Q & A with Alec Sellem, CEO of Sellem Industries

Alec Sellem, founder and CEO of namesake Sellem Industries, is an artisanal gold mining and refining expert who successfully runs his England-based company with “big picture” thinking at the forefront of his ethos. With the belief that traditional mining and refining methods aren’t conducive to long-term success, and could be vastly improved upon, the trailblazer has set out to develop streamlined methods of modernizing the mining industry. With a desire to localize the process of mining, and subsequently refining gold in the same hyper-local area, he has developed a wholesome method for developing infrastructure within rural villages, and developing relationships with local residents needed to maintain long-term happiness on both ends of the business.

Born in France, the Swiss educated entrepreneur initially spent time in Africa throughout his studies, and instantly developed a connection with the vastly different landscape, people, and cultures of the many African countries he later visited. His deep passion for the countries in which he operates shines throughout his people-centric approach to business, and his authenticity bolsters everything Sellem does professionally.

Sellem operates what he dubs as the incubator for artisanal mining in Sierra Leone. Through the building of infrastructures for local residents in the developing villages where his companies mine and refine locally sourced gold, Sellem sees the value in building trusting relationships with locals, bolstering the local economies, and ensuring long-term success through these ventures.

Sellem, who remains involved in the daily operations of his company on-site in Africa, splits his time between home with his family, and mining sites in Africa. He focuses his efforts on scaling his business through building positive relationships, and maintaining a positive reputation through practice, and strong ethics. Sellem successfully leverages his belief in “big picture” thinking throughout his business, and remains a positive example of an entrepreneur who has found long-term success on their own terms.

How did you initially get started in your line of work? Where did the idea for Sellem Industries come from?

I have always held an entrepreneurial streak in my bones, and found myself marginally involved in the trade of gold, selling and trading gold for a friend. While I was partaking in this practice, I began to think about the current state of the gold trade, and educated myself on the topic of common practices within this field. After I really began to understand the ways in which the field operated, I instantly saw practices that seemed counterproductive, ways in which the field could be immensely streamlined, and ways to modernize the combined efforts of mining, and later refining gold in Africa.

Traditionally, gold was mined in Africa, and transported overseas for refining purposes, without any local African refineries present. This seemed like a redundancy that would incur extra costs, and the prospect of locally refining gold at the location of sourcing immediately seemed like a more conducive manner of conducting business!

From there, the development of Sellem Industries felt organic, and I truly believed in the concept of streamlining the entire process, for the purpose of maximizing profit, minimizing costs, and propelling the business forward. While our current operations are thriving on a small-scale, we are actively looking forward to implementing longer-term growth strategies, and working toward vast expansion goals. Naturally, developing a business venture within the rural African landscape is unlike any other entrepreneurial endeavor, and my love of the countries in which Sellem Industries is present helps to bolster my drive for success, and my personal feelings attached to the success of operations, the increase in opportunities for local residents, and the overall positive effects of development.

What has brought you to Africa? Were you familiar with Senegal, or Sierra Leone previous to your business endeavors?

Whilst attending boarding school, I embarked on my first trip to Africa when my own school was working to set up a village school in Mali. From this initial endeavor, I immediately liked Africa, and felt good there. While most of my school friends were later becoming physicians, attorneys, or financiers, I knew that I wanted to pursue a different path, one that led back to my love of Africa. At this point, though I have not yet been to each and every country in Africa, I can confidently state that I’ve been to a majority of them. I enjoy the scenery, the natural wonders, the weather, and the simple pleasure of taking a drive, or a bike ride, out of the city, and entering the endless countryside almost immediately, a feat hard to come by in Europe.

I have always been drawn to Africa, to roaring city centers, and remote villages alike, and to the prospect of beginning new ventures from the ground up. In Africa, unlike in Europe, if you want to execute an idea, you must start from the ground up, literally. Often, there is no infrastructure in place to support a grand plan or idea, and one must be effectively created prior to even conceptualizing further endeavors.

What sets Sellem Industries apart from other similar companies?

The concept of creating an incubator for artisanal mining is what really sets us apart from other ventures of this kind, and our “big picture” conceptual thinking is certainly also uncommon within the realm of business.

Within our mining operations in Sierra Leone, we have developed the infrastructures to not only maintain functional operations, but to improve the daily lives of residents on a long-term basis. As a continuously developing nation, Sierra Leone is comprised of many remote villages, where transportation to city centers for the sake of trading crops and foods, gathering needed materials, and purchasing items is vastly limited. Thus, these remote villages must fend for themselves in this state, especially throughout rainy seasons. Thus, we have created the infrastructure that would physically allow individuals to reach the city center, coming together for the betterment of all.

