Gideon is always up for a challenge, and speaks about personal growth and empowering others.
Gideon Joubert is always up for an adventure and a new challenge. He’s found both as the CFO of Rest of Africa at the FirstRand Group. He chatted to CFO South Africa about his growth and empowering others.
Mike Field, ex-CFO of Rand Merchant Bank, was recruiting an executive assistant and looked to his auditors for a recommendation. They recommended Gideon. Gideon describes the gruelling six-part interview process, including an essay, as the toughest of his career. This includes the interview processes for the two CFO roles he has held subsequently! This position however, proved to be an excellent springboard into the role he holds today.
1. How did being an executive assistant prepare you for your future roles?
I learnt a tremendous amount from Mike. He was very demanding and expected work of a very high standard. It was a fantastic experience in terms of the exposure that I received so early on in my career. I was only 28 at the time and had the opportunity to work with several of the senior executives in the organisation. I was involved in many of Mike’s strategic projects and had a front row seat to what the role of a CFO entailed.
2. What was your next move at RMB?
I was in the executive assistant role for two years. At that point, there were a number of shifts taking place within the Group and the RMB Investment Banking Division CFO role became available in 2014. It’s a large, market leading business at the top of its game. I, however, was successful in the application process. The learning curve was very steep. I had to learn the investment banking business, familiarise myself with the variety of product sets, manage a large team (which I had some experience on from my days at PwC), engage with many prominent dealmakers and manage expectations at an exco level. The first 18 months were interesting to say the least.
One of my toughest challenges was finding my voice around the boardroom table. I needed to have not only a deep understanding of the business and the numbers, but also the business levers that were available to pull to ensure the success of the operation. It was a balancing act between the various responsibilities – the smooth running of the day to day operations, while also providing input into the business strategy. As I developed the strategic muscles required by a CFO, I found my rhythm within the role. My focus shifted away from the operational aspects, more towards the strategic aspects of the role. In a philosophical sense, I was growing with the business.
3. What motivated the move from Investment Banking to Africa?
After four incredible years as the CFO of IBD, I found myself looking for a different challenge. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge! The role as CFO for the group’s Rest of Africa business became available about 16 months ago. This is very different to Investment Banking!
FirstRand’s Rest of Africa portfolio has a broad geographic footprint, operating banks in nine countries, with businesses at various stages of maturity. Namibia and Botswana are the largest banks in the jurisdictions within which they operate, whereas our business in Ghana is still a start-up. I have been fortunate to see the full spectrum of banking within this portfolio, from retail to corporate and investment banking.
Different insights are required for each market with the level of complexity varying based on its maturity. Each jurisdiction offers its own unique development opportunities. What is required from me in this role is very different to what I experienced in my first role as CFO. The stretch is derived from the amount of bespoke challenges each business faces. In addition, I had to learn to trust the teams in place so that I can really get involved in the areas where I can make a difference.
4. You’re very young to be a CFO. How did you achieve this?
At FirstRand, RMB and FNB, age is not a factor. What matters to the group is what you can deliver. I am, however, aware that I have not seen many full economic cycles. There’s no better way of learning than getting involved hands on. Where I lack the depth of experience, I am privileged to be able to tap into a wealth of knowledge from seasoned colleagues. You learn from those who have seen both the good and the bad times, and how things can go very wrong very quickly. Also, in times of turmoil, they will point out that there are opportunities, and these must be explored.
5. What are some of the challenges of operating in the rest of Africa?
The first thing that I have realised is that each country has its own set of cultural nuances and dynamics. What works in South Africa may not necessarily work in other countries. You need to be able to clearly articulate your ‘right to win’ in each jurisdiction that you operate in. Most importantly, the best solutions do not always come from South Africa itself, but rather from that particular country. You need to have a strong team on the ground, with a deep understanding of those markets, driving strategy.
The engagement model differs from country to country and the structure of the finance team needs to cater for the various dynamics. There is a challenge in knowing how to scale the different finance teams, and how to create an integrated finance community across so many geographies. How do you create or attract the best talent in each market and equip them with the best banking skills? In South Africa it’s easier as we are a top-rated brand, on the contrary, in some of the other African countries, our businesses are still in their infancy.
6. What are your worst days on the job?
The worst day is the one where you get a call from one of your team members saying, “Gideon, I think you need to see this”. Those ‘worst day’ challenges are the ones that come out of the blue and did not feature on your radar. As a result, they are usually very time consuming. A new regulation or ruling from a central bank may be all consuming for two or three weeks or even months. As we operate across nine jurisdictions in the Rest of Africa, there are constant changes, dynamics and regulations to stay abreast of that will influence your strategy. Many of these are subject to change at very short notice.
7. What is your preferred leadership style?
It is very important to have a have great team of people around you, trust them to do what is right for the business and empower them to execute on their mandates. In South Africa I have a ‘top notch’ central team and we have deployed CFOs and finance teams into each of the businesses. I would love to have more time to spend with the teams in each country to understand their day to day challenges and to empower them to solve for this.
8. You say you love an adventure and travel. How has this played out in your life?
I grew up in the Eastern Cape on a farm about 4 km outside the small town of Kirkwood, located in the Sundays River Valley close to the Addo Elephant National Park. My parents are citrus farmers. While I loved growing up in a small town, I longed for adventure and for something to do on a Friday night. I had the privilege of attending half of grade 11 at a school in another very small town in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in the USA via the American Institute for Foreign Study. During varsity, I gave training in computer programs in Zurich, Switzerland and worked in the harbour in Valparaiso, Chile.
These were amazing opportunities. I met a variety of new people, learnt about other cultures, made great friends across four continents and could finally put my Spanish skills to the test.
I joined PwC’s Banking and Capital Markets Assurance division in 2006, where I had exposure to many of the big South African and International banks as clients. I did a secondment to Boston in the USA and consulted with PwC in Nigeria. My current role has allowed me to travel extensively into Africa.
9. How do you achieve work-life balance?
This remains a challenge, but I aim to integrate the two as much as possible. I’ve been married since 2013 with a beautiful wife and two very cute, but busy toddlers. Travelling across the continent makes family life challenging. When I am here, I always make sure that I spend time with my kids in the evening. I like to put them to bed myself and then spend time with my wife. These are non-negotiables. I then catch-up on work. Even though I work in the evenings, weekends are quality time with my family. You must set rules for yourself in order to ensure that you have quality family time, your kids are young only for a short period of time.
10. Between work and family, what else are you involved in and what do you do to relax?
In my free time, I farm. I am a non-executive director of my parents’ agricultural business, Habata Agri, and am involved in the finance and strategy side. Their business has done well and has expanded a lot in recent years. It produces among others citrus, water melons, sweet melons and in 2016 expanded into wine. For those interested in a decent return on investment, I would discourage you from wine making! On that note, I do enjoy a good glass of red wine and a steak dinner with friends.
I am also an avid reader of anything – a combination of business, philosophy and fiction. I have a significant interest in history and follow the news closely.
I developed a love of skiing while at school in Colorado. I am also an avid scuba diver.
It is more difficult now with young kids, but both my wife and I love to travel. Once they are a bit older, we are looking forward to doing this again a lot more.