The Man with the Golden Touch

It was a dangerous beginning where a dying man could whisper thanks; it led to riches, acclaim and a knighthood.

Sam Jonah has broken rocks miles underground and brokered deals over the boardroom table. He’s advised world leaders and discovered a passion for parrots. He is probably one of the few men in the world to be knighted in London nearly 30 years after sweating as a miner in the searing heat, miles beneath the country of his birth.

It all began in 1949, Jonah was born in a military camp in Kibi, Ghana; his father—a sergeant major and World War II veteran, served in the Royal West African Frontier Force. Soon after, Jonah Senior left the army and set up a construction company. The family moved to Obuasi where Jonah went to school. It was after high school that Jonah made the surprising decision to work underground at Ashanti Goldfields Corporation’s (Ashanti) Obuasi mine, the only mine in Ghana. Jonah’s classmates were going into law and medicine, while he was going to work shoulder-to-shoulder with men who had barely gone to school. “My business was breaking rock, ” he says.

Jonah saw that mining was run by whites and wanted to change it. There were tough days underground. Jonah calls it his most humbling experience and with merely a high school certificate and no experience, he had to sink to the bottom of the barrel to learn to survive.

“You learn quickly how to get what you want from people who are better equipped, who are better skilled, who are better experienced, who are much older than you are,” he says.

In his quest for more, Jonah won a scholarship to study mining engineering at the Cambridge School of Mines, in England, which later awarded him an honorary doctorate. He returned to Ashanti and moved up the ranks. Then he returned briefly to London to study business at Imperial College, now the University of London.

It was during these exciting days at Ashanti that tragedy struck. One day, Jonah was underground when the chamber’s ceiling fell in, trapping and killing miners. It was time for quick thinking. Jonah saw a man trapped under rubble who showed signs of life by muttering softly. Under Jonah’s guidance, a team worked to pull the man free and carry him to the lift. The miner, whose legs were crushed, drew Jonah close and thanked him. Four hours later the miner was dead. This was the life Jonah chose as a young man; a life he likens to that of a soldier. Jonah’s life was moving apace. In 1979, air force officer Jerry Rawlings, then 32, led a coup in Ghana and nominated Jonah, who was the same age, to be Ashanti’s vice president. In 1986, the late Tiny Rowland, the founder of Lonrho, which owned Ashanti, appointed Jonah as managing director. This was at a time when production at the company’s single mine had deteriorated and the industry had yet to see a black man at the helm.

Jonah’s father had once said that the day Ashanti was run by a black man, would be the day he left town. Jonah had the pleasure of telling his father that the day for him to pack his bags had come. In his new position, Jonah introduced his ‘Africanization Policy’. He wanted to change an industry that was run by whites. He wanted to attract his countrymen to the industry to prosper like he had, by forcing expatriates to fulfill their contractual obligations to impart skills. Moreover, Jonah wanted to cut the expense of expatriates. Why pay a foreigner four times what you would pay a Ghanaian to do the same job? This policy was unpopular among expatriates but it was all about the big picture in a growing company. “Glass ceilings were punched through, ” says Jonah.

Jonah considers business to be all about people. He feels that it is a leader’s responsibility to identify talent and harness it, to set aside one’s ego and surround oneself with the very best, to make one look good. “Wisdom does not reside in the head of only one person, ” warns Jonah.

Jonah says his parents taught him all he knows about leadership. They encouraged humility, told him that good days are not forever and that he should never give up. In 1999, Jonah needed all these skills when Ashanti faced a liquidity squeeze. It came at a bad time for the company as it was trying to raise $125 million to build a mine in Tanzania.

The root of the problem was hedging done by the company when the gold price was low. This was viewed as a risk management tool and a price protection mechanism. Unfortunately for Ashanti, a decision taken by global central banks saw a sharp increase in the gold price. The market price was greater than the hedged price and the company did not have enough cash for margin calls because it had pumped a lot of money into new mines. Jonah says this was a bruising time for the company and the most difficult of his career. The company’s share price fell to the point that the New York Stock Exchange was considering delisting it. It took eight months to recover and years to prosper.

Jonah, the driving force behind Ashanti’s growth, sees opportunities where others don’t. In his time, Ashanti grew from a single mine in Ghana to the second largest gold producer in the world.

The company was public until the Ghanaian military government under General Acheampong, took 55% share in 1972—making it a partnership between the government and Lonrho. In the quest for growth, Jonah and his team convinced the partners that better days were ahead if the company went public again. Once Ashanti listed in both Ghana and London, the government held 17% of the company and Lonrho 27%. Between 1994 and 2004, Ashanti went on the acquisition hunt in an attempt to be both an entrepreneurial as well as a conservative company. It extended its operations in Ghana, Australia, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Tanzania. In 1996, Ashanti became the first African-based company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

There is a saying that goes: “No good deed goes unpunished. ” As Ashanti grew, the hunter became the hunted. Success attracted the interest of numerous companies.

