to Etion in 2018, and he explains it’s a portmanteau of ‘energy’ and ‘action’. It’s an attempt to refocus the business, which, after all, has been around for 31 years, and now bears little resemblance to the firm started during the apartheid years. It began as a defence contractor and became, among other things, says Daka, a centre of excellence for in-flight recorders, or ‘black boxes’. It also did business with Transnet, installing sensors on waysides to provide analytics on wagons and locomotives, and was thus an early adopter of what’s now called the Internet of Things. The business also dabbled in work for the mines, but, as Daka says, there was a fundamental disconnect: the business had been designed for semi-mass production, but it was being asked to undertake single projects.

By 2012, Daka was chairing the company after buying a substantial stake a couple of years earlier. It also couldn’t afford a CEO, so Daka stayed on and worked for two years without a salary, as well as making up the shortfall in income.

“There were very smart people who could do great things. It was only that the business found itself in difficult times.”

He glances out of the window, over the parking lot and into veld beside the highway in Centurion.

“People live there, under a tree. There’s a culvert there, with some water, and they stay there and use it for bathing.

“When I look at the levels of poverty we have, I almost want to cry. And I say to myself, there are people who died for me to sit here.

“If we don’t grow businesses, if we don’t start businesses, what are we doing?

“How do we enhance humanity, using what we do best, which is technology?”

He says this isn’t just wordplay, and that his complement of 375 people – if you count their families – will amount to perhaps 1 500 people who depend on Etion. He plans on growing his staff to 1 000, and then 2 000.

Laying the foundations

Daka’s greatest strength may be that of a strategist. He needed to strengthen the design capability of the business, as well as its manufacturing capacity. It also needed to extend its reach into other markets. He bought his own networking business into the fold, opening it up to the telecoms and IT markets, and then bought a company called Parsec, which was also in telecoms as well as mining, defence and cyber security. And it’s in this last, crucial area, that he believes Etion needed to make a strong play, leading to the acquisition of security firm LAWtrust in 2017 for R108.5 million. In 2018, Etion’s revenues saw a 29% fall to R573 million, and net profit halved to R33 million. Still, Daka believes Etion is poised for growth.

Three spheres

As he puts it, there’s the connectivity business, but the information it’s transmitting needs to be secure, and that’s where LAWtrust comes in. Underpinning these are the design and manufacturing businesses. It’s these three spheres that Daka believes will be the growth engine for Etion, providing solutions to those seeking to modernise their operations in line with the nebulous tenets of what he calls ‘industry version four’.

Despite being on record in 2018 as saying the company wanted to reduce its local presence, Daka says this isn’t his intention, and that it wouldn’t make any economic sense.

“If we move out of here, what’s our base?” he asks, mentioning that South Africa has the deepest mines, as well as the longest trains in the world. It also has among the highest unemployment rates in the world. For Daka, these are all opportunities.

He reckons technology is a key that will allow semi-unskilled people to play a role in the economy, such as helping a relatively inexperienced worker drive a locomotive. It will also mean a driver will need less training.

What’s holding us back as a country?

Plenty, he reckons. Part of the problem is the ‘unhealthy relationship’ between government and business.

“We lost some time there, as a country, and these are also uncertain political times, leading some to ‘wait-and-see’.”

The economy is also not performing as it should, and there are deep and widespread retrenchments. Some manufacturing capability has also been lost. And broadband is still out of reach for most citizens.

The country is too polarised along racial and gender lines, he adds.

“We’re not pulling together as a country. There are green shoots, but we’re not there yet.”

What’s his vision for Etion?

“If I can build a platform for future growth, so that somebody can take it forward and launch it, I will have done my job.”

He believes humans have a ‘design flaw’ in that sooner or later, hubris kicks in.

“I allow all my execs to be their own person. I choose people precisely because they should be able to take over my job. My job is to assist them to become the best they can be.”

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By |2019-02-13T08:57:49+00:00February 13th, 2019|News, News Coverage|0 Comments

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