We have developed a functional synergy between the various villages, providing harvesting assistance for each villages, ensuring that each village is responsible for a certain essential crop, be it corn, rice, or poultry. Then, the leaders of each village bring all harvested materials to a central trading post, where each family can garner a plentiful bounty of needed items. This stimulated a local economy, allows villages to work in tandem, and further perpetuates a long-term symbiotic relationship.

Through our hyper-localized mining, and refining processes, we have provided many local individuals with the opportunity for meaningful and gainful full-time employment, with no seasonality to threaten livelihood. This has not only stimulated the economy, but also allowed other members of these employed families to consider other trades, and pursue other gainful ventures. Thus, the presence of Sellem Industries’ responsible business practices has positively impacted not only our employees, but all local residents alike. This sustainable method of garnering gold, and refining the product, sets Sellem Industries apart from other companies.

Through our Foundation, we are also developing a village school, which will provide educational opportunities to children who did not previously have a school within a reasonable distance to attend. This will provide local families with the opportunity to send their children to school, opening doors to future career endeavors without limitation. Additionally, a tertiary benefit of stringent attendance practices within the school system lies in the attendance records serving to provide that older children were present in class, versus potentially in the mines, meeting the necessary standards of operation.

Though these charitable endeavors, along with local large-scale investments in infrastructure, may appear to be costly, and potentially deemed “counterintuitive” within a traditional business sense, I believe that this macro-level thinking is what sets Sellem Industries apart, and is ultimately an integral part of our long-term success, development, and growth.

How do you measure tangible success within your industry?

For starters, in order for my business to be successful, there is a massive undertaking that needs to take place, and large scale infrastructure setups that need to be successfully completed prior to developing new mining sites, and effectively utilizing these sites. Thus, success cannot be measured on a short-term scale, certainly not within spans of months, or even years. Success will be dictated by longevity, and long-term successful operations spanning throughout decades.

For me, profitability won’t dictate success as much as long-term growth, continued development, continued successful operations, and the continuation of a fruitful, positive, and mutually respectful relationship with local residents, local government, and all individuals involved within the venture.

In creating feasible change on both a large and small plane, how do you ensure that your ideas are developed, and executed properly?

From inception, I meticulously research all of my ideas, big and small. In developing a concept or plan, I try to always look for ways it can fail, and ways in which an alternative method could create a superior outcome. When I am satisfied that I have examined all angles, and left no stone unturned, I then reach out for insight to open-minded peers, and individuals who will provide me with insight related to the possibilities of my ideas, rather than their potential limitations. I specifically look to initially share my ideas with individuals who are not specifically within the field in question, for the purpose of garnering objective insight about the notion as a whole. Finally, when the plan has been widely received and developed, I bring it to the experts, and welcome their truthful expertise, feedback, and even criticism, following whatever revamping is necessary to emerge with a finished plan.

In the research-heavy manner that I develop ideas into actionable plans, I attempt to always try to see plans in a macro versus micro hierarchy, and to avoid putting the proverbial cart before the horse. For example, I was recently invited to join a panel at the UN pertaining to energy law in Africa. Throughout the discussion, there were individuals who proposed the notion of building large-scale plants for electricity. While the end result would certainly be a tremendous feat, this was a great example of thinking too far ahead, without consideration of the notion that a 200 megawatt plant would need to have an infrastructure in place to distribute the newly gained electricity. Without a working grid to properly, effectively, and safely distribute this energy throughout the village, the investment would be a waste.

The gold, diamond, and gemstone mining industries often face tough criticism. How do you ensure that your business differs, and provides transparency?

Currently, within the traditional methods of operations for many companies, there are about fifteen different parties, entities, and companies involved in the process of mining, shipping, refining, and selling of these items. Thus, it is easy to lack transparency within such a convoluted system, as the physical items change hands dozens of times. Having a refinery on the ground, locally, helps to solve that transparency issue. By keeping all operations in close proximity, a real paper trail is present, and one can track what has been occurring in the mines, as well as the refinery. I think this is really important to have a sustainable mining operation, and to aim to be transparent about all endeavors.

As a business helmed in England, but operated in Africa, what are your plans in term of staffing, and business development?

