Angela Pillay: Happy to be telling Sasfin's "good news" story

One year after she was appointed as Group CFO of Sasfin, Angela Pillay chatted to Georgina Guedes about being part of CEO Michael Sassoon's new vision for the bank, and being able to deliver an excellent set of results in her first year.

Angela Pillay had a lot of hard work to do in her first year as FD of Sasfin. Having reached 12 months with the company in March, she was happy to be in a position to deliver a positive set of annual results in her anniversary month. “It really was hard work, being a new FD, working with the new auditors, and learning about Sasfin at the same time. But by the time we were preparing these results, I was more attuned with the way things were going.”

It helped that she was in a position to “tell a good news story”. “Earnings are up, even if off a low base, and the team has put a lot of effort into the key elements of the business to make sure that it’s working for us.”

Sasfin has been through a major management reshuffle with Michael Sassoon, the son of the founder and former CEO Roland Sassoon, having taken the helm as CEO (with JSE and Reserve Bank approval), and appointed various executives to support his new strategy for the business. Angela was one of those appointments and says she’s part of an impressive team.

“In H2 of last year, we were in the final throes of changing the bulk of our executive team. We had a new internal auditor, a new head of compliance and a new head of risk – all seasoned individuals.”

The restructuring was at exco level, but the management team has also beefed up the talent at the second tier, to drive the sales and distribution side of the business. “We’re going to reap the benefits now as they settle in and understand the business, the operating model and the strategy. With a bit more investment in the front line and technology, we believe we’re really going to start seeing that revenue come through.”
 
Finding her finance feet
Angela herself has an impressive CV, having served as the CFO of LibFin, and being previously employed at Barclays and First National Bank. This culminated in over 15 years of experience in designing, leading and implementing a broad range of initiatives to support business strategy. She is a CA (SA) and has a master’s degree in Financial Services.

However, despite this depth of experience, Angela says she didn’t want to study finance – and didn’t even think she’d be good at it. “I had a passion for interior decorating, going back as far as I can remember. It seemed sexy. But my dad, who’s quite old school, didn’t get what all of that was about. He said I had to go to university and study, and when I’d made enough money, I could be an interior decorator.”

One of her sisters was studying law, and the other was studying accounting, so Angela thought she’d follow in the finance sister’s footsteps and see how things worked out. “I grew into it. I found my passion at articles, which I did at Arthur Andersen. It was my first real job at a place I absolutely loved the wonderful people. I learnt so much about clients and business, and not just about the technical aspects of finance. It wasn’t just debits and credits. Yes, there was compliance, and yes you have to be IFRS conscious, but I realised that the numbers tell a story.”

She says that she was hooked when she realised that the income statement and balance sheet deliver a narrative that explains how the business is doing. “That’s what I love about finance. It’s not just a number; it explains something or interprets something. And it’s structured. Every day is a different day, but finance can tell you what you need to do from day one to day 20, and what you need to deliver. No two days or two months are the same. It’s always evolving and expanding.”


 
Career moves
After the KPMG takeover of Arthur Andersen, Angela took up a position in the new firm, but she wanted to get into financial services, so she moved to FNB, which is where she says her love for banking started. “My first job at FNB was in home loans – this is close to 15 years ago – and I learnt so much about funding and credit and all those wonderful things. I loved understanding that this is not something tangible, but it exists.”  
She continued into various roles at FNB, serving for a time as the CFO for the Commercial Bank, where she was for four years. She took maternity leave, and then wanting a change, moved back into the centre, working on balance sheet management for the then-CFO of FNB Harry Kellan, who is now the Group FD at FirstRand Bank. “He’s been a mentor to me over the years.”

She then moved on to Absa, where became CFO of the Corporate Bank and had international exposure through Barclays. “I looked after corporate SA as well as the “Rest of Africa”, as it was known at the time. It was hard work and challenging but oh so rewarding. Out of all the roles I’ve held to date, that’s the one I am most proud of. Almost every day, I thought I was going to fail miserably, yet it inspired me to do better and to make a difference. I built good relationships with people and changed the face of finance at least in the corporate space. When I left, I was able to say that I had left something behind that was better than how I found it.”

