A Quest of Excellence: Julian Palliam Pioneering Leadership Across Multinational Sectors

Julian Palliam | The President and CEO at Foskor
Julian Palliam | The President and CEO at Foskor

Julian Palliam, the President and CEO at Foskor, is a seasoned executive with a wealth of international experience leading teams to deliver substantial value across various multinational organizations. His impressive portfolio spans the Finance, Mining, Chemical, Engineering, and Energy sectors. This breadth of experience includes navigating M&A activities and implementing lean management strategies in functional areas.

Julian’s passion for both business and people has driven him to lead, coach and develop teams while actively engaging with boards and executive teams. His engagement extends to clients and senior stakeholders across diverse cultures and at all organizational levels.

Julian’s leadership approach is centered on understanding the key drivers of business performance. He maintains a pragmatic perspective on business challenges as they arise, offering creative solutions and insightful perspectives to address them. He firmly believes that strong business partnering is a cornerstone of sustainable growth and success.

Journey to Success

Julian was born in a small town in northern Kwazulu Natal called Verulam. His academic journey was marked by challenges, including struggling to complete his honours in accounting (CTA) after initially failing. Financial constraints led him to work and study simultaneously, which prompted a move to Johannesburg. Even there, he faced difficulties and failed again. Many people advised him to give up or return home. Despite the setbacks, Julian persevered and eventually ranked among the top 100 students at the University of South Africa. He went on to pass both board exams in the same year, becoming a CA(SA).

His career took him to ENRC, a London-listed mining company, where he held various roles and was involved in M&A activities exceeding $1.25 billion across Africa. Julian later joined ABB, where he became the youngest Senior Vice President at the age of 30, with full responsibility for running the division across Southern Africa. He also worked on global finance transformation, including lean Six Sigma principles and trained in Switzerland. Later, he joined Metso, becoming the youngest AMD worldwide, leading Metso across Africa with a staff of over 800 employees and overseeing a turnover close to R4 billion. For his achievements, he was recognized as one of the top 35 under 35 chartered accountants.

Julian saw an opportunity to make a difference in a struggling state-owned entity called Foskor, which had experienced over a decade of financial losses. He joined as CFO and helped develop a turnaround strategy, which earned him a nomination for CFO of the year. After two years, he took over as CEO, where he has been for close to two years. Under his leadership, the business achieved its highest revenue and net profit in its over 70-year history in the previous financial year. His efforts to restore glory to a global fertilizer business led to his invitation to join the International Fertilizer Association (IFA) as a board member.

Nurturing Food Security

Foskor is a proudly South African producer of phosphates and phosphoric acid with international exposure. Foskor is the only vertically integrated phosphate producer in South Africa. From phosphate-bearing ores, the operations in the Mining Division process phosphate rock concentrate, which is crucial for stimulating and raising crop yields. The Acid Division Plant manufactures sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid and phosphate-based granular fertilisers (MAP and DAP) by using phosphate rock as a raw material.

Foskor’s vision is to be an enabler of food security in South Africa and across the globe while its mission is to produce and enable the production of fertilizers in a responsible, sustainable and inclusive manner to the benefit of all.

Redefining Vision and Progressing Step by Step

When Julian took on the role of CEO, he discovered that the existing vision didn’t align with his own perspective. In response, he initiated a process to redefine and simplify the company’s vision. They delved deep into what they believed was fundamental to their mission, which turned out to be food security. This belief was intergenerational and deeply resonated with their values.

Julian recognized the importance of clear and open communication within the organization. This approach helped them create a trustful environment where they could learn rapidly and became less fearful of making mistakes. Additionally, the business required a more hands-on approach from its leadership. So, they collectively embarked on the journey, following their philosophy of progressing step by step, inch by inch, to move the business forward.

Shifting from Price Taker to Price Setter

Foskor had traditionally operated as a price taker in the commodity market. However, under Julian’s leadership, the company underwent a significant shift in its sales strategy. It moved closer to the customer, effectively changing its center of gravity. This shift involved a keen understanding of customer needs and pain points. Julian’s primary focus was on delivering value to the customer through the company’s products, creating a mutually beneficial situation.