Jonah felt the choice was to grow from within, or agree to be part of a bigger outfit. It proved difficult trying to convince partners that issuing shares, thus diluting power, was best. The government was faced with a competitive demand for its money, while Lonrho wanted to focus more on platinum. With no other defense, a merger was the only option. The $1.48 billion merger between Ashanti and AngloGold, then the seventh and second largest gold producers respectively, was far from a merger of equals. “We were punching beyond our weight, ” says Jonah.

Despite this, Ashanti’s management secured key positions within AngloGold Ashanti, with Jonah becoming the executive president of the merged entity.

After his time at AngloGold Ashanti, Jonah became a serial director. Some junior mining companies approached him to guide them to success, as he had done for Ashanti. Equinox Minerals, a mining exploration company based in Zambia, was at the feasibility stage when it approached Jonah. Years later, in 2011, the company that had a market capitalization of $63.1 million in 2006, was sold to the Barrick Gold Corporation for $7.4 billion. Moto Goldmines, in Ghana, grew from a $50 million market capitalization company and was sold to Randgold Resources and AngloGold Ashanti in October 2009.

Since AngloGold Ashanti, Jonah has sat on at least 18 boards of companies. Jonah currently sits on the boards of a few companies, including Vodafone Plc. He is also the founder and chairman of Jonah Capital, a private investment holding company, based in South Africa, with interests in mineral resources, real estate, agriculture, construction materials, financial services and oil and gas services.

His counsel has extended beyond the business world. When former South African President Thabo Mbeki set up the International Investment Advisory Council in 2000, Jonah was the first and only African to sit on it. He has also been an advisor to Nigerian Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, his successor Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. He was a founding member of Ghanaian President John Kufuor’s investment advisory council and advised the late president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, on investment promotion. Jonah was also on Kofi Annan’s UN Global Compact Advisory Council. Three years ago he helped the president of Togo put together a team that would formulate strategy for the country.

According to his biography, Sam Jonah and the Remaking of Ashanti by Ayowa A. Taylor, Jonah turned down the position of Ghanaian vice president twice.

On June 25, 2003, Jonah received an Honorary Knighthood in recognition of his achievement as an African businessman at St. James’ Palace, in London. Knighthoods conferred to foreign citizens are done so on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are bestowed on those who have made an important contribution to relations between their country and Britain.

It came from the blue. Jonah took a call from the British high commissioner in Ghana who, after making sure that he had sat down, told him that he had received a call from the British prime minister’s office informing him that Jonah’s name had been put forward for a knighthood. The high commissioner asked Jonah if he would accept the honor, should the Queen approve. The final word came two weeks later, while Jonah was in Guinea. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin was on a state visit on the day of the ceremony, the knighthood was conferred by Prince Charles.

In 2006, Jonah received the Order of the Star of Ghana, the nation’s highest award, and the Commonwealth Business Council Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

More recently, Jonah has been appointed—along with 12 other internationally recognized business, academic and public policy leaders—to sit on the newly formed Bank of America Global Advisory Council.

A lifetime away from his days of breaking rock underground, Jonah says: “I saw no barriers. I was determined to get to the highest [level] in anything that I did.”

This sentiment is echoed in his biography where Taylor writes: “Jonah was determined to build a ‘First’ World company, to dispel the unspoken belief that coming from the ‘Third’ World implied that he would be a third-rate businessman.”

Jonah acknowledges the big part that mentorship played in his success and feels that it is important that those that have found success pass down their knowledge and not have the arrogance to think that they did it all on their own. Jonah has, through the years, been approached by those seeking guidance and says that there is nothing more fulfilling.

“You must be humble enough to know what you know and to appreciate what skills you don’t have, and to have a plan.”

Jonah says it’s sad that young people are no longer as keen to serve apprenticeships. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Jonah. In 2008, a conflict of interest arose when Jonah became a non-executive director at Metropolitan Holdings Ltd while on the board of the Standard Bank Group’s Liberty Life. He stepped down after holding the position for a month. Jonah refers to this as the shortest directorship in South Africa and says he failed to see the conflict from the onset as Liberty Life had a separate board to Standard Bank.

Also making it into the news that year were claims of insider trading and the resignation of senior staff in a company chaired by Jonah. Sentula Mining was accused of misdeeds worth R242 million ($29.7 million).

