Alastair Petticrew: Balancing the scales of value


The Bidvest Insurance CFO believes that he should be both receiving and giving value in everything he does.

This Visionary CFO Series interview is proudly brought to you by A2X

For Alastair Petticrew, life is a scale of value that always has to balance – on the one side is the value he gives and on the other side is the value he gets. When it comes to being the CFO of Bidvest Insurance and Bidvest Insurance Brokers, the same philosophy applies.

“I don’t do what I do just for the money, I do it to learn and develop myself, and to add value to something bigger than me,” he says.

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Read all about the Visionary CFOs here.

Insurance can be seen as a grudge purchase, especially in a country where people have less disposable income due to retrenchments, pay cuts, inflation and more that have resulted from macro-economic, political and civil issues. However, Alastair’s goal is to change the narrative of insurance so that it’s seen as a value-add to life instead.

Alastair has played an active part in product development and pricing to help ensure products are affordable and represent value to policyholders.

As part of this, he recently concluded his first acquisition, which saw Bidvest Insurance Brokers buy AutoF&I. “Whilst this is a bolt on acquisition for Bidvest, the synergies that exist and efficiencies that can be unlocked within the back office makes it a sound financial move. The acquisition opens up a lot of avenues that we haven’t been able to play in before and will help us add value to our customer base,” he explains.

However, there was a lot of work to do before Alastair could get the value scale to balance with this acquisition.

The fine print
When the CEO of Bidvest Insurance Brokers, Phillip Donnelly, first brought the acquisition opportunity to the table, Alastair was hesitant about it. “I didn’t understand what this business could bring to the table that we couldn’t do ourselves,” he says. “But as soon as Phil and I started looking at the synergistic benefits and efficiencies that could be unlocked, I realised the value it would be able to add to our business, as well as the value we could bring to theirs.”

For example: “They don’t offer monthly products, which we do, so we can share knowledge and help them develop & upsell into their database. And they have products that we don’t have, like commercial offerings, which opens up a new avenue for us.”

He explains that as part of Bidvest Insurance Brokers customer-centric strategy, it decided to in-house its claims and administration processes in late 2021 and has already seen huge improvements in their customer satisfaction ratings. Because AutoF&I is also outsourcing its backend services to another company, there could be potential to leverage efficiencies within this area and deliver a better experience to customers. “If you outsource the admin, you can lose your customer-centricity, because if your service delivery and relationship doesn’t continue throughout the whole process, you lose touch with your clients.”

In addition, they also had to make sure that no one would lose their jobs in the process. “I don’t like retrenchments, especially in a country where unemployment is so high,” Alastair says.

“The Bidvest model is to buy companies that have strong entrepreneurial management who will unlock synergies between the two and then to let them get on with growing the business. We don’t try to merge everything together, because we can leverage the synergies and efficiencies we provide each other instead,” he explains. “We don’t centralise finances or support services as decisions can be made quicker and better in a decentralised model.”

Asked what he had learnt from his first acquisition, Alastair said: “Don’t underestimate the amount of work and time required for an acquisition as well as the legal and regulatory procedures that need to be followed. It doesn’t matter what size the business is, a small acquisition takes just as much time as a big acquisition to really understand what is necessary. And go into it with an open mind.”

Challenge vs opportunity
Alastair also tries to add value to the organisation by addressing the skills shortage they’re experiencing. “With unemployment being so high, the market we all play in becomes smaller and smaller,” he says. “We started to think further into the future; where we want to be from a strategic perspective, and what we need to get there.”

To try and balance this challenge with opportunity, the company has developed a bigger learnership program. The company currently employs approximately 170 people and brings in 12 learners every year that they can develop to fill the roles necessary to meet its new growth strategy. “If there isn’t a role available for them, then at least we’ve given them a proper set of skills they can use in any other business as well.”

Alastair has also spent a lot of time building the teams that report to him – helping people identify what they want to be when they grow up, how to get there and the skills they need to get there. “I believe everything is like a partnership. I had a very strong relationship with the CFO of Hulamin when I was working there, and he was the one who encouraged me to apply for a position at Bidvest Insurance. He always said the next position for me was to become a CFO, but that he wasn’t going anywhere soon, so instead he helped me develop my skills so that I could take them into the market. I’ve tried to do the same in my current role with my staff,” he says.

Alastair explains that robots are going to take over what traditional finance does, and that he doesn’t want to leave his team with nothing to do when it happens. “We have to continue to be better than the robot, and that means analysis, understanding and thinking, instead of doing. That’s why I’m trying to develop people for skills outside of traditional finance.”

He adds that traditional finance is not going to help businesses grow, and that finance professionals have to be operationally focused, add value to the business, and be a partner to the organisation.

Exchanging his suit for overalls
Alastair believes that you can’t find balance to any scale if you don’t get your hands dirty, and has rolled up his sleeves throughout his career to understand the operations of the business.

In grade 11, he took part in the JSE Schools Challenge, which teaches students about investing on the JSE and the larger role that investment plays in the country’s economy. He placed 13th in the country that year. “I also did work experience at Investec for a few days to learn how their stock markets worked, and spent a lot of time with my uncle, who is a CA, to see what he does,” he says.

In fact, had it not been for these experiences, he might have ended up as an architect instead of in finance. “My uncle wasn’t just sitting at his desk crunching numbers all day, he was in meetings and helping people understand the business and its strategy in order to move forward,” Alastair explains. “Seeing that accountants don’t just do numbers, but that they help to make things happen is what got me interested in finance.”

In his previous role as the financial manager for Hulamin’s Rolled Products division, Alastair also got involved. “I would put on overalls and walk around the factory about three times a week to see how things are being made in order to link the finance to the operations, and to help the workers understand how the things they were doing translated into the finances,” he says.

And while insurance might not require him to put on overalls, Alastair still doesn’t spend the whole day behind his desk in his current role. Instead, he is always interacting with his team and working with them to drive the business strategy forward. “You have to be actively involved in the business in order to make good decisions.”

Work-life balance
When he isn’t working, Alastair is cycling across the world with his cycling team, Team IMPI. “In December 2021 we rode 300km in one day. That’s twelve hours on a bike!”

Like his teams at work, his cycle comrades support each other when the rides get tough. “I wanted to give up after 200km, but I had a good team who looked after me and kept pushing and motivating me,” he laughs.

Before lockdown, they went to Dubai, where they participated in the Coast-to-Coast challenge – a 220km ride through the deserts. They also take part in DC down in Swellendam and hope to go to Turkey next year to cycle parts of the country.

And even in his pastime Alastair lives by his philosophy to balance the scales of value. Team IMPI is involved in the “weFEEDsa” charity and supports them through donation and by volunteering at their donation drives.

They’re also creating a developmental arm where people with old cycling gear can donate to aspiring cyclists who can’t afford it. We recently did it with a guy from Isipingo, Vusi, who has become an incredible cyclist.

“It’s important to give back,” he concludes.

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