Interview With Zemedeneh Negatu

Zemedeneh Negatu. (Courtesy photo)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Monday, December 30th, 2013

New York (TADIAS) — As a teenager in 1978 when Zemedeneh Negatu headed to the United States with his future uncertain, he had no idea that three decades later he would be named one of Africa’s 100 Most influential individuals for his role in promoting economic growth in the country of his birth and in Africa. The current Managing Partner of Ernst & Young Ethiopia (EY) received the accolade last month from New African Magazine, which called him “a truly global citizen” and further noted that “anyone who has done business in Ethiopia will have come across Zemedeneh Negatu” or Zem, as he is affectionately known.

In a follow-up interview with Tadias Magazine during his recent trip to Washington, D.C., Zem said that his decision to return home in 1998 was inspired by “love at first sight” during a vacation trip to Ethiopia in April 1995 when he met his future wife, Julie Ricco, just days after he landed in Addis. “It was a Thursday,” he recalled laughing. “We spent the weekend in Langano and by Sunday we had decided to get married.” At the time he had just finished a two year expatriate assignment in Argentina as a consultant and was in the process of relocating to Brazil. “They were shipping my stuff from Buenos Aires to São Paulo and I had a little bit of free time so I thought why not visit home.” He added: “And I ended up meeting this beautiful woman that would change my life forever and to whom I have now been married almost 19 years and have a wonderful 11 year old son named Michael.”

After studying Business and Finance at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Zem worked as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) before landing a job in D.C. with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the global professional services firm, which would eventually take him to Latin America. “I have always been interested in emerging markets where you feel you are actually making a difference,” Zem said. ” I have gained a great deal of experience by working in South America where the business and investment environment in Argentina and Brazil in the 1990s was similar to what’s taking place today in Africa, where some of the fastest growing economies are located.”

In Ethiopia, Zem said, the economy has dramatically changed in the last fifteen years. “There wasn’t much back then,” he said, sharing that his first investment was a factory for feminine health products that did not pan out. “So I decided to settle for what I know best and opened a consulting firm.” His firm, EY Ethiopia, has been at the center of some of the biggest and most publicized business deals in the country, including the recent purchase of Meta Beer by the British-owned corporation Diageo, the world’s largest spirits drinks maker famous for Guinness Beer and Johnnie Walker. “I like to believe that we have contributed in our own small way to put Ethiopia on the global map as an attractive emerging market,” he said. “Of course the country’s progress has made our effort much easier since we have references we can highlight to global investors such as the significant GDP growth and major infrastructure projects including the $5.0 billion dam on the Nile river, the largest in Africa, and even the new subway in Addis Ababa, which is the only one in Sub-Saharan Africa outside of Johannesburg”.

For Zem, however, his proudest accomplishment came when his firm won a bid to work with the country’s homegrown global brand, Ethiopian Airlines, that he helped advise in their Vision 2010 Plan. When EY Ethiopia was hired in 2004, Ethiopian Airlines had 11 aircraft and less than 400 million dollars in annual revenue. Five years later, Zem said, the airline’s revenues had jumped to 1.2 billion dollars. “Today Ethiopian Airlines generates more profits than all African airlines combined,” he added. And since then his firm’s airline clients have expanded to include Rwandair, Virgin Nigeria Airlines, Mozambique Airlines, ASKY Airlines in Togo and many others. Zem also pointed out that initially while working on the Ethiopian Airlines project he had to outsource some of the tasks to professionals from a foreign firm. “Over time we have managed to build that capacity locally,” he said. “So we are now fully staffed by Ethiopians just like Ethiopian Airlines and we have some of the most sophisticated Transaction Advisory professionals based in Addis who win cross border African deals not just against our traditional “Big 4″ competitors but even big Wall Street investment firms.”

Zem is a highly sought after speaker at many high profile global conferences including the World Economic Forum, New York Forum and Harvard Business School where he completed the LSE program. He’s appeared many times on the international media such as CNN and BBC and was recently a “Power Lunch” guest on CNBC television. Zem has won many awards for his achievements including “Managing Partner of the Year – 2013″ from a top UK corporate finance magazine and “Pioneer Diaspora Business Person of the Year” at the annual event held in Washington in July 2012.

As to those who want to follow in his footsteps to Ethiopia, especially the Diaspora in the U.S., Zem recommends optimism and perseverance as the secret to success. “I say come with the glass half full mentality than the glass half empty attitude and you will enhance your chances of success,” he emphasized. “I put my money where my mouth is and continue to personally invest in Ethiopia because there are still vast untapped opportunities compared to many other emerging economies.”

When asked how it feels to be named as part of the 100 Most influential Africans, Zem stated: “I am honored and humbled by the recognition and I know that there will be many more Ethiopians, including those in the Diaspora, who will make the list in the future.”

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