Brett Tromp, CFO at Discovery Health: the softer side of a CFO

“FIRSTLY, always do more than your job description tells you to, so people will recognize your value.” The advice could sound gratuitous coming from anyone else, but if anybody can shed a light on a successful career for young finance professionals it must be Brett Tromp. “Secondly,” he says, “create a market for yourself in your organisation. Find executives to talk to and establish a brand of knowledge and trust. Those two things can be the big secret to a successful career and quickly moving up the ladder.”

The 37-year old South African Tromp has been working for financial services firm Discovery Health for ten years and has been its CFO for the past six years. Head hunters have tried to lure him away a few times, reveals Tromp. "But loyalty is big at Discovery as it is an employer of choice for many. People stay here for years, because they appreciate the environment of an innovative, growing company with a nothing-is-impossible management style and entrepreneurial flair. The company is over 20 years old and many people have been with Discovery for more than 10 to 15 years as they are constantly challenged to reach their full potential."

Opportunities for young people
The key factors that inform Brett not to leave the health insurance business at Discovery lie with the company's values and a culture of high performance: "Our company has very strong values, which is very important for me. Every decision is based on honesty and integrity. Secondly, we give young people opportunities. Our leadership, right up to CEO Adrian Gore, is young. That is rare. The people - head hunters - that get in touch with me are often looking to bring some of that Discovery culture to their clients or companies," he explains

Tromp had a baptism of fire when he started out as CFO when he was 31. "I walked into the role of CFO from a position in Group Finance. My first meeting was with one of our executives Neville Koopowitz. He said 'we are way too expensive'. So I had to go and find savings from day one. I went home and spoke about it with my wife. It was a difficult start. I knew I had the technical ability, but I needed partners, friends within the organisation - I did not want colleagues to think I was going to destroy their work. So I drank a lot of coffee and had a lot of lunches with people."

Although his approach had nothing to do with number crunching or proving his worth as a finance man, it worked. "It is the softer side of being a CFO. It is important to get to know the executives and other people inside the business from the start and ask smart questions. It was very exciting - a lot of responsibility. People look to you for cost efficiency and the improving returns for shareholders of the company. I have noticed this matures your thinking quite quickly."

Be self-assured
That doesn't mean starting as a young Chief Financial Officer is a cakewalk. Tromp advises young achievers in the accounting and finance field to try and be self-assured. "Sometimes you doubt your ability when you are working with guys who are a lot older and have incredible track records of performance. You have to remember that you have been given the opportunity because other people believe in you. It is important to also believe in yourself, because when you are in doubt, you can really get stuck."

Tromp's role as CFO of a health insurer can be quite different to that of his corporate colleagues, he has noticed. "My job is very operational. We deal with external providers like doctors and hospital and our industry is very legislatively governed. Besides the normal accounting regulations, we have to comply with a whole host of health and insurance related bodies. The numbers can be quite simple, but the inputs and outputs are very complicated. You have to know your environment very well and be able to explain complex situations to people tin a simple way."

World class accounting
Tromp is a chartered accountant and did half a year of auditing in the United States after his articles. "We can learn something from the scale that people in the US work on, but as South Africans our accounting ability is really world class. We are in much less trouble than they are - and our finance ability taught in South Africa is one of the reasons." The economic crisis has affected the private health care insurance in South Africa less than other industries, Tromp says. "Clients may steer away from other insurance in tough times, but stay with health insurance - partly because there is a lack of adequate public healthcare in the country but mainly because we believe we offer a product to our members that offers real value."

One of Discovery's biggest assets is its Vitality brand, which is an add-on to the Health Insurance that gives members very cheap gym memberships, cash benefits when buying healthy food and other discounts at partners. "Vitality is our real hook. We have data coming out of our ears proving the value of Vitality and it is evident that Vitality members are healthier. It is a great marketing tool, but it also helps people lead a healthier life and making less use of healthcare by making wise choices."

Tricky African market
While Vitality is also an increasing success in the United States as a standalone product (which is not available in South Africa), a step into actual health insurance in the US wasn't such a big success. Because of this, Tromp is very tentative when it comes to expanding internationally - especially into Africa. "There are obviously some African markets that we are looking at, but it is not as simple as in South Africa. The private health services are not of the quality of South Africa, so you have to deal with evacuation to South Africa and that becomes quite tricky and expensive."

All the more reason to concentrate on growing the business in South Africa itself, says Tromp. "Our growth is still strong. Of the 8.5 million private lives that are insured, we have about 2.7 million. There are around 52 million South Africans, but I am not seeing that privately insured number of 8.5 million grow at the moment, it depends heavily on what happens to the South African economy." That means Tromp and his colleagues are relying on the age old business of creating a good product and increasing its market share: "Our growth is all organic."

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