Reputation is everything, says Black Rhino CFO Paul Inbona
"As an executive, your greatest asset is your reputation. I think that a lot of people in finance in particular would do very well to focus on that issue and ensure that they are able to make the tough decision when it comes to being asked to do things that are not in their view of the world, or which they deem unacceptable," says Paul Inbona, CFO of Black Rhino, part of the Black Stone Group, which focuses on development projects in the power generation and oil & gas infrastructure industries. Paul, an avid bridge player, believes that while it is crucial to have a CFO network, it is as important to have a network within your own industry. "I find people aren't immersed enough in their own business. To understand the story behind the numbers you have to understand the market, the industry and the players. For me that is as important as the technical aspect of the CFO role." How did you come to pursue a career in the finance industry? "I'm actually an engineer by background. I studied at one of the top French academic institutions and was thinking about what I wanted to do at the end of that school and it was either to go be an engineer in production or be in a lab, and neither of those appealed to me. Then I came across the auditing profession and what interested me there was that through the lens of the auditor you got to look at the whole business and touch on all the business processes from recruitment to procurement, investments, assets capitalisation and depreciation, sales and marketing even. Every aspect of the business ends up being reflected in your books. And that's how I got involved and interested in the financial world at large. I started with the auditing profession and moved into management consulting and private equity business after I did my MBA. I then moved on to CFO and operational CFO roles." You've been with Black Rhino Group since May 2015. What have you achieved during this time? "I took on a position where there was virtually no one in charge of finance, so I had to start from scratch getting the books up to the standard that I strive to achieve and strengthening the team, bringing in additional people with the critical skills needed to get the finance function into place. I hired a tax manager and an HR manager. We've also been implementing a new ERP system. I'm happy with the progress so far. It's going well, not as fast as I would've liked, but we are moving in the right direction. In addition, I spend a fair amount of time supporting the transactions in terms of tax and accounting advice where required and I am involved with the General Counsel in the overall structuring of the Group." You've worked in various countries – DRC, Canada, Australia, France, South Africa and Switzerland. How does the working culture differ between these places, and how do you adapt each time? "To adapt to different cultures you've got to be open and agile, as well as willing to understand where you're moving into before trying to impose on other people how you think they should do things. You've also got to learn the local language, the way people interact, the way they communicate, and the nuances of that country's business culture." "The finance function is fairly common across countries, what is different is the level of education and the level of sophistication among the people. In Australia there is a very skilled, computer literate, professional workforce. It is really impressive. In the DRC it was quite the opposite. The education is poor, though people are very willing to learn. So you've got to adapt yourself to the level of the audience, and learn how things are done in those places, because it can be quite different to what you're used to in your environment of origin." Where do you go for advice about doing business in Africa? "We rely a lot on local and international legal and accounting firms. Local firms give you the local insight, which is very important, to ensure you understand the local context and you get advice that is relevant and you may even pick up upcoming changes in legislation that a big international firm may not be aware of, but international firms give you experience of structuring transactions with the correct jurisdictions and understanding and navigating the landscape of transfer pricing issues that the local firms may not be fully aware of, as well as international tax and legal issues. You've also got to develop a network of contacts in those countries. When I was in the DRC I became a member of the Chamber of Mines. It's important to be able to lobby at the right level of government and institutions that you deal with." How important is it for CFOs to meet peers? "We are in the position where we are more and more subject to compliance and regulation and very often a CFO in another industry may have some specificities at the margin. So somewhere, someone will have faced the problem you are faced with. Meeting peers accelerates the learning curve. Using your network to leverage your relationships ensures you are able to deal with the issue at hand quicker than if you don't use your network. So it's extremely important."
"It's important to have a CFO network but also a network within your own industry. I find people aren't immersed enough in their own business. To understand the story behind the numbers you have to understand the market, the industry and the players. For me that is as important as the technical aspect of the CFO role."
What has been the greatest challenge you've faced in your career?
"As an executive, your greatest asset is your reputation and I think that a lot of people in finance in particular would do very well to focus on that issue and ensure that they are able to make the tough decision when it comes to being asked to do things that are not in their view of the world, or which they deem unacceptable. I was once faced with a situation where an executive was flying business class with his partner to visit the business and I was getting requests to fund some corporate gifts for some of the other companies in his group. For me that's a complete no-no. That's using the assets of the company for personal use. When you've got a company with a single shareholder it's probably all right, although the taxman may have some issues with it, but when you've got a number of shareholders that's a no-no. I wasn't happy with the requests I was receiving, and I had to raise those issues at the board level. My reputation is more important than anything else. When you lose your reputation you can't gain it back. It takes years to build a reputation and minutes for it to get destroyed."
Do you have any career regrets?
"No, it doesn't help to have regrets. I don't regret anything I've done in my life or anything I've done professionally. That said, if I was offered the chance to do it all over again, I would probably not be a CFO. I'd probably be an architect or an artist. I'm fascinated by artists and the art world, especially in South Africa. There are some amazing young artists who I support. I loved the idea of being an architect because an architect leaves something tangible behind him. What do we as financial professionals leave behind? Our name attached to financial statements. When I look at what an architect leaves behind, it's there to last and leaves a mark. What I'm trying to do is find ways to leave something behind. I'm starting to really think about that now, as I enter a more mature phase in my career."
"One of the things I'm most proud of is, a few years ago I was a lecturer at CIDA City Campus, running a course on entrepreneurship. I identified a young man, Ntumeleni Moyana, from Limpopo who was and still is very outgoing and smart. I was really impressed by his ability to take on life and want to become an entrepreneur, being really motivated and entrepreneurial. This was around 1998/1999, when young black people were still very cautious and lacking self confidence. This young man was extremely confident and I decided to support his dreams. We eventually began a business together, WasteServ, and he is currently running the show as majority shareholder. I'm a 25% shareholder. We've been running the business together for five years now, and do about R30 million in annual turnover. It's going from strength to strength. For me it's a very big achievement. We've also hired 30 people in the process. In that sense I'm very proud of giving back to South Africa, my country of adoption since 2005."
What are your plans or goals for 2016?
"I'm not a man of goals, I just take life as it comes. But probably being able to play more Bridge, I'm a very keen bridge player. I think it's a fantastic game, very good for developing analytical skills. I want to be able to play more of it and be better at it, but as Benito Garrozzo, one of the best players of all time said, Bridge is a game that you can only try to master. I guess one could say that about most things in life."