Be patient and enjoy the journey, says Fedgroup CFO Sheldon Friedericksen

Sheldon tells Kate Ferreira about his stresses, stress-relieving activities and his long-term aspirations.

In its 29 years, Fedgroup has grown into one of the country’s leading independent financial services providers and attributes its success to a tech-led, people-first approach. CFO Sheldon Friedericksen joined the company in 2014 as group financial manager, before taking on the CFO challenge in October 2016. He tells CFO South Africa about his stresses and stress-relieving activities, as well as his long-term aspirations at Fedgroup.

1.     Tell us a little about your career background?
 
I started my career at Deloitte in 2008 as a trainee accountant, working through my three years of articles in the financial services team working on a variety of clients in the banking and insurance industry in South Africa. It was lots of hard work, long hours, and tough deadlines, but working in a high performing and skilled team, striving for the same goal, was a great introduction to the working world.  

In 2011, I went on secondment for six months to New York with Deloitte, to work in the financial services team on a hedge fund engagement. I returned to Deloitte South Africa as a manager, being promoted two years later to senior manager in 2013. 

After spending seven years working with great teams and clients in their businesses, I decided to seek an opportunity in which I could be a part of making a difference in a commercial business in the financial services industry. So, in October 2014, I joined Fedgroup as the group financial manager, and in October 2016 I was promoted to chief financial officer.

2.     What are the focus areas in your current role?
 
The focus areas at the moment are treasury management, financial reporting, risk management and legislative and regulatory compliance. These all play an integral role in financial services and are vital to the ongoing stability and sustainability of the business. I am also a member of the executive team, and together we are responsible for the strategy of the group, and the execution of this strategy to ensure the continued growth and excellence of the business.

3.     What opportunities and challenges are you faced with in the current industry/economic climate?
 
Fedgroup is faced with the challenging trading conditions that have been present over the past several years. These tough economic circumstances impact the lives of our clients, who through financial difficulty, have had their access to surplus funds for investment and risk protection reduced. However, in these challenging times, there are significant opportunities: Fedgroup has provided the market with secured financial services products and impact farming assets that offer exposure to an asset allocation not linked to the volatility of the listed instruments.

4.     What was your hardest day professionally? 
 
Professionally, the hardest days are those in which, after every reasonable attempt to improve the performance of a team member, you are required to terminate their employment. This is a decision that weighs heavily on me, and causes me the most stress as a leader of multiple teams. I believe that everyone accepts employment with the best intentions, comes to work to execute, learn and deliver on what is required. However, an employment contract is a two-sided relationship, with both parties making a contractual promise to each other to deliver. And if one party is not delivering, it is critical to have these honest discussions. As a result, the lesson learnt has been to hire slowly and methodically, as the wrong hire can have ramifications down the line that play out within the broader company and its culture.


5.     How did you choose a career in finance?

Having been told (as matric students) that we can do anything, I found the decision of exactly what to do very difficult. So what do you do when you don’t have a simple answer? You research and get more information. As such, I did aptitude tests (which in my case didn’t help at all), and I researched the background of people I had respected growing up. None of these people followed a straight path to where they were at that exact moment in time. 

Consequently, I looked for an initial undergraduate degree that would enable me to experience as broad a base of subjects as possible, allowing me to tweak what I was studying along the way. 

In my first year, I realised that I wanted to complete a course in which I would have the broadest exposure to business, and be able to be involved in almost any business that would interest me in what could be an over-40-year career. All businesses need to be able to manage cash flow, invest, report, analyse and structure, and be flexible and agile to succeed, and so the wide world of finance was a natural starting place for my career.

6.     What makes a great CFO?
 
A great CFO needs to be well read, up to date with their industry and general economic environment, but most importantly able to lead a team to execute on clear deliverables towards a common goal. You cannot do everything, so communication is paramount –  ensuring that all parties are informed, know what is required, and comfortable to ask questions, give suggestions, and run with ideas that can improve either how we deliver or the business in general.

7.     What is your leadership style?
 
My leadership style is as a mix between a steward and a pragmatist. I try to take those around me on the journey, giving guidance, but trying to avoid dictating. Rather I try to empower those around me to make decisions within a mandate, to check in with me with respect to a proposed solution or idea, but also think for themselves and take responsibility. I do, however, have high expectations of myself, and of others.

8.     Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I see myself in the same position within Fedgroup. Fedgroup is a special environment. We are constantly developing, changing and improving what we do. We challenge the status quo and strive to deliver exceptional service and value to our clients. This innovative environment and the ability to act with agility to opportunities really makes it a great place to work, and I see myself being a part of that journey in the next five years and beyond, as I haven’t finished what I want to deliver into the business yet.

9.     What are your interests outside of work?
 
Being the father of a young daughter has changed my interests somewhat, with a swing towards activities we can do together. However, it is critical in what can be a stressful position, that exercise is incorporated into my life. I enjoy exercising outdoors in the sun; activities ranging from a more relaxing round of golf (on a bad day perhaps not as relaxing as it should be), to a more strenuous ride on a bike.

10.  What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be patient. Enjoy the journey. Time passes quickly but there is actually a lot of time in a career.