Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Story of a Nation: CEO looks back at NPL's 20 years

Nation Publications Limited emerged in 1993 and offered an alternative view to the one-party-mentality media, it was not alone but 20 years on many have fallen and it still grows strong, I engaged its CEO, Mbumba Achuthan to hear the joys, jaunts, memories and jobs of NPL in the past 20 years, I cannot help but tell you in advance here that NPL is more than just a company...Q and A style..

Q: Twenty years on and still going strong.  Even stronger! How does it feel when youlook back over this period?

A:   I was asked in a session just a few days ago, to close my eyes and imagine all the people who had engaged with NPL over the last twenty years surrounding the office.   I was asked to imagine the effect we have had on all those thousands of people, to imagine our impact on the country and all developments.   It feels good to imagine that we have contributed something, I have contributed something.   It has all been worth its while.

Q: So how did it all begin for NPL in terms of conceiving the idea of a company and getting off the ground?

A:   Hon Aleke Banda, other people and I had been working on various publications during the period leading up to the change to multiparty democracy.    It was during this time that we started talking about what we could do thereafter that the idea of starting a newspaper was hatched.

He approached Hon Dr Ken Lipenga who bought into the idea and became the founding Editor-in-Chief and then we roped in the current Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Mr Alfred Ntonga, the Production and Distribution Manager, Mr Alfred Mtaula, Mr Billy Mphande and a few others.

We started off with a computer, typewriter, limited furniture and one car in a two roomed office building.

We started by coming up with an Editorial Policy and Mission to guide us and this has served us well to this day.

Our first publication was The Nation produced twice a week, later thrice a week and which then turned into a daily.

We then brought in Saturday Nation, now Weekend Nation, added Nation On Sunday and the rest is history.
Achuthan - has steered NPL to greater heights 

Q: What is it that you would pick out as the key success factors in the growth of the company?

A:  There are several success factors that I will zero in on:

Our editorial policy and mission has been the guide that newsroom has used throughout the twenty years.    This has helped us ensure that we produce our products according to professional standards.   It has helped us ensure that at all times our allegiance is to the people or the nation and not any individual or group.   This has ensured that we maintain our credibility.

The dedication, loyalty and quality of our staff has been the foundation on which all else has been built and achieved.

The consistency in the way we have maintained our relationship with our key stakeholders – advertisers, readers/subscribers, vendors/agents, suppliers, and others has ensured that we have not only sustained and but also consolidated and grown the business.

Q: What would you say are the stand-out areas that set the NPL of today apart from the company of 1993?  

A: We have advanced technologically in that we now have a completely new state of the art printing outfit that ensures quality products produced cost effectively and on time.   We are now able to reach most of our markets in the morning whereas in 1993 it could take two days to reach certain markets and it did not even make sense to distribute to some markets because of the newspapers shelf life.    We are also able to produce a product that can be full colour on any page with consistently good colour quality.

We have diversified our product offering to include on line news and a vernacular product that is bi-lingual and distributed fortnightly to the rural and peri-urban areas free of charge.   This has led to our ability to reach a much larger audience.

We have a trained workforce.   The practice of journalism and the media business was very limited in 1993.   All staff that came on board save for the few who came from Blantyre Newspapers Limited, had to be trained literally from scratch.   Today we have staff that come trained and we simply super-impose the NPL style and give them the platform to practice their profession and gain the experience needed to enable them become journalists of note.

Q: At a personal level, in what way have you had to adjust the manner you have managed the company over the years?

A: In the early years we had to do a lot of multi-tasking.    I led the organization and did all the administrative work, at times I wrote, I delivered the product, I worked in the design studio, I made coffee for staff when we worked long hours, I worked in the print inserting and wrapping, I went out to help find and interview sources during the Mwanza murder investigations, I went out during Operation Bwezani – I literally did everything.   All leaders had to play a very hands on role.

All this was done while developing systems and standards, operational manuals all literally from scratch.   This was the case because we did not have models we could learn from other than the limited offering from the main existing newspaper organization at the time.

With time we also got more opportunities to learn from other organisations all over the world and made all relevant adjustments.   With time, we also brought in specialized teams to handle the different areas of the business and my role became more of a leadership role creating a platform for the team to make their contributions in full towards fulfilling our goals.

Q: Have there been moments when you felt like, well, it's not worth going on with this… As in closing shop?  What are they?

A:    The newspaper business is a tough 24/7 business, that in its formative years, gives little room or time for rest.   The challenges are many and there all the time.  The pressure is continuous.   You have to work in it to know and truly appreciate it.   I have never got to the point where I felt I wanted to close shop.   But there are times when I have asked myself why I did not get into something simpler.

These moments are short lived, however, because it is a business that also has so many fulfilling sides/elements to it.

Q: When Bingu wa Mutharika went flat out against the company, you still kept your workforce, even employed more people, how did you overcome that hurdle?

Firstly, we ensured that everything we did was according to our editorial policy and mission and all our other systems and standards.   We ensured that we maintained our professionalism and remained true to our stakeholders.   As a result of that we got their support.   Our loyal readers, subscribers and advertisers stood by us because we gave them the product that they wanted and expected.

