Willy Mertens, son of farm workers who became CEO

In this exclusive interview, Debmarine CEO, Willy Mertens talks about assuming the role of Chief Executive Officer, taking over from long-serving former CEO, Otto Shikongo. Mertens talks about growing up on a farm and his love for Manchester United.

Observer Money (OM): You were appointed the new CEO of Debmarine Namibia, recently. How has it been filling the shoes of long-serving former CEO, Otto Shikongo?

Willy Mertens (WM): I will never be able to fill the shoes of Mr Otto Shikongo, I am finding my own path with what he has taught me and prepared me for. I will forever be grateful to him for the role he has played in preparing me. Although it has been just under six months since my appointment as CEO, I have been with Debmarine Namibia for 16 years with the last 9 years as part of the Executive. But even then, it has been a bit of a challenge as I am not just responsible for finance, but also people, their safety, their wellbeing, and their families who look forward to seeing them when they knock off daily or monthly for those on the vessels, the resource and the future. The thought of everything starting and ending with the CEO is daunting, but I know that I don’t have to do it alone, I have over 1100 committed employees and an excellent Executive team with years of experience that is fully supportive of me and the company.

OM: Give us a brief background of yourself, where were you born and where did you grow up?

WM: I was born in Windhoek, on a farm. I grew up on a farm outside Windhoek where my parents were farm workers. Due to the nature of a farm worker’s life, we moved homes a lot wherever my father found work. We eventually settled on a farm a few kilometers outside of Windhoek where he worked until his passing many years ago. My mother continued to work on the same farm until she retired recently. I have been in the hostel for most of my schooling years, from Grade One to university.

OM: How was it like growing up on a farm?

WM: Life on the farm was not easy. We did not have much, but, we were happy. We were not allowed to own any livestock, but would grow vegetables and would have access to rationed meat. I worked on the farm during holidays and spent a lot of time with my father who imprinted in me the importance of education, hard work and pushing for what you believe in.

OM: Which primary schools and secondary schools did you attend?

WM: I attended primary school at St. Andrews Primary School in Khomasdal and Ella Du Plessis High School. Interestingly, a lot of children from farms surrounding Windhoek attended primary school at St Andrews, largely because of the hostel facility. I was admitted to Concordia College for high school but unfortunately could not attend due to a lack of finances.

OM: What and where did you study after high school and what led you to your career path?

WM: I enjoyed numbers from a very young age and excelled in mathematics and later accounting when I reached grade 8 (standard 6). I came across a book about accounting careers in the Career Guidance class and read about Chartered Accountancy and decided there and then, that is what I wanted to do, and told my father. He would always remind me about it and would tell anybody who cared to listen… “my seun gaan`n rekenmeester word”. I initially did not get into university because I could not find a bursary but perseverance and good fortune resulted in me obtaining a government bursary and admission to the University of Namibia (UNAM) to study a Bachelor of Commerce (B. COMM) degree.

OM: What has been your career path since leaving the university? Where did you work before joining Debmarine Namibia?

WM: I joined Namdeb as a Trainee Internal Auditor in 2000 and worked my way through the ranks to Audit Services Manager in 2004. I was then looking at making a career switch to accounting and found that opportunity with Debmarine Namibia in September 2006.

OM: Debmarine Namibia paid N$4.7 billion to the government in royalties, tax and dividends in the 2022 financial year, what is the potential for further growth for the company?

WM: The company is always looking at improving and growing the resource. The recently acquired Benguela Gem added additional production capacity of about 500 000 carats. It is important to note that the diamond resource is finite, and we therefore, need to continue to innovate and make technological advancements to keep growing the contribution we make to government and also to the other shareholder, De Beers. We must also not forget about the ultimate clients who buy our diamonds. About 65% of our diamonds end up in the USA and Chinese market and we need to continue research and marketing efforts to understand their changing needs. Clients are more and more interested in the way we recover diamonds and the good that diamonds do in producer countries like Namibia. We have therefore crafted a programme called Building Forever to help us do those things that impact our country and communities in a positive way – not just because we have to do so but because we are passionate about making life brilliant – doing good – to help communities and government make our country a better place.

OM: During the financial presentation breakfast, you announced that the loan for the MV Benguela Gem will be paid ahead of schedule; do you have plans to acquire more vessels?

WM: I referred to the investment payback period which is different to the loan repayment. There are no immediate plans for a new vessel, but we will continue to invest in technology to become more efficient.

OM: What is the current lifespan of your mining operations and is there room for expansion?

WM: We believe that, with the current known technology, Debmarine Namibia will remain profitable for the next 35 years to 2057. This does not mean the company will close in 2057, it just means that there is huge potential for innovation to recover diamonds more efficiently from the seafloor.

OM: Debmarine Namibia is known for training Namibian workers including crew and captains of your vessels, what has led to this success story?

WM: The realisation that the market for the skills we require are limited in Namibia and the careers we offer are not your mainstream careers. We needed to start raising that awareness from school level and train Namibians for ourselves rather than keep importing skills. We were aware of this and increased our training complement when we started with the construction of the Benguela Gem which resulted in over 90% of employees on the Benguela Gem being Namibians when the vessel entered Namibian waters. We made the decision during the 2008/09 financial crises to continue to train our employees and continue with research and development as we need those skills when the market turns and that has helped us through the difficult trading times of 2015 and 2020.

OM: Talk to us about your personal life, wife and children?

WM: I am happily married to my wife and pillar of strength, Celeste. We have three lovely children: two beautiful daughters and one son.

OM: What do you do in your spare time and what are your hobbies?

WM: I spend time with my family, watch football, mostly Manchester United games, and read. For fitness I play a bit of football whenever time permits and also enjoy running and participating in some local and international marathons.

OM: What is your favourite holiday destination in Namibia?

WM: Namibia is a beautiful country with a pristine landscape and abundant wide life. My favourite holidays have been mostly spent in the peace and quiet of our local lodges.

OM: What is your favourite Namibian food?

WM: I enjoy most Namibian cuisine, but most especially our Namibian meat.

OM: What kind of books do you read and what is the best book that you have read?

WM: I enjoy reading a mixture of educational and insightful books that feed the mind and soul. This often means reading 2-3 books simultaneously.

OM: What kind of music do you listen to and who is your favourite musician?

WM: I am an old soul and enjoy an eclectic mixture of music genres, as long as the beat is good and the lyrics are clean.

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