March 30th, 2010
02:14 PM GMT
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That is the theme I wanted to explore with two of South Africa’s most prominent businesswomen – Cheryl Carolus and Wendy Lucas-Bull – who run a mega-deal investment company called Peotona.

Cheryl was a prominent anti-apartheid activist and then part of the team that helped Nelson Mandela and his party win the first democratic elections. She’s acted as the South African ambassador to London and head of South African Tourism. She’s now left the public sector and is running Peotona  with three other women – one of whom is Wendy Lucas-Bull.

Lucas-Bull was the first woman to run a major South African banking group. Her successful turnaround of that company is now taught in business schools. She’s also familiar to many South Africans as one of the business gurus on the television show ‘The Apprentice.’

Over a cup of coffee at their Johannesburg headquarters, I was interested in finding out if they thought women did business differently to men.

Both of them said, "Absolutely!"

Cheryl stressed that women leaders were not necessarily ‘softer’ and it wasn’t just about ‘girly business.’

Wendy agreed with her business partner that women executives do business in different ways – she said women tended to be more ‘inclusive’ and by that she says women create a workplace that’s condusive to women, as well as men. She also said women created a more ‘sustainable environment’ in that they  build businesses ‘that also look after some of the things outside of the business on which the business benefits.’

What exactly does that mean?

Both women used the example of how they run their company, which emphasizes community benefits for the mining companies (De Beers, French-owned Lefarge and Reunert) they have invested in. They tell me that they have set up trusts which benefit those communities who live next to the mines.

Their model is best explained, they say, with Reunert, a listed company and a leading player in the South African economy. They have set up a Reunert College which is a bridging year that helps pupils from the surrounding areas to get into technical colleges and universities. With their contacts in the business world they have also managed to get more sponsorship for this school and have tripled the number of students, they say.

Now all this sounds worthy and "nice and fuzzy," I say to them, but do they make any money?

They reply that they have some "incredible blue chip companies under our belt" and "we are investors in some of the biggest players in South Africa."

 That doesn’t sound like "girly business" does it?

March 30th, 2010
04:57 AM GMT
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Shanghai, China (CNN) – On Monday, CNN was among a handful of other foreign and local press allowed into a Chinese courtroom for the reading of the verdict of four employees of foreign mining giant, Rio Tinto.

The hearings had been closed to the public, and even for this access – no doubt due to the extraordinary attention foreign media have given the case – we were allowed to watch only by video monitor from a neighboring court room.

Before going through the metal detector and putting our bags through an X-ray machine, we were asked to remove all recording devices and cameras. We were led up to the seventh floor of the court building, and taken to a room where a total of 34 foreign and local journalists sat in front of two large screens, showing images from the Courtroom No. 1 on the second floor, where the verdict would be read.

A court employee, a young woman, sternly asked us to turn off our mobile phones, and warned that if anyone was caught using them, the phones would be confiscated.

The defense lawyers looked anxious when the clerk called on all to rise as the three judges entered. The judges, wearing dark uniforms, faced the four defendants, who were dressed in street clothes. Then the defendants - Stern Hu, an Australian citizen, along with Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang and Liu Caikui – walked in.

Though difficult to make out their expressions, it was striking to see Stern Hu’s hair was almost completely white, a startling counterpoint to the dark-haired photographs that had been in the press (whether those photographs were dated or his eight months incarcerated had aged him is impossible for me to say).

The head judge, Liu Xing, began reading the verdict at 2pm sharp, and the four defendants were allowed to sit down during the reading.

Reporters strained to hear and struggled to take notes as the chief judge detailed every bribe the defendants accepted, and the companies, individuals and amounts involved. All incidents centered around the Rio employees helping get the Chinese steel mills favorable terms and contracts for iron ore. All told, the employees were accused of accepting about $13.6 million over a five-year period from more than 10 Chinese companies (Hu was charged with taking about $1 million in bribes from two firms in the past two years).

In the 40-minute reading of the verdict, the judge also detailed the charges of obtaining commercial secrets, a total of eight instances, the most recent of which was last June. The court went said their action had seriously compromised the positions of Chinese steel enterprises negotiating for annual iron-ore prices with Rio Tinto and caused them huge losses, making them overpay $150 million iron ore – a commodity vital for the making of steel.

In closing, the judge announced that the four defendants had used improper means to obtain commercial secrets. But at the same time Stern Hu, Ge Minqiang, and Liu Caikui had “truthfully given accounts of taking bribes,” amounting to turning oneself in, so they would be sentenced leniently. Stern Hu had returned all the money he accepted, and the other defendants had returned most the cash.