Currently, we do not have physical office space in England, but are working to create physical presence in England, where we aim to hire roughly 20 administrative, finance, operations, and business development positions. I have worked in Africa throughout most of my life, which has resulted in a lot of traveling, and having a “home base” for operations in England will be a pivotal step toward leveraging the company on a global scale. Currently, in Africa, we staff roughly one hundred employees, and that number reaches nearly one thousand employees with the miners.

As an entrepreneur, and CEO, how do you spend most of your work days?

Due to my extensive travel schedule, I split my time between working on-site in Africa, and spending time at home with my wife, and our children. Thus, I certainly would never claim to uphold a traditional “nine to five” work day. While this could be detrimental to the long-term success of some, I find myself being able to thrive within this type of environment. As I am truly passionate, driven, and fulfilled by my work, I can maintain a highly efficient, productive, and proactive schedule with total autonomy, without the need for a standardized schedule, or an everyday routine.

When I am home, I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife, and our children. It is absolutely important for me to spend time with my loved ones for the sake of bonding, and enjoying each others’ company. Additionally, I find that this time with my loved ones does wonders for revamping my energy levels, and allows me to decompress, before heading back out into the field.

When I am on-site in Africa, I find myself constantly in the throes of work, in the milieu of operations. Things are swiftly developing, propelling forward on an almost instant basis, and thus, there is always an influx of work to be done. Each day is vastly different, and there is never a sense of being “finished”. Again, because I truly enjoy the work that I do, and believe in the company that I have founded, and its’ practices, I am thrilled by these challenges, obstacles, and constant needs. 

How do you stay productive as a CEO, and working professional?

My business requires my immediate attention throughout the day, without slowing down. Thus, I must be productive in order to accomplish all of the necessary tasks to further develop the company, and propel it forward. While we are successful within our small-scale trial run, we are certainly still well within the stages of development. We are working on accomplishing the goal of building a village school, building a sustainable refinery, and continuously expanding our business. Thus, slowing down and reducing my productivity is not an option at this crucial time!

What aspects of global business do you find interesting?

Though globalization has changed the way in which individuals interact, and has certainly created somewhat of a global industry, there are still certain differences between various countries, regions, across different religions, and groups of people. Thus, ethics tend to differ throughout different portions of the world, dictating what is considered appropriate, and what is considered taboo.

For example, within the realm of medical ethics, certain practices may be frowned upon throughout one region of the world, and touted as being wonderful in another region. It is vastly interesting to see that though we are all globally connected now more than ever, we still maintain some cultural differences that dictate our moral compass.

As the gap closes between areas of the world unaffected by globalization, it will be very interesting to see how this concept changes within the next few decades.

What has been a recent highlight in your professional life?

Recently, I was invited to join a panel at the United Nations in New York to discuss Africa’s energy laws. Though my business lies within mining, there is a connection between mining laws, energy laws, and business ventures in Africa. I greatly enjoyed participating in this venture, and found the experience to be vastly rewarding, albeit somewhat anxiety inducing. Personally, I have never previously spoken to a crowd of such magnitude, so I was naturally initially apprehensive. Immediately after delving into the material, though, I felt extremely welcomed, comfortable, and enjoyed my experience speaking in regard to a topic that I am vastly passionate about!

What were some of your biggest takeaways from this panel discussion?

The concept of growing industry in Africa is vastly interesting. Industries are popping up at a rapid pace, and while there are certainly a number of global players within this African development, there is also plenty of room for smaller investors to create feasible businesses within African countries. While the panel focused primarily on energy laws, and ways in which to modernize African villages for the benefit of local residents, there was a focus on the growing industry, and ways in which smaller investors are able to develop trust-based relationships throughout the conceptualization stages of business development with local residents.

Essentially, investors and entrepreneurs who have a viable product or service will often arrive in Africa, and in order for their business to even come to fruition, they must develop the infrastructure necessary to use as a building block for their business. They are literally starting from the beginning, without any already existing things set up. Business owners need to not only consider their own business venture and model, but also, the resources necessary to begin the venture. This poses new and unique challenges, which some fledgling entrepreneurs are not familiar with. Conversely, it also allows for new adventures, and the opportunity to truly build something out of nothing!

There are many opportunities for small, and mid-level entrepreneurs to come in, spend time with their boots on the ground, and develop their unique business ventures. Within the process of doing so, it is impossible to not work very closely with local residents, local government, and to get to know the local culture. In this manner, entrepreneurs have a unique opportunity to not only be very involved in each step of the process, but to also develop respectful, trusting, and long-term relationships with the people that will ultimately share in their business dream.

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