At the same time we have a workforce that believes in what they do and that works as a team.    The external threat served to bring the team closer together in a determination to survive.   It was, almost, a challenge that everyone took head on.

At the same time various business strategies were engaged to ensure survival and in some areas growth.

Q: What would you cite as the lowest and highest points in the life of the company over the past twenty years?

A:    The results of the Mwanza Murder investigation and the stories we carried on that and what followed remains a high point from an editorial point of view.

Our survival of the harsh political climate and the fact that we came out of it even stronger is another.

The acquisition of our brand new printing outfit also stands out.

Most importantly the constant recognition from our clients over the years has been a major plus.

The low points have been the loss of our founding father, mentor and guide, Hon Aleke Banda.    He never, one day, worked at NPL.   He never went out to bring us business.   He never influenced stories.   However, he demanded the highest of standards and that is the biggest gift he gave to NPL.   He always said: one day I want you to be like The Times of London.     Where we erred, he expected us to have an intelligent and complete explanation.   Where we did well he was our biggest supporter and a great source of encouragement.   He was our inspiration.

We have also suffered at the hands of the political systems where leaders have failed to accept that we are a mirror on society and have a watch dog role to play.

The introduction of tough media laws was also a very negative development that came up.

Q: In an industry in which maintaining clients and readers is a dog eat dog affair, what does it take to keep everything and everybody tight?

A:    It is important to ensure that the team knows, understands and buys into the company’s mission and vision and lives by its values.   It is important for the company to look after its team as best it can and for employees to feel part of the Nation family and to grow personally and as a team as the company grows.  We therefore endeavor to have in place programmes and projects that ensure this at all times.

Q: Looking ahead, anything up your sleeves for NPL, the company's clients and the nation at large?  

A: With the acquisition of the new printing machine and accessories, our plans on diversification that include new products and development of our current products, our clients and the nation at large can look forward to NPL providing media solutions that are of superior quality and accessible to most.
Q: What are your best personal picks in the 20 years of NPL existence?
A:    The whole Mwanza Murder experience: from identification of the sources; meeting them; compiling the story; the publication and following up on what followed.   The satisfaction of seeing the result of our work.

The Nation Achiever year that saw us choose the farmer at Manthimba who designed his own irrigation scheme the result of which led to his travelling to other countries to see other irrigation schemes and also having visitors from all over Malawi and the world visiting Manthimba to see and learn from what they had done.
The Mothers Day Fun run and its impact on Mothers and babies at the various hospitals we have been to throughout the country.
The development of our team.   Looking at staff 20, 15, 10, 5 years ago and looking at them now from all angles – we have truly grown, individual and as a team.
Our cartoons – the quality of them and the impact they have had.
Visiting a point in Chitipa a some years ago where no local radio transmission was able to reach and talking to the owner of the small grocery shop that was selling a copy of Weekend Nation – their access to news.
There are so many but above are sighted just a few.
Q: What inspires you as a person? Why did you venture into the media industry?
A:    I always want to learn and to grow and I always want to make a positive difference to a situation and to the people around me.

As noted earlier, we were working on communication during the change period from one party rule to multiparty democracy.   It was clear to me and to Hon Aleke Banda that there was a gap in the area of provision of information and a platform for communication.  We felt that if we could venture into the media business, it would serve the family from a business point of view, but also serve the nation and contribute to nation building at the same time.
Q: Your father was a politician, how easy was it to be NPL with his shadow?
A:   Hon A K Banda believed in setting standards.  He set standards in the form of the editorial policy and mission.   He set standards by making it clear what sort of publication he expected us to produce.   He set standards simply by being an excellent performer in his own right, so he led by example.   So long as the standards where maintained, we would not hear from him other than a word of encouragement or appreciation where relevant or engagement on ideas from time to time.

He was therefore not intrusive, and he did not have any expectations of us other than that we produce the paper to the highest standards possible.   He expected us to treat him and any political party or other group he was involved in as a newsmaker just like any other.

Initially people did not believe that we could be neutral and professional.   Always upon hearing he was a part of NPL, people would be skeptical.  But it was after engaging with us and our products that people were able to see that NPL operated professionally and was never a mouthpiece or tool for Hon Aleke Banda.

In fact Hon Aleke Banda suffered a lot of abuse and suspicion at the hands of his colleagues as a result of NPL’s neutrality and perceived lack of support.

Q: Should we expect NPL Radio or TV in the near future?
A:  Radio, TV, mobile and more.
Q: Any other issues and comments you have?
 God is good and has seen me personally and the NPL family through a lot to where we are today.    He has granted us the wisdom, strength and ability to do what we have done.   For that I am thankful.

The NPL family is a wonderful team of men and women, mainly young, vibrant, and intelligent and with a lot to offer.   NPL will do its utmost to provide the platform on which they can excel and continue to contribute to the building of the nation and of themselves.

Our clients should expect and demand a lot from us.  I can assure you that we are geared to be your media house of choice and to provide you with more than just news.

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