Priscillah Mabelane. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Priscillah Mabelane. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA



From attending primary school under a tree in Burgersfort to being appointed CEO of BP Southern Africa (BPSA), Priscillah Mabelane shows what is possible with intelligence, hard work and determination.

“I didn’t have a 20-year plan, but I am ambitious, and I knew I wanted to end up in the C-suite,” she says.

Appointed CEO of BPSA from September 1, Mabelane is the first female CEO in SA’s fuels industry. BPSA is a subsidiary of the BP Group, the multinational giant that employs more than 1,000 people and has 500 service stations in SA. It also has 45% of a commercial and industrial fuels marketing business with Masana Petroleum Solutions and a joint shareholding with Shell SA in the country’s largest fuel refinery, Sapref.

Petite and elegantly dressed, Mabelane is not a CEO in the traditional mould. But she is eminently qualified for the role. She joined BPSA six years ago as CFO, so she understands the firm’s culture and the industry.

Shortly before her interview with the Financial Mail, she had returned from completing the two-month Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School. It was an excellent opportunity for self-reflection on leadership, learning about digital evolution and meeting CEOs from around the world, she says.

Mabelane started her career at Ernst & Young, the only black woman in the Pietermaritzburg office, after completing her studies at the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo) and the University of KwaZulu Natal. Her primary schooling, she says, was under the Bantu education system, with some classes held under the trees.

She has experienced discrimination and exclusion in her career, but has learnt to manage her natural responses, such as defensiveness. “I had to overcome it and treat people as individuals, putting myself in their shoes, so I could contextualise the situation rather than externalise it,” she says.

Before joining BPSA Mabelane worked for Eskom for several years, spending long hours to prove herself, while bringing up two young daughters.

The industry faces several challenges, she says. Economic and political uncertainty affects demand for fuels. Globally, fuel demand is shifting to low-sulphur products. In SA delays in finalising a regulatory framework have forced refineries to defer investments in upgrades, which affects their ability to compete with imported products and the automotive industry’s ability to standardise and optimise production. It ultimately affects consumers.

BPSA has been investing to modernise the 54-year-old Sapref to improve its reliability and market responsiveness. But if imports of cleaner fuels grow it will become less viable economically for refineries to invest in upgrades, affecting local job creation and the country’s security of fuel supply.

Fuel retailing is key for BPSA, and the company intends to grow its market share. Two years ago it entered into a partnership with Pick n Pay to provide convenience stores at forecourts, linking two strong consumer brands. It plans to roll out more and upgrade the existing offering to customers. “We have allocated significant capital to this for the next five years,” Mabelane says — but laughs and declines to say how much.

Mabelane still has an unfulfilled goal. “In SA, where there are opportunities to become involved in community-related issues, I don’t think I have maximised my capacity. I have been stretched in my career and blessed in my family life, and I want to give more back in areas where there are needs.”

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