Omnia's Seelan Gobalsamy. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Omnia's Seelan Gobalsamy. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

As he takes his seat at the head of a large boardroom table, Seelan Gobalsamy does not neatly fit the profile of a CEO of Omnia Holdings.

Unlike former MDs Adriaan de Lange and Rod Humphris before him, Gobalsamy is a relative newcomer to the sector, who did not rise through the ranks at the troubled chemicals and fertiliser firm. De Lange and Humphris previously headed the key fertiliser business.

What Gobalsamy does have is a solid — enviable, even — background in financial services. That he took over the reins at Omnia in August, less than a year after joining as a nonexecutive director, is intriguing.

The East London-born chartered accountant has held senior executive roles at Liberty Holdings, Stanlib and Old Mutual.

It would have been easier for him to stay in asset management and insurance.

Why did he ditch a successful career in financial services for a company that is grappling with a pile of debt and has just asked shareholders for a bailout in the form of a R2bn rights offer?

Gobalsamy is unfazed that he has stepped out of his comfort zone. Two years ago, he took time off from his role as CEO for emerging markets at Liberty Holdings.

"I then decided to join boards of companies," he says. Interestingly, he avoided financial services firms.

"I wanted to do something new." So when Omnia came knocking, he did not hesitate to join its board in September 2018. He became a member of its audit committee. And in March he joined the company as its FD.

"I really enjoyed coming into a company that has a strong heritage. So why join a company that is in financial distress? I would like SA to have successful companies. Omnia has great heritage and operates in primary sectors such as agriculture and mining. I want to be part of turning it around and saving as many jobs as we can," he says.

Omnia needs an "outside" perspective, he says. The company has grown exponentially over the years and broadened its scope.

"The company has evolved from being a fertiliser business to a holder of chemicals businesses. It has to be globally competitive. Anyone in the world who can do something better than you is your competitor."

Gobalsamy has wasted no time getting to grips with turning Omnia’s fortunes around. He says part of rescuing the company entails going back to basics by focusing on working capital management, capital expenditure management, return on investment and cost containment.

But even Gobalsamy didn’t expect to make such a big leap. "If you asked me in March if I would be sitting here today [as CEO], boots and all, trying to turn Omnia around, I would say ‘no ways’."

So how did he move from nonexecutive to FD?

Omnia’s board offered Gobalsamy the job after the resignation of former FD Wayne Koonin in February.

"I looked at where the company was and I said yes. The difficult position was that, as a nonexecutive you cannot advise and help a company. You lose your independence," he says.

Gobalsamy’s priority is to strengthen Omnia’s balance sheet by cutting debt, which in March stood at R4.4bn. And he says there is no path to a sustainable balance sheet without human capital.

"Omnia is not a machine or a plant in Sasolburg. There are people behind the company. We need to focus on the people as well. That includes our employees, customers and suppliers. They want to know, ‘How is Omnia?’ I am saying Omnia is on a path to be stabilised. We have great products and we operate in primary industries."