Absa's Jason Quinn: The CFO with staying power

The Absa FD and 2020 CFO of the Year gives insight into his career with the bank.

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Jason Quinn’s career has been characterised by a series of decisions to stay the course – choices that have mostly worked out for the 2020 CFO of the Year. From his parents’ decision to stay in South Africa, to his working at EY while studying accounting, to a long career at Absa, Jason’s history has always been about resilience and staying power.

His family moved to South Africa from Ireland on the back of a work opportunity and although they thought this was only a temporary move, they’ve never left. Jason was born here and feels thoroughly South African.

He matriculated young, as he started school at the same age he would have had his family still lived in Ireland, as they still intended to return home at some point, with the upshot that he matriculated at 16. He remembers his parents explaining to the school that he was “quite big and pretty smart” so he should be able to keep up with the older kids. Jason initially intended to be a doctor and so, to learn a bit about the career choice, he spent some time with a doctor friend of the family, who revealed to Jason that none of his five children had become doctors because they knew they would permanently on call and have to deal with many tragedies. He recommended that Jason become a lawyer or an accountant like his children.

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So Jason opted for his second choice, which was accountancy. Again, he visited a friend of the family who advised him of the multitude of career paths open to CAs and suggested he go straight to work at an audit firm and do his studies part time. Jason was attracted to the expedience of this route and, as an opportunity had arisen at EY, he quickly became a young, if somewhat overworked CA.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Jason says. “It’s true that it’s quicker doing your articles at the same time as studying, but it’s tough to work full days and then study at night and attend lectures on Saturday. It does teach you a few things early on, like extreme focus on time management. But it’s a pretty tough path, and the drop-out rate was quite high. I don’t even think the firms offer it anymore.”

To maintain some kind of balance, he played golf and rugby, but looking back, he feels he would have enjoyed the varsity social scene.

He stayed on at EY, but his journey with the firm took him to working with the London office, coordinating Investec’s listing on the London Stock Exchange. He then moved on to EY San Francisco for almost three years, and came back to South Africa as a partner in 2005. Then, in 2008, he joined Absa as the treasurer of the Retail and Business Bank, then moved into core finance as the group financial controller, then on to being CFO of the Retail and Business Bank, before being appointed as the group head of finance, and then the finance director from 2016.

While he acknowledges that having only had two employers in a 30-year career by the age of 46 is unusual, he says that the opportunities at each firm are what kept him engaged. “At each firm, there were massively different opportunities and roles throughout. If I think of EY, here in Joburg, London and San Francisco, I was in changing roles in different parts of the firm, and in then five different roles at Absa. It wasn’t deliberate. I didn’t say to myself, ‘I want to have only two employers,’ but in every role, I try to think of what excellent looks like in that role and work towards achieving that outcome at as great a pace as I can within the firm’s context. And then I proactively work out with the firm what the next step is.

The Covid-19 crisis

In early 2020, Jason and Absa’s new CEO Daniel Mminele were on one of the last flights back into Joburg before lockdown was implemented. They’d been launching the Absa brand across the African continent, with the last stop in Ghana. While they made it safely back into the country, that was basically the end of the face-to-face interactions between the group FD and the new CEO.

“We spent the first quarter together and then like everyone, we had to adapt. We were just joking the other day that little did we know when Daniel started in mid-January that this is what our year would be like. There was a problem in Wuhan. It didn’t even cross our minds it would impact us materially.”

When asked what his lockdown experience has been, Jason says, “It’s been hard.” He says that “hard” is a bit of a soundbite for the year 2020. “Before this I didn’t know much about Microsoft teams or Zoom as I have always been a great believer in ‘in-person’ meetings. We used to have conference calls and video conferences with Barclays but we were usually all at the office. Now, I haven’t used my mobile phone to phone anyone or been in a conference call in ages, it’s all on Teams and Zoom.”

He says that having worked with a relatively stable finance team in Absa for a few years, the collaboration is high. So, in switching to working from home, it was easy to keep on interacting because they could lean on their past experience and strong relationships. But while the team was sound, the pressure was on.

“I found the cadence over the last year very, very high. Normally, it’s fairly rare for me to work consistently on weekends unless there is a crisis. Unfortunately, quite early on in lockdown, we found ways to disrespect each other’s personal time – because we knew everyone was available. We had to consciously rebalance at some point after the second quarter and stop scheduling calls on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Despite the challenges Covid-19 presented, Jason believes that he, and Absa, have navigated the crisis really well. “We’ve made the right calls based on the information available and have focused on proactive and ongoing conversations with regulators and investors while keeping the board constantly abreast of the issues.

When lockdown was eased, Daniel and Jason started meeting for coffee or distanced in studios to do market updates together. Despite their challenging first year together, Jason speaks highly of Daniel.

“He’s a great guy. He’s very diligent and brought with him a sense of calm. There was no panic in the crisis. He just got us stuck into things we needed to get better at. We’re in a period of refreshment of our strategy. And although every bank in the world is saying that, it’s different for us because we have new opportunities around our cost base and can leverage off the ‘change’ expertise we built as part of the separation from Barclays. Now that the Barclays separation is done, we can lift our head and look at the landscape to see what else we can focus on – so from that perspective, it’s an exciting time.”

