Winning Women – Terry Volkwyn: Change leader

Terry Volkwyn, CEO of Primedia Broadcasting and the founder of Lead SA, is the hurricane that has been blowing through radio in SA since she joined Talk Radio 702’s sales department nearly 30 years ago, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Barack Obama and his presidential election team might have created the “yes we can” slogan, but if you ever want to see the walking embodiment of it, get a toe in the door of Terry Volkwyn’s nearly all-glass office at Primedia in Gwen Lane, Sandton.

Ironically, the woman who has helped to change radio in South Africa is barely visible on media, preferring to play a role behind the scenes.

She comes to fetch me from reception, a gale-force presence that makes an interview with her not only fun but wonderfully invigorating.

She’s been described as “the stuff that MBA books are made of”, yet not a boring business-speak word falls off her lips.

In August 2012, she was the Media Woman of the Decade, not least because, around then, Primedia Broadcasting exceeded the R1?billion turnover mark despite the challenges all media companies face today.

Volkwyn did not dream of a career in radio or media as she was growing up.

She went into dress designing when she realised she didn’t have the right matric subjects for law, “which I would have loved”.

She was selling advertising space at the Rand Daily Mail when Radio 702 started up. The youngest of three girls in her family (“that’s why I was called Terry, they wanted a boy”) fell in love with the “rebelliousness” of 702.

She was running its sales teams and selling up a storm when Primedia bought Radio Highveld.

She was asked to build it up, “and I was mortified – 702 was sexy, while Highveld was dry. But I decided to just do it and that was the beginning of my go-for-it attitude,” she says.

When Highveld’s station manager left and Volkwyn was asked to step into his shoes, she protested: “But I can’t manage Jeremy Mansfield.”

Her pleas fell on deaf ears and she moved from sales to programme manager.

Primedia Broadcasting knew what it had in the gutsy, tough woman – she did so well at Highveld (“we were having a ball there”) that when 702 went into decline with falling listenership and income, she was called in to turn it around.

She repeatedly multiplied the revenue from a station that had been in danger of closing, and it went on to win the MTN Radio Station of the Year award three times between 2010 and 2014.

Volkwyn ascribes her success to her management style, “because I realised early on it is people who make profits – not businesses. It was never about budgets or how much money we were going to make.”

She did what business schools and company management teams talk about in terms of staff being their human capital. They pay lip service to it, but Volkwyn does it. She focuses on people.

Her office has large floor-to-ceiling windows “because I am transparent. People can see what’s going on in here and, if they peep, I invite them in.”

Her lively, colourful office, lined with pictures she uses to explain the company ethos, also houses a huge jar filled with sweets that she hands out liberally.

The mercurial CEO, who is easily bored and loves change – her staff gets nervous “when they see my eyes glaze over” – says she has a “need for speed and I make decisions fast. You have to in this industry.”

That’s reflected in her drive to transform radio in terms of both race and gender.

Primedia Broadcasting has four stations – Talk Radio 702, 94.7 Highveld Stereo, 94.5 KFM and 567 Cape Talk. More than half of her 26 senior managers are women with strategic portfolios that include finance, human resources, production and sales. Yet words that irritate Volkwyn include “typical female” and “emotional”.

“I make emotional people sit on their hands.” She shows me. “It calms women down and they can then get their valid points across.”

She teaches her staff and two teenage daughters “to always give reasons for everything. People need to understand.” She uses the word ‘psychology’ a great deal during our conversation, and although she has never studied it formally, she reads about the topic at every opportunity.

One morning several years ago, Volkwyn looked around her lovely Morningside garden, at her family and the dogs she adores and was in despair about South Africa’s lack of progress, its corruption and poor leadership.

“I can’t leave all this; I can’t emigrate,” she told her husband Greg, who suggested she do something about it.

So she came up with the Lead SA concept. “It was a hard sell. The Eyewitness Newsroom said: ‘We’ve never heard of anything so fluffy.’”

History has vindicated her. Lead SA will soon turn five, and has projects on the go that include #StopRape, Drug Watch, the Pothole Brigade, RAGE (anti-rhino poaching) as well as encouraging volunteerism and promoting food security.

The Talk Radio 702 CEO Sleepout, which aims to raise funds for the homeless, is the latest Lead SA project.

Volkwyn grew up in Welkom and attended a convent before her father, who was in the mining business, was transferred to Western Deep mine in Gauteng, where she was thrust into a co-ed government school.

She showed little sign back then of the dynamo she is now, but remembers always being encouraged by her father.

In view of her restless creativity and foresight, it’s no surprise she’s already working on a succession plan.

“I don’t want to leave a business when I’m 60 and too old to enjoy life. The gold-watch-at-65 scenario is not for me. So I’m looking for the right person to take over.”

She’s warned her team “that they will miss me because, when I go, I’m gone. There’ll be no hanging around for me.”