At 2:40 pm, the defendants were asked to rise. I could see no expression at all on their faces as the sentences were read out: Hu would serve 10 years, 14 years for Wang, eight years for Ge and seven years for Liu. All also had to pay substantial fines.

After the judge finished reading, he announced that the defendants had ten days to appeal. We were then allowed to leave the room and turn our phones on.

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March 26th, 2010
01:42 PM GMT
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News International announced plans to charge for access to The Times and The Sunday Times Web sites starting in June.

Will the EU's crisis fund ensure financial stability across Europe?

The publisher said both British newspapers will launch new Web sites in early May and offer a free trial period to registered customers.

Starting in June, each site will charge £1 ($1.48) for a day's access or £2 ($2.96) for a week's subscription, News International said.

The newspapers are currently available free on a combined site,, but they will have separate sites starting in May. Subscribers will have access to both sites, News International said.

The only other major British newspaper currently charging for online content is the Financial Times, which charges a basic rate of £3.29 ($4.90) a week for a year-long subscription. Users can view up to 10 online articles for free each month, but they must register.

We want to know what you think.

Would you pay to read your news on the web?

Filed under: BusinessQuest Means Business

March 25th, 2010
12:09 PM GMT
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Another round of strikes by British Airways will go ahead this weekend as passengers brace for more flight cancellations and delays.

Will you be affected by a strike?
Will you be affected by a strike?

The planned four-day walkout which begins on March 27 follows the one last weekend by crews dissatisfied with pay, benefits and staffing levels.

iReport: Are you worried?

BA will be able to run a full operation from London's Gatwick Airport and London City Airport this weekend because so many cabin crew members will be working as normal, the airline said in a statement late Tuesday.

At London's Heathrow Airport, BA will be able to run up to 55 percent of its short-haul flights and up to 70 percent of its long-haul flights, the airline said.

Passengers booked on flights that have been canceled by the strike will be offered seats on flights with BA or other airlines, or will be offered a full refund, the airline said.

Some union members walked off the job last weekend disrupting dozens of flights across the UK and around the world.

We want to know what you think.

Are you planning on flying with BA this weekend? Are you going to be disrupted by the strike?

Please leave your comments below and let us know where you're writing from and we may be in touch.

Filed under: BusinessQuest Means Business

March 24th, 2010
07:32 PM GMT
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With weeks to go before Britain's national election, finance minister Alistair Darling has given his budget and economic projections for the fiscal year starting in April.

The markets want to see how the government will make deep budget cuts to bring down a budget deficit that rivals the one facing Greece.

Tax payers want to see the rich bankers pay more but do want to suffer from cuts in services.

Other governments want to learn how a major industrialized nation can cut spending without pushing a fragile economy back into recession and without triggering more strikes.

Truth is this budget may have to be torn up anyway. If the opposition Conservative Party takes power in May it will present a new and different budget –- one the ruling Labour Party says would contain damaging cuts.

The worst outcome for the bond, stock and currency markets would be an election where no party gets an overall majority.

That would leave too many unanswered questions about the direction of the economy.

For his part, Darling announced tax relief on cheaper homes, a tax hike on expensive homes and a redistribution of three billion dollars raised from taxing bank bonuses late last year.

Has he done enough to keep his party in power after 13 years?

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March 24th, 2010
12:44 PM GMT
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The trial of four Rio Tinto employees charged with bribery and stealing commercial secrets ended in Shanghai Wednesday, but it was unclear when a verdict would be reached.

The bribery trial took place in this Shanghai courtroom.
The bribery trial took place in this Shanghai courtroom.

Charged in the case are Stern Hu, an Australian citizen of Chinese origin who was the general manager of Rio Tinto's Shanghai office. Hu has been in detention for nine months, along with Rio Tinto's three Chinese employees - Liu Caikui, Ge Minqiang and Wang Yong. They are accused of taking bribes and stealing commercial secrets.

Rio Tinto, a British-Australian company, is one of the largest mining companies in the world. The case has raised fears of a government crackdown on foreign companies doing business in China.

The three-day trial was closed to foreign news organizations, hindering independent confirmation of developments. At the end of the first day of the trial on Monday, Zhai Jian - the lawyer for another defendant - said his client acknowledged receiving money, but said it was a gift or a loan - not a bribe.

In another case, the U.S. Justice Department charged Daimler with widespread violation of bribery laws over the course of a decade.

According to the documents, Daimler paid bribes to foreign officials in at least 22 countries between 1998 and 2008.

