James Wilkinson, Group General Manager: Business Improvement at Distell Group Limited, 33


This year’s overall winner, James Wilkinson has a creative flair, which is easily matched by his technical ability. He is well-respected as a leader by his team at Distell and despite his success, remains humble.


James had a nose for business even as a boy, renting out areas of his school’s rugby field on open days to high end car dealerships. His business acumen increased with age and during his university years he managed to turn the Student Representative Council from a cost centre into a viable business by renting out the university plaza to corporates during orientation week.


It seems James has success in his blood; he was the first ever recipient of the PwC CEO Innovation Award. Today, he is the Group General Manager for Business Improvement within Group Corporate Finance, leading 20 professionals, each of whom report into the CFO and have their own unique set of skills.


The team sees its purpose as helping the business to solve challenging problems by interpreting the group’s strategy and implementing it in such a way that adds both value and innovation. James explains: “We’re a division within Group Finance dealing with complex, cross functional challenges and opportunities. Some team members are CA(SA)s, while others come from an industrial engineering, business process optimisation, consulting or innovation management background,” he says. He adds that the team’s diversity is what makes it so valuable, incorporating different views and approaches to problem solving.


James explains that within the business, his team is seen as something of an internal consultancy. “We see ourselves occupying the spaces between typical business silos, helping to innovate and create value through the unexpected.”


On a personal front, James has a great appreciation for the beautiful properties that are owed by Distell. Plaisir De Merle, built in 1764, is a particular favourite and probably the best example of early Cape Dutch Architecture, he opines. In fact, James has become so passionate on the subject that it has become a hobby to visit these brand homes and study their history. “These visits are always accompanied by a tasting, which I regard as my contribution to quality control at the company,” he laughs.


Is there a secret to his success?” I’m not sure about that,” he muses. “I believe you become a product of the people you associate with, both friends and colleagues. If they exhibit traits you respect and aspire to, you’ll follow that direction. The opposite of that is also true.”


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