A CFO with integrity
Jason believes that the most important thing, personally and professionally, is to have integrity. “Especially in the finance community, when you are the FD, people want to know that everything you stand for in terms of financials and disclosures has the right level of integrity behind it.”

This has been particularly important this year, when the bank has had to communicate with shareholders around the value of financial instruments or bad debt provisions. “As Absa, we have gone with the approach to be transparent around any judgements we’ve made, so that if our shareholders agree with our assumption, they’ll know what they are getting. If they disagree, they also know how we’re building our case. We’ve shown them how we’ve valued the books, but we could be wrong. If we are wrong, they have the points to make their own calls.”

He says that this is relevant in a year that’s full of uncertainty, with, for example, GDP starting at 1.5 percent up, then 10 percent down, then back up to eight percent, then to nine, then down to seven. “I’ve never seen GDPs move like that, or equities move 40 percent in a month on a big listed bank like that.”

Jason is extremely proud that in Covid-19, Absa launched the industry’s largest customer relief programme. “If our customers’ accounts were paid to date before Covid hit in Q1, they could benefit from a three months’ payment holiday. A lot of our customers took that and we received a lot of compliments that their bank was there for them when they needed us. A lot of people lost income over that time, so if they didn’t pay us, at least they had cash to live. And now that it’s mostly come to an end, most of those people are now paying us again. And those who took the money and saved it are still saving with us, so that’s worked out well so far.”

Jason and his team have been busy modelling multiple scenarios for the next three years. For the first time ever, they’re going back in the second quarter to recalibrate assumptions in case they’ve changed. “When you are as big and systemic as us, you have a role to play in keeping the economy going. We’ve built playbooks this year for what we would do when things got better or worse in different scenarios.”

Jason is also quick to confirm that the recognition he received through this award is really testimony to the excellent finance team that support him at Absa and that it is their dedication and collaboration that should be recognised.

Family and leisure
Jason is married to another CA, who he says got better marks than he did at school and varsity. They were married in 2002, and have three daughters. Lizanne Quinn is a hedge fund specialist, but hasn’t worked professionally in the last couple of years because she is focusing on their daughters – Naomi (15), Josie (13) and Millicent (11).

Jason has kept up his passion for golf, and plays on most weekends. On family holidays, he gets up in time to tee off at 5am, so that he’s home in time for the rest of the family to wake up. “It’s not right to go on a family holiday and be gone all day,” he says.

In the working week, he’s a dedicated member of the 5am club as well, and starts his day with a light run or walk with his dogs (they have three), then gets home to help start the girls’ day before, in normal times, doing part of the school run. His working day starts at 7.30am, and he’s usually home by 7pm. Despite his early mornings, Jason confesses to being a bit of a night owl as well and stays up reading (business books, sports biographies and fiction) till about 11. He makes up for lost sleep with naps on the weekends and on holiday.

While lockdown was extremely demanding, he says that everyone’s uncomplicated schedules meant that they could cycle and golf together as a family. “It was a hard time, but I will look back fondly on things like this.”

The Barclays separation
While the CFO Awards judges’ scoring is confidential, Jason’s win in the Strategy Execution category is a clear indicator that his work on Absa’s Barclays separation contributed to his overall win. He was involved right from the beginning as head of the negotiating team together with Maria Ramos and then with oversight of Barclay’s four-year-long operational separation from Absa, which was completed at the beginning of June 2020. The original commitment that separation from Barclays would be executed in a capital- and cash-flow-neutral manner was delivered.

“When Barclays decided to separate, we knew we needed to do it in an orderly way. The finance team were very closely involved in negotiating the separation. We executed two very material bookbuilds, in corporate actions that saw Barclays shareholding reduce from 62 percent to 15 percent shareholding, and R38 billion was traded overnight between Barclays and the new shareholders. This was the largest corporate action amongst emerging market banks globally in recent times.”

Jason explains that the negotiation of the separation was a huge piece of work. The old Absa was largely a retail bank. Barclays bought a majority stake in 2005, and then an investment bank, Absa Capital, was created in the mirror image of Barclays Capital. The next landmark transaction was Absa’s acquisition from Barclays of its other businesses across the continent for R18 billion. All of this resulted in significant connectivity particularly in Absa Capital and the business outside SA.

“We didn’t want the minority shareholders to have to pay to separate all of this out,” says Jason. “So we went into significant detail to explain to Barclays that for us to replace what we had would cost a lot of money. We went backwards and forwards for some time, and in the end, we got a good deal for all stakeholders. Barclays contributed just under $1 billion to enable separation, so that the various group wide technologies and capabilities that we utilised could be replaced and for us to re-brand the group.”

He is relishing the opportunity to take Absa forward with the leadership team under the new CEO Daniel Mminele. “It’s a great opportunity. We’re becoming more cloud based, more digital, we have been there for our customers when they have needed us. We have navigated the crisis well so far with a strong focus on capital and liquidity preservation and balance sheet coverage which will all stand the group in good stead while the crisis prevails and set us up well for new opportunities once the crisis is behind us.”