Jonah says he was approached by the family with the controlling interest in a company called Scharrighuisen to become the chairman and shareholder, buying in on concessionary terms, at around R2 ($0.25) a share. Jonah went to distressed shareholders, and some potential ones, and sold them his vision to rebrand Scharrighuisen as a new mining services company to be called Sentula Mining. Jonah Capital and Coronation Capital were the two largest shareholders when they sold some of their shares, at around R21 ($2.60). The combined sales were reported to amount to R680 million ($85.4 million). The share price subsequently fell to around R1 ($0.12) before recovering slightly.

The parties were thought to have had knowledge that the market did not. The Financial Services Board opened up an investigation into the possible insider trading and trading was suspended for a few months. During this time Jonah resigned as chairman of the company but maintains that there was no wrong doing and that they were cleared. With his focus on the many possibilities the future holds Jonah’s Iron Mineral Beneficiation Services (IMBS) is using industry changing technology for processing super scrap, metallic iron, from the waste dump at Phalaborwa Mining Company, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. The super scrap replaces traditional scrap in steel making.

Jonah says that when he told Lakshmi Mittal, of ArcelorMittal—the world’s largest steel making company—the chairman and CEO asked: “Sam, what do you mean? I have 77 PhDs in Chicago and New York looking for this technology, and you’re telling me that two South Africans have found the technology?”

Jonah is proud of the fact that while big companies around the world were writing off lots of money in search of this technology, two South Africans beat them to it. Jonah Capital has the largest stake in the company, with South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and Russian company, OAO Severstal, as partners. The R120 million ($15 million) pilot plant will be up and running by May.

Despite all this success Jonah maintains that he is not a wealthy man and that he is merely comfortable. He has been reported, by African journalists and bloggers, as having a net worth of between $500 and $600 million and has been celebrated as the richest man in Ghana. His worth remains a mystery but Jonah says that he is appalled by the speculation, adding that his father would be upset by people saying such things about him.

“We were not brought up that way, ” says Jonah.

Evidence of this is the inscription by Jonah’s father placed on the house he built for his family in 1950. It read: Wobisa wo din enye wo sika, which translates to: They ask about your name, not your money.

“I’d like to be defined more by what I have done, than what I have…” he says.

Jonah says that having earned a monthly salary from the age of 19 until his retirement from AngloGold Ashanti, at 58, and sitting on boards and owning shares, means that he has done well for himself but he denies being the richest man in Ghana.

Jonah may not be pleased by some of the reporting about him, but what pleases him is the way business is going on the continent.

“Africa is all about entrepreneurship, ” he says.

Jonah feels that people are now being given the space to grow, that businessmen like Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga and Patrice Motsepe, are world-class. Jonah is also adamant that the world’s attitude towards Africa has changed. He feels that Africa’s potential is now being appreciated and harnessed, which, he says, is coming on the back of political and social change.

The world’s eyes and markets were on South Africa when the Lonmin mine workers’ strike in Marikana turned violent. As the longest serving director of Lonrho, Jonah doesn’t want to weigh in too heavily on the matter but points out that there are philosophical differences in the style of management and his own, influenced by his time underground.

“I came to appreciate the roles of these people [miners], how backbreaking the job was, how hardworking they were, how committed they were, ” says Jonah.

He believes there will always be a future in mining as long as there’s a demand but that miners’ living conditions are shocking and that South Africa needs to focus more on the social aspect of the business.

Jonah has enough thoughts to fill a book but jokes about not being literate enough to write it.

Jonah does, however, have a more relaxed side. The jet-setting entrepreneur enjoys fishing. His eyes light up as he talks about it. He took up golf once again, four years ago. It brought back memories of a battle around the golf course nearly 40 years earlier. Jonah challenged the exclusively white Obuasi Golf Club, where he was not welcome. He was determined to learn the game and when none of the other members would teach him he went to the caddies. After 10 lessons, no-one wanted to play with him. Jonah used to go early to the golf course and play slowly, deliberately, to irk the white golfers backed up behind him. It worked and eventually the invitations to play grudgingly arrived. On the other side of the coin, some of his fellow Ghanaians couldn’t see the victory and sneered that Jonah now thought he was white.

It is no surprise that decades later his children tease him about becoming obsessive about his hobbies. When Jonah discovered squash, playing twice a day was not enough so he built a court at his home. When he took to the gym, he was there every morning at 5AM and then built himself one.

You could have guessed that buying a parrot in Guinea would lead to an aviary being built back home. It is now filled with a collection of parrots from South Africa, Ghana and Brazil.

An avid reader and big fan of Rudyard Kipling, Jonah recommends the poem If.

In a speech to inspire leadership Jonah closed with an extract from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life: “Lives of great men remind us that we can make our own lives sublime and departing we can leave our footprints in the sands of time.

At the very least, Jonah proves that if you can keep your head while others are losing theirs and blaming it on you… you can be a man, my son.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN TOUCH was published on First Daily Blog on October 3, 2019.