The documents described how the company tried to lure officials with everything from cash to job opportunities.

We'd like to know what you think.

When is a gift considered a bribe? Is bribery a natural part of doing business? What should happen to officials charged with bribery?

Filed under: BusinessQuest Means Business

March 24th, 2010
09:48 AM GMT
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MTN bills itself as Africa's biggest cell phone operator. Either way, when you walk into the company's headquarters in Johannesburg they reek of success. The buildings are relatively new and have that expensive architectural look that allows for streams of natural light and other clever design tricks, which make you feel like you are in a contemporary art museum. Even the escalators and elevators look like art installations.

The reason I notice this is that many corporate headquarters are based, of course, in office blocks. No matter how plush the carpets, the environment still smacks of a charmless, gray place that makes me want to run screaming out of the swinging doors. So it makes a nice change to turn up for an interview and spend some of the pre-interview time admiring the company's interior design - there were cool chairs and fabulous art (a stunning Cecil Skotnes hung outside the ladies bathroom entrance.)

The CNN crew was treated to a generous lunch and the MTN staff couldn't have been friendlier or more helpful. I was looking forward to meeting Phuthuma Nhleko, the CEO who has been at the helm of one of Africa's corporate successes for eight years. He steps down next year after a tenure that has seen some spectacular growth in the telecoms market. Nhleko and his team have taken full advantage of these opportunities, particularly in emerging markets.  The group has operations in 21 countries across Africa and the Middle East, where they are in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran.

Nhleko was, however, not that delighted to meet us. Perhaps it was because he had done more than twenty interviews that day to publicize MTN's annual results, or perhaps it was because I asked him questions that he didn't want to answer. Either way, Nhleko made it clear he was unhappy to be asked about aspects of MTN's presence in Iran, where it had "recorded a strong subscriber growth of 45 percent to 23.3 million in 2009, increasing its market share to 40 percent," according to the company's annual results media release.

Now, that is a sizable share of the Iran mobile phone industry, so I asked him, with the anti-government protests last year, if the Iranian government asked MTN to monitor phone calls or to turn off the network.  Remember, during the political turmoil after the 2009 disputed elections, there was global condemnation at the government's decision to limit internet access and filter content.

Also, of course, since the protests were largely communicated to the outside world via text messages and social networking sites like Twitter, they were recorded with cell phone cameras and emails were often sent via mobile phones.

So what was it like, literally, being the messenger in such a tense political environment?

Mr Nhleko said MTN "were not asked" to monitor and intercept SMSs, for example, and that the company complied with the Iranian license regulations. He did concede that "every country has got interception requirements for security."

Fair enough. But what about the moral angle? With South Africa's history, and the emphasis on freedom of speech and access to information, I asked him if he was uncomfortable having to work within the parameters of the Iranian regulations.

In a forceful but erudite manner he batted away my question, saying repeatedly that he thinks the company's role is to be a service provider and "not to make political commentary on any particular country."

He answered his questions with that steely self-confidence of a top-tier CEO who seems irritated with the nagging questions of a journalist, who kept on badgering him for an answer. I left wondering if perhaps he could have given our global audience - many of whom are MTN customers - a little more insight into how an industry-leading company does business in a geopolitical hotspot.  Whether he likes it or not, politics and business might not mix but they are inextricably linked.

More on Marketplace Africa >>

March 23rd, 2010
05:19 PM GMT
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Ever get the feeling that something is about to happen, but you just don’t know what, or when, or how serious it will be? The last week has given me that feeling of unease in the financial world but I am not entirely sure why.

There were lots of little things that we could get excited about. For instance, the Obama health care package getting closer to a vote in the US congress; the Greek Government flirting with going to the IMF; the UK Treasury borrowing less than it forecast… But there was actually very little to get your teeth into and say “now we have direction”.

So, it is not surprising that the markets on both sides of the Atlantic didn’t do much at all. A look at the daily movements tells the tale. The Eurostoxx 50 closed the week just 0.01% lower. While the Dow Jones in New York gained on four of the five days last week, but barely budged more than 1% over the total week.

This was hardly exciting stuff.

However, if you looked beneath the surface there were indeed matters worthy of note. For instance, the warning by the rating agencies, including Moody’s that the AAA rating on US government debt was at risk because of the high government deficit.

At first blush this is huge. Absolutely monumental. The very thought that the US could lose its gold-plated top notch rating is just about unthinkable.

US treasury bonds are the backbone of the financial system. Any change in the debt rating would not only push up the cost of servicing the debt to the federal government, it would hit the dollar, and of course the value of those investments.

