André du Plessis, Finance Director Capitec Bank: Be brutally honest

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"Tackling adventures is all about teamwork and planning and realizing beforehand that there will be things that go wrong." It is unclear if André du Plessis is talking about the amazing story of Capitec Bank, of which he is Financial Director and cofounder, or about one of his many impressive leisure exploits - scaling mountains, cycling races, jumping out of airplanes or bridges and riding motor bikes for thousands of kilometres at a time. Most likely, he is talking about both.

"In that sense adventure in my personal life and my professional life go hand in hand and that is the case for many of my colleagues at Capitec," says Du Plessis. The Stellenbosch-headquartered bank started in 2 000 as a lender for "the masses that didn't have access to banking". These days the brand equals innovation and it is no longer a one-trick pony dishing out unsecured loans, but a fully-fledged bank - the sixth biggest in the country.

"One could say that starting Capitec Bank was adventurous," says Du Plessis, who is originally from Johannesburg and has a background as consultant for the financial markets and partner at Arthur Andersen. "There had been no new bank established since I can remember. We saw specific shortcomings in the established traditional banks who did not focus on banking services for the masses." According to Du Plessis it was all about risk and opportunities, terms every CFO is familiar with. "It was extremely scary. It was very difficult, because everything we did was new. If you build a new car from scratch, you might not necessarily know beforehand that you will need springs or shock absorbers."

Fortunately, Du Plessis does not mind a scare. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro - the highest mountain in Africa - in 1996 and is a true outdoor and adventure fanatic. From bungee jumping, parachuting, hiking and riding the Cape Epic mountain bike tour to 4x4 driving and camping - Du Plessis has done it all. "Those are the things that make me tick and help me to switch off. These days my real passion is to ride motorbikes. Of late I am into endurance and off-road riding in the bush. In the last few years I have done 17 000 kilometres from Cape to Cairo, 7 000 kilometres in Chile and Argentina and with my wife, I did Route 66 in the United States."

The more adventurous and ambitious you are, the more important teamwork is, whether it is to scale a summit or grow a business, says Du Plessis. "I believe that CFOs are not only responsible for numbers. We have to work as a team with our co-executives and look at the bigger picture before cleaning our own desks. We have an executive management meeting three times a week during which we make sure that everybody knows and understands the risks in other departments. I need to understand what we want to accomplish, what the bottom line is, and whether it adds value instead of just doing things for documentation purposes." Teamwork becomes a lot easier if all the members have the skills to perform their tasks. "That is why I am surrounding myself with competence. The critical thing about being an executive is that you use those competent people to compliment what you do. You need to learn to delegate and trust people as opposed to being a control freak."

Du Plessis says Capitec has a rather 'specific' culture, not seen in many other South African firms. "We wanted to create a family environment where people feel safe to try things and make mistakes. We're not chopping heads off when things go wrong. At the same time, we wanted a culture of accountability and brutal honesty even though that kind of communication - to colleagues, the board, the market - can sometimes be painful. I always say: if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything. Some people see me as untactful and too direct, but I prefer it that way. I always ask myself what Jesus would do, as I base my principles on Christian values. For me, that is important and non-negotiable."

Part of Capitec's success is thanks to the fact that the bigger players initially ignored the - then - small bank from the Cape winelands. "They gave us an opportunity. Now it is up to us never to underestimate the competition. You always have to know what your competitors are doing. I find it very strange when I walk into a BMW dealer and ask about the difference between one of their and a KTM motorbike and the salesperson tells me he doesn't know because he has never driven one. In sport people spend half their preparation time - be it for football or boxing - looking at what their competitors are doing. In business this is less common; one has to for example go through financial statements of other companies and learn from their business models. That is why I also like to read biographies and learn from other people's approaches."

Complicated accounting standards are something Du Plessis does not enjoy and he feels many regulations are unnecessary. "Many of these statements are not going to give a better picture of what's going on and sometimes all it does is create smoke and mirrors. In a small company it takes a lot of time out of a CFO's diary. At Capitec, we have enough people who love getting stuck into all of that. I am not one of them. I prefer to concentrate on strategy and make sure we remain innovative." Another pet hate of Du Plessis is overreliance on consultants. "I believe one should never appoint a consultant if you don't have an opinion on what is required. I talk to colleagues, experts and do research to form my own opinion and only then I will hire a consultant to assist with the task at hand.

Du Plessis has three sons, two of them currently attending university. The FD is offered to share some of his insights with young finance professionals. "First of all: see an opportunity in everything. When we did articles many of my colleagues hated certain tasks. I saw them as an opportunity, for example to learn about service delivery, client relations, etc. Secondly, it is extremely important to work very hard. If need be, work 24/7; fortunately I don't need a lot of sleep. It is critical to make an impression. If you do it from the outset, you get all the nice jobs. Don't only do what you are told - go the extra mile. Give in on small things but be uncompromising on the important things and values. Conform but also understand the organisation. I believe in submission but not in blind following."

Eventually, Du Plessis comes back to his core value: be brutally honest. "I once heard a story of a CEO that had a young clerk in his office when the phone rang. The CEO asked the clerk to pick it up and say the CEO is not there. The clerk picked up the phone and passed it to the CEO, who had no choice but to take the call. When the CEO asked him angrily why he did it, the clerk said: 'if you don't want me to lie TO you, don't expect me to lie FOR you'."

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, please get in touch with us to arrange an interview with you. Please contact Jurriën Morsch on [email protected].

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