Alexander Forbes Group CFO Bruce Bydawell keeping it real

Alexander Forbes Group CFO Bruce Bydawell recently took a sabbatical to spend time working on European farms. As soon as he was appointed CFO on his return, he started planning for his succession by a black South African. He has singular view on his own role as CFO, and on life in general, which he shared with Georgina Guedes.

Bruce Bydawell came to the position of Group CFO at Alexander Forbes with his own unique combination of many years of experience in the financial world coupled with a willingness to try something new. Bruce, whose career has spanned 25 years, returned to Alexander Forbes following a sabbatical in 2018 when he and his wife Janet spent four months in Europe working on farms.

When asked why he had chosen to do this, he explains his love of travelling and broadening his experiences help give him a clearer perspective on life and what he values most. “There are so many ways to live and so many ways to be. You can get caught up in a job and lose that perspective. The experience restored my perspective and gave me a deeper appreciation of things – it reminded me that I shouldn’t take things too seriously or get caught up in my idea of the way things should be.”

Bruce is clear about the role of a CFO and the integral position it plays in any organisation. He says a good CFO is someone who has a strong handle on the financial workings of the company coupled with a holistic understanding of the company strategy. To do this it is critical to have the right people supporting you. “Without the right support, the ability to analyse data and project the financial picture of the organisation becomes a challenge”.

He is a firm believer in the power of integrity, which, he says, gives people something to stand by and is the basis on which trust is built. “I also think that a good CFO is a calming influence. Executives can get excited about their deliverables. But I think that the CFO has to think calmly and put the decisions in plain sight with less emotional thinking.”

The first month in working holiday in Europe was spent taking care of a small holding in Tuscany, where there were chickens to feed, vegetable gardens to maintain and plenty of wood to be chopped. “The work was hard, but the rewards enormous,” he says.

After four weeks in Italy he and Janet moved on to a dairy farm in Ireland where there were 123 cows to be milked twice a day and beautiful green fields to maintain. “It was inspiring to see how hard people work and how deeply fulfilled they were by their work.” They moved on to cows in Ireland to sheep in Devon and after that a well-earned rest on a Greek Island. It was in Greece that Bruce was informed of the significant changes happening at Alexander Forbes.

Alexander Forbes calling

“They called me and asked me to help out over a tough period. When I was later offered the role of CFO, the board and I agreed that my successor would be a black South African since transformation is integrally linked to the success and future of Alexander Forbes. I’ve been very clear with the board about this and they have supported me on this crucial objective given that it is top of their agenda as well. I feel so lucky to have convinced Rachel Nkgodi – currently a Partner at Deloitte – to join me as the deputy CFO shortly after my appointment. I am excited about the role that Rachel will play within the finance function and value and insights she will bring to the greater organisation. She and I are committed to her being set up for future success.”

For now, Bruce has his hands full with implementing a revised strategy for the business and – at the time of interview – finalising year end. “The new strategy necessitates organisational change to enable the group’s success and involves for example unifying the consultants and advisors from each of the four business units to deal with clients holistically.  This requires leadership at senior and middle management levels and ongoing engagement of our employees. 
 
Selling the insurance business
Mergers and acquisitions are included in his mandate and the sale of the short-term insurance business has also been keeping Bruce busy. “It’s been a totally open and well-governed disposal process. We put out an information memorandum to a number of interested parties.  It is a great asset, and we were pleased with the interest shown. We have received non-binding indicative offers and will select less than a handful to go to the next phase. Part of the discussion will be around what they are planning to do with our staff and clients, because we’ve made it very clear the protection of these stakeholders is high on our agenda.”  

The decision to move away from insurance was not an easy one, he says. The business has delivered growth in the past with good prospects.

“But essentially, we were a small fish in a very big pond with lots of regulatory requirements becoming the norm in this industry. If we were to carry on with the business – which has only 3 percent of the market – we would have had to invest substantially in systems and people, and we would be playing against some of the very much bigger players with bigger balance sheets.”

This, he says, goes against what the shareholders want from the company, which is to stay “capital light and focused on what we do best, to provide advice-led integrated retirement solutions and holistic wealth management. Since our delisting in the private equity days, we’ve done a number of corporate transactions, but there’s a lot of complexity in everything that we’ve done, and now it’s time to simplify, refocus our efforts on the core businesses and grow from there.”

Building the benefits
The core businesses that Alexander Forbes is focusing on is consulting, administration and investments, which Bruce says is a challenging industry given that it is largely dependent on the market and the economy growing. “That’s why we need consistency and certainty in what we do. Part of our strategy is predicated on the potential consolidation in the employee benefits industry, so we need to simplify and make our processes more accessible, gain scale and encourage a better savings culture in South Africa.”

He points out that not many people in this country save enough for retirement, even though they are starting to earn more. “The emerging middle class has its own pressures, including a wider family that they need to support, so their ability to put money aside and save is limited. We have to try and be relevant within that environment, to try and help people build wealth.” 

Mercer, the global human resources consulting firm, is Alexander Forbes’s largest shareholder at 33 percent. “Our strategic partnership with Mercer presents us with unique opportunities that benefit our clients and our people. Through the strategic alliance in our investments business, we have access to their skills and expertise and their global portfolios – as they have to ours – as well as access to their economies of scale. We now offer a better offshore value proposition at a better price to our customers. Further, we have enhanced our value propositions for the South African market through accessing the global expertise of Mercer’s research capability.”

They have also partnered with Mercer to better serve clients in Africa through the ARRIVE solutions platform. “ARRIVE is a pan-African benefits solution across health, wealth and career that aligns to local regulations and is based on global best practice. This solution is the first of its kind in our industry and responds to our multinational clients who have challenges in developing appropriate benefits that work across all countries in which they operate. It is a client-led strategy which is underpinned by our best advice and delivered through an integrated and seamless distribution platform across Africa.”

He says that so far, there have been some early successes.

It’s a great place to be
Bruce says he is loving his job, although he admits his wife is concerned about his health. “But I am loving it. I am at the cutting edge of decision making. I work with people who are passionate about this business and have been here a long time. I love the business and it’s a great place to work.” 

With the tough years that the company has been through, one of the things that the executive team have prioritised is improving staff morale. Bruce believes you can feel the difference, and a recent engagement survey revealed that there is a definite improvement in outlook and culture. “You don’t need a survey to tell you about it. You can feel it. But it’s nice when a survey confirms it and you know you’re heading in the right direction.”

Time to relax
Finding new perspectives through travel is something of a theme in Bruce’s life, and he has combined this passion with sport. A previous CFO at Alexander Forbes got Bruce into running international marathons. In 2007 he invited Bruce to join him in running the Berlin Marathon, and this gave Bruce the motivation to commit to long distance running, which he loves. Since then he has run New York, Moscow, Warsaw, Lisbon and is training to do the Athens and then Soweto Marathons in November this year. Bruce is also an enthusiastic squash player and has played Gauteng League Squash for more than 20 years.

Commitment to his family forms part of his core value – despite the enormous demands on his time, he is home to have a family dinner most nights of the week.

“The challenge that I face is to remain centred in who I am, rooted in my faith, my integrity and my commitment to my family,” and in the words that he has spoken to each of his three children on many occasion: “Just keep it real!”