Norman Thomson - CFO Woolworths: `Courage and integrity are key characteristics`

CFO South Africa interviewed a large number of CFOs and CEOs of leading South African companies. Meet Norman Thomson, CFO of Woolworths, one of South Africa’s largest chain of retail stores. Woolworths staffs 18000 people, of which 240 at the financial department of the Johannesburg based head office. Woolworths currently has a yearly turnover of R25.8bn and makes R2.3bn profit before tax (pbt). After having completed a B Com at Rhodes University, Norman pursued a Certificate in the Theory of Accounting (CTA) at the University of the Witwatersrand. After serving in one or two roles as Finance Manager and Finance Director of a Woolworths group subsidiary, Norman moved into the world of Logistics and Supply Chain Management. It was in this capacity that he joined Woolworths 20 years ago, to make a comeback into the world of finance only a decade later, when he was appointed Finance Director of Woolworths ten years ago.

1) What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the interaction with people across the business and externally with analysts and financial institutions. This is enhanced by the ability to see the business from end to end and to understand the integrated business model.

2) Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of?

We entered into a three year journey to re-engineer Woolworths finance system to bring it in line with international best practice. The successful completion of that journey has been very satisfying, particularly seeing the massive benefit that we have passed on to our shareholders.

What do you find most appealing about the company you work for?

Woolworths is a very aspirational brand and it's a great privilege to work for the company. The company has great values that distinguish our stores and products.

Which education would you recommend for a successful career in business?

A great business career can start with a Business Science degree and a Graduate Diploma in Accounting, followed by articles and a CA (SA) with one of the major accounting firms. This will set any young person up for successful business career anywhere in the world.

What characteristics should one possess in order to be a CFO of your company?

Courage and integrity are the key characteristics of a good CFO. The numbers often tell a story that can be quite unpalatable and a CFO has to be able to explain the numbers with integrity, so be sure of the facts and then stick by them. Don't forget that shareholders are a CFO's main customers.

6) What strengths have other people commented on about you and your accomplishments, and what strengths do you see in yourself?

A good CFO include has strong interpersonal skills and the ability to explain complex issues and to groom talent.

7) Which 3 different (business) people would you like to have lunch with if they were available?

Warren Buffett, Richard Branson and Lt. General (retired) Gus Pagonis

8) What vital piece of advice would you give young finance professionals?

  1. Complete your tertiary qualifications.
  2. Never forget ethics and be a principled professional. This approach will stand you in good stead throughout your career.
  3. Do your best in everything you do, never be half hearted.
  4. Never, never give up.

9) What things do you enjoy doing most in life - outside office hours?

I enjoy spending time with my family, travelling to new and interesting destinations (particularly in the bush), cycling and reading.

10) If you never had to work another day in your life, how would you spend your days?

I would do more of the above, but work is always good, rewarding and fun.

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Category: Interviewing the CFO