She moved across to Liberty as the CFO of Libfin, for a very short tenure because she was soon approached for her current role as group FD of Sasfin. “The opportunity to be a group FD doesn’t come around every day. It was the opportunity to work in a smaller bank, and having met Michael and Roland, I was inspired by their vision of where they want to take the business to. The BEE transaction had just happened, and my role was going to be to create a new vision from a strategic finance perspective.”

However, it was a tough start for Angela, and she has made significant changes to the management team in her first 12 months. “Restructuring the team, while at the same time going through a new audit, while at the same time getting to know your board and senior leadership is really a baptism of fire – but in a good way. I learnt so much about my own inner strength and ability, and also about my team, and how it’s possible for people to work together and rally. It’s been a phenomenal journey for me.”
 
Leadership and learning
Angela says that there are a few positions still to fill on her team, but that her vision for creating a “best practice finance team that are true partners to the executive leadership” is on track. As a leader, she says that she tries to recognise her own blind spots and has gone on leadership courses to help address these.

“I am a great believer in mentoring and coaching, and I’ve done a course to improve my abilities in this area, because I believe that a lot of what I do is about building relationships. I’ve also done a few leadership courses, which I loved. They gave me a different dynamic on leadership and the ability to take people along on the journey with you.”

She says that some of the things she learnt through these courses include learning to listen, asking the right questions and giving people the ability to speak their own minds. “The biggest lesson I have learnt – especially since I am a single mum to a seven-year-old – is to not try to solve everyone’s problems for them. Give them the opportunity to go on the journey for themselves. You’re just there to facilitate the process. This was such a powerful lesson for me, because I just want to solve everyone’s problems and give them the answers I think they should hear.”

She says that she is a collaborative leader who tries to paint a picture and sell a vision, then have people who are really passionate about their craft buying into it. “I am not a micromanager and I am not detail oriented, but I know how to get from point A to point B, and how to work with people to get there. You have to make tough decisions along the way, and try to do that with as much humility and empathy as possible.”

As many qualifications as she has on her CV, she believes in surrounding herself with people who are smarter than she is. “If you’re the brightest person in the room, then you’re in trouble.”

Despite her obviously high levels of commitment and focus, Angela says that she has to find the time and space for humour in her working day. “I love to laugh. If I don’t make jokes, I get more stressed and find that I don’t love what I do. I have to find a way to make it all fun.”
 
A quiet family life
As a single mother, Angela’s priority is making time for her daughter Ava-Mae. “All my quality time is spent with her and my family – my parents and my sisters. I don’t spend much time with all of them in the week, so I love catching up during the weekend and going to the park or watching a movie with Ava-Mae. I am very much engaged around spending time with her.”

She says that she has a “phenomenal” support system, with a very loving nanny helping out at home, and a mother who lives close by and collects her granddaughter from school, and can step in if Angela is working late. “If it’s a busy time for us, my mom will watch over her. I’ll come home to put her to bed, and then start work again once she’s asleep.”

Ava-Mae is no stranger to Sasfin and often comes into the office with Angela over the weekends when there’s work to be done. “She’s so in tune. If the phone rings and it’s Michael, she’ll say, ‘Take the call. I’ll be quiet.’ She knows how to be in the background if it’s a work call. But she’s also not afraid to tell me that she wants some of my time to herself. She knows her mind.”

Angela bought a new home close to Sasfin and, with the help of a professional, got to try her hand at her long-held dream of interior decorating. But while she enjoyed having the opportunity to express her creative side, she realised that she prefers the world of finance. “I think my dad was right that it wasn’t the right career for me. There was some wisdom there.”

She says she would love to find the time to read again, but with regular 700-page board packs to get through, “I never want to read anything else.”

Before falling pregnant, she used to do yoga “like a crazy person”, and meditation. She’s trying to get back into meditation, calming her mind for 15 minutes before she falls asleep at night – but she says that gym is just wishful thinking.

She and Ava-Mae do have a miniature schnauzer, Bitzer, who fits into their little family very well, and keeps them occupied and fit. “We walk to my parents and the park with him. Generally, we have a very quiet, family-focused life.”
 
Sasfin’s next annual results will be presented on 17 September. 

This article originally appeared in the Q3 edition of CFO Magazine, available in airport lounges now.