24 Mar 2022 / Article

Sertem: Bringing youthful ideas to upper management

In 2019, Marième Ngom joined her brother Taslim at Senegalese engineering and construction firm Sertem, a company founded by her father Léopold Ngom in 1998. The business development and marketing director has since strived for women and the younger generation to play bigger roles in decision-making as the company restructures to become major public infrastructure developer. 

By Shane Starling

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking a family dynasty was well and truly at play, but Ms Ngom emphasizes genetics is not a ticket to an easy ride in the firm that in 2022 employs around 280 people at its new downtown Dakar headquarters.  

“The company has a special story and everyone that works here has to earn it, including myself and my brother,” Ms Ngom tells us. 

“In fact, my father is more demanding of Taslim and I than to others. And that’s not easy because he is very demanding of everyone. 

“My brother spent at least seven or eight years in the company before becoming managing director. My father is not like, you’re in the family so you’re going to be the boss. You have to work for it, you have to prove your worth, you have to gain your seat.” 

“It was very difficult for me because not only I am the youngest person on the Board, I’m also a woman in a market which is very, very masculine.” 

‘Major transformations’ 

In her short time in the company as business development and marketing director, Ms Ngom has made it a priority to bring more women onboard as part of a “major transformation” that is occurring as Sertem streamlines and modernises its operations. 

“Since I came here, I tried to bring more women around the table,” she says. “I’m very proud that we have just recruited a female head of finance. I have put many women in middle management. Today we’re going to have two women on the table of the board. It’s exceptional. It never happened before in the company’s history.” 

“For a company to work, we have to be representative of both genders. Will I be managing director one day? We’ll see. People say I am more like him [her father] than my brother.” 

Around 25% of Sertem full-time employees are now female. 

The old and the new 

Sertem’s transformation however is not just gender-based, but generational. 

Ms Ngom says the 10-member Board is split 5-and-5 “elders versus youngers” with very different views on how the company’s divisions should be restructured, the primary direction it should move in and how it should communicate with construction industry players, potential clients, government agencies, financial institutions and the wider world.  

Part of Ms Ngom’s role is to spread the word in broader channels about Sertem as a “local champion” of not just Senegalese but west African business as the company expands into countries like Mali and the Côte d’Ivoire. 

The group has weathered tough periods and undergone major pivots before – from electrical works to civil engineering to high-end real estate, major commercial properties like hotels and now to bigger, public infrastructure projects. 

“We are doing bigger development projects with public clients – the State. We are defining ourselves as developers whereas before we were more about private real estate,” Ms Ngom says, while acknowledging “the restructuring could take years.” 

Current projects include a 16-story Dakar skyscraper called Tour des Mamelles and a 36km high-speed train line as company revenue has tripled in the past 12 months. 

Her father Léopold, whose official role since stepping down as managing director is head of the shareholders group, continues to play a hands-on role in the firm and is firmly aligned with the ‘elders’ camp. 

“He says every day that he wanted to take a step back and let us do the job,” Ms Ngom says. “But in reality, he doesn’t do this. It’s not something very easy for him to do, to let things go. He was a great leader. It was his company. We have this conflict of generations. Both of his kids are on the other side. It’s not easy.” 

Making a difference 

Ms Ngom, a 35-year-old mother-of-two who holds a MSc in International Marketing & Business Development from the Grande Ecole program of SKEMA Business School in France, is loving the part she is playing in Sertem’s development, despite early reservations. 

“I thought it would be a really big challenge for me when I when I joined because I had been working in a multinational [TotalEnergies] where the processes are very different. There are many frustrations but it’s very much about entrepreneurship, bringing entrepreneurship into the company. It’s not easy, but we have a rich story to tell and I want to be part of that history.” 

“We are working for Senegalese people, for African people. We have an impact in the local economy. We are trying to be a local champion. So, when I have days when I am low I am thinking about all of that. It’s another good thing to have my brother onboard because we motivate each other. I hope someday my little sister will join us too. The story is beautiful.” 

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