According to the US Treasury, China alone, holds $890 billion dollars worth of bonds. No wonder Beijing has been getting antsy about its investments.

Initially there was a lot of scepticism about these warnings. The US dollar is still the world’s principle reserve currency, with more than 62% of all reserves held in dollars, so there will always be buyers for US debt.

Then there are the agencies themselves. These are the very groups who continued to award investment grade ratings to the sub prime and collateralised debt that exploded during the crises. The agencies’ failure to issue warnings of dangers ahead, means their reputation has been sullied to say the very least.

With those caveats in mind, however, we shouldn’t allow our distaste of the messenger to destroy the message.

At 10%, the US is running a deficit which is unsustainable in the long term. Even though the President has forecast that the deficit will be reduced to 4% by 2013, there are so many optimistic assumptions, forecasts and simple unknowns that it is easy to obfuscate the true picture, and therefore the balance is probably on the downside.

This is really what the warnings from the agencies were about: a call that they should not temporize on cutting the deficit. . Begin now before it is too late and avoid trouble later. Alas, the warnings have been lost – the popular belief that the rating would ever be cut. And so the good ship ‘Borrowing’ sails majestically forward.

A boring week ? Not a bit of it. We may look back on last week as the start of something big.

March 23rd, 2010
02:18 PM GMT
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The UK government has announced that the country will spend nearly $60 million on the creation of a new space agency that it says will help fulfill its ambitions in outer space.

Should we bother exploring space?

The agency will be a hub for the country's space activity and scientists will study data generated by earth observation satellites and analyze information to understand the effects of climate change.

The agency will also focus on advising on the security and resilience of space systems around the world.

The space industry supports nearly 70,000 jobs in the UK and contributes nearly $9 billion to the economy.

The move by the UK government to commit millions of dollars to the space industry is in stark contrast to a recent decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to scrap it's lunar program.

NASA's Constellation program had sought to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.

Constellation also intended to study the idea of establishing a moon colony. The program was set to follow the U.S. space agency's shuttle missions, which are due to end in September.

Instead of building new spacecraft of its own, NASA is planning to invest in space technology research and spend $6 billion to pay private space groups to develop and build new rockets to take astronauts into orbit.

The plan leaves many open questions about the future of U.S. space travel, including if and when NASA will ever build rockets of its own again, when astronauts will return to space and in what kind of spacecraft.

We want to know what you think.

Do you think it's worth spending billions of dollars in space exploration? Should we bother going back to the moon?

Filed under: BusinessQuest Means Business

March 23rd, 2010
02:54 AM GMT
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The tit-for-tat battle between Beijing and Google may be getting the headlines today, but it’s only an overture for the real battle brewing between China and the West.

On Capitol Hill, a group of lawmakers stood before reporters last week and warned about the evils of China’s undervalued currency, the yuan. Armed with new legislation to punish China, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said the U.S. was ‘fed up’ with Beijing’s policies, which he says is costing the U.S. jobs, hampering the recovery and fueling its massive trade deficit.

The new bill was the latest in a series of recent and very public moves intended to press China to raise the value of the yuan.

But will these pressure tactics succeed? Probably not. If there is one thing Beijing has been consistent about, it’s that it rarely bows to foreign pressure, especially on issues affecting its economy. And any move to appease the U.S. would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, which Beijing has been reluctant to show.

And what if China did act? Would that solve the problems facing the U.S. economy? Again, probably not.

As economist Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley said recently while being interviewed on another network, the U.S. isn’t facing a ‘China problem,’ but rather a domestic one. And targeting China is the result of Washington refusing to look into the mirror.

Other economists have also said a stronger yuan will do little to address a high U.S. unemployment rate or a massive trade deficit. And if anything, a stronger yuan would likely do nothing more than stoke U.S. inflation.

And don’t underestimate the weight behind China’s threats to retaliate, should the U.S. follow through with sanctions. Like it or not, China is becoming the driver of the global economy. And that has huge implications for America Inc. With companies like General Motors and Boeing increasingly looking to China for business, a warning from China should give reason to worry.

In fact, signs of a worsening political relationship may already be working its way into business relations. A survey from the American Chamber of Commerce showed a growing number of U.S. companies say they feel unwelcome in China and face discriminatory government policies.

There is little to be hopeful about as trade tensions escalate. The next big volley will likely come April 15th. That's when the U.S. Treasury is to consider whether to label China a currency manipulator in its semi-annual report.  And if many lawmakers on Capitol Hill have their way, they just might.

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