To achieve this, the company invested substantial effort in enhancing the quality of its products, which, in turn, addressed some of the customer’s pain points. As a result, in 2023, it sets the global price for phosphoric acid, becoming a price setter for the first time. It also remained true to its vision and emphasized supplying the local market with the fertilizer it needed, consequently improving its market share. This accomplishment was a direct result of the company’s commitment to understanding customer needs and collaborating to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Adaptability and Technology

Julian emphasizes the need for adaptability and agility in an ever-changing business landscape, where changes occur at a rapid pace. He firmly believes that technology plays a pivotal role in enabling this adaptability. Starting from the basics, such as online meetings conducted through various platforms for speed and efficiency, to more complex systems like the DSC system used to manage plant operations in real-time, technology has become a critical asset.

The DSC system offers real-time insights and the flexibility to make adjustments to production and sales planning. These technological advancements are complemented by their ERP system, which serves as the backbone for their operations. The integration of technology provides data in real time, benefiting decision-making processes both financially and operationally.

While Julian acknowledges that they may still lag behind some companies in technological advancement, he sees these innovations as a means to unlock resources, allowing for more time dedicated to value creation and quicker responses to market dynamics.

Determination to Make a Meaningful Impact

Julian, being under the age of 40, recognizes that he has ample time to make a meaningful impact on South Africa and potentially the world. While he may not have a clear vision of what that impact will look like today, he is confident that in the years to come, it will be felt by many.

Regarding Foskor, the company he leads, the goal is to ensure a sustainable business that plays a vital role in food security. They plan to expand their product base and move closer to the farmer, all with the aspiration of eventually listing the entity. The dream is to make this business accessible to people both in South Africa and globally, allowing them to benefit and indirectly contribute to the noble cause of helping feed the world.

Recipe for Success

Julian’s advice to anyone is encapsulated in the mantra “See it, Believe it, Achieve it.” The first step is to have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, followed by a deep belief in your ability to make it happen. The next crucial aspect is to have a genuine love for what you do, to the point where it becomes a passion, almost an obsession. Lastly, he emphasizes the importance of being prepared for the inevitable hurdles and setbacks that will arise on your journey. When challenges occur, it’s essential to dig deep, maintain determination and keep moving forward.

Unconventional Approach to Innovation

Julian’s perspective on innovation differs from the common notion of groundbreaking technology. To him, innovation is essentially about change. It involves questioning whether what you’re currently doing can be improved, how it can be improved and what resources will be required for the enhancement. In his company, this concept of innovation is evident in various aspects, such as product development where the company incorporated new materials like coating oil to create a better product.

Additionally, the team has established a dedicated department outside of operations that focuses on innovation, research and development, with the aim of unlocking value. This approach has allowed the team to adapt their products to better meet the needs of customers, resulting in growth. Foskor has also utilized technology to accelerate decision-making processes, leading to optimization and contributing to its growth and success.

A Remarkable Turnaround

When Julian took on the role at Foskor in 2019, the company was facing significant financial and operational challenges. The board was contemplating the future of the business, with approximately 1700 jobs directly at risk. In this critical situation, Julian believed that the business had the potential for a turnaround.

With determination and a clear vision, he and his team embarked on developing a comprehensive turnaround strategy. They utilized every skill they possessed, from effective communication to astute cash flow management. They were willing to think creatively, explore uncharted territories and embrace unconventional solutions. Fast forward four years, and the company has transformed into a robust and profitable business that has just posted record profits. Julian attributes this remarkable achievement to unwavering self-belief and the collective effort of his team.

In terms of resilience, Julian highlights the importance of a strong personal support structure. This support can take various forms, including family and friends. Julian considers himself fortunate to have an inspiring wife, Dr. Nerusha Hansraj, and two amazing children, along with an extended support network that believes in him and motivates him to achieve more than he ever thought possible. This support has provided him with the strength and determination to face each day with a smile, knowing that he has their backing.