Bright Amisi, Group Finance Manager at SABS: `Risk management is going to become a key part of the CFO portfolio`

Bright Amisi (37) has been the Group Finance Manager of the SABS, a leading conformity assessment industry player, since 2008. SABS is the largest conformity assessment body in Africa and is the official publisher of South African National Standards (SANS) used across all sectors of the economy. He thinks the most challenging about his position are that the non-finance issues demand a lot of his time. He doesn’t always sit in his office worrying about the numbers; He is frequently out there trying to enable the business to be successful. Everybody wants advice before making decisions. Before joining SABS Bright was employed by the Development Bank of South Africa as the GM: Finance and Administration - NEPAD for three years. Bright has also previously served as the Finance Director of Africare Zimbabwe, Head of Finance and Administration for the Red Cross in Zimbabwe and as an Auditor. He holds an MCom (Accounting), BSc (Hons) and is an Associate member of ACCA, CIMA and CIS. Bright is married to Diana with four kids and is a Formula One fanatic! Which skills do you think a finance professional should master to be successful in his/her work? A finance professional needs knowledge of accounting standards (IFRS), tax, ICT systems and systems integration, as well as risk management.

He or she also needs to have well developed interpersonal and influencing skills. Working with non-finance people such as scientists is challenging as they do not always understand the financial implications. It takes a lot of planning; one must put their story across in a particular way or colleagues will dismiss you out of hand. You have to show them that you are part of the team, that you understand the business and are working towards the same goal. The ability to influence others to behave in a particular way is critical.

Business has become a lot more integrated than before because of globalisation. We cannot be successful by perceiving our operating environment in terms of our immediate and familiar surroundings. Local industries that were once dominated by local players now have multinationals acquiring many small local operations and merging them into formidable competitors. Overnight, local players have to compete with multinationals!

We rely more and more on integrated systems in our business. In the past we only had Finance and a few other people working on ERP systems. That has changed. All core operations have applications that are integrated with the ERP. Understanding where risk in an integrated system lies is critical. Technology comes with possibilities but also risks such as cyber-attacks, fraud and error.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy the breadth of scope and the variety of skills I employ. I manage the entire finance function covering financial accounting, management accounting, billing, debtors' management, creditors, tax, payroll, financial systems and security, capital investments and asset management. I am currently managing the roll out of a laboratory information management system (LIMS) in all our laboratories.


What do you find most challenging about your position?

The non-finance issues demand a lot of my time. I don't always sit in my office worrying about the numbers; I am frequently out there trying to enable the business to be successful. Everybody wants advice before making decisions. I spend a considerable amount of time working alongside operations teams, advising and deciding on business issues.One of the challenges I have to deal with every day is to influencing others in a positive way: If I have to suggest to an Executive that we stop hiring because margins are under pressure, I need to understand the impact on the business both in the short and the long term. I have to spend a bit more time studying the environment - a scientific environment - before giving credible advice.

Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of?
I have been fortunate that throughout my career, I have been asked to handle demanding and important assignments. My recent one was developing the SABS standards strategy and restructuring the division. It is one of my proud achievements. I had the opportunity to head the Division for a year on an acting basis. I had to apply my financial skills in an area that seems to be at first unrelated to finance.

The restructuring was necessary due to our growth strategy but also to become more productive, and focus on developing relevant national standards with economic impact. Standards writing require inputs from affected stakeholders, a credible process of converting inputs into an acceptable standard and finally the production and distribution of the standard. It is not very different to how we write accounting standards.

It was difficult because we were changing the standards development process so we had to consult widely with stakeholders. Some people are very sensitive and uncomfortable when you talk about change. It was challenging but necessary.

My in-depth knowledge of the IFRS standard-setting process was instrumental in shaping the strategy. Although the negotiations with the unions were tough, I could handle them due to my many years as a chief negotiator on collective bargaining matters.

Is accurate forecasting and budgeting still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets?
It's a necessary evil - one that finance people have to continue to play a role in completing. Increasingly, there is more focus on forecasting skills because of the volatility in the operating environment. Changes are much more rapid than in the past.

In the public sector, budgeting has to be completed by October because of the approval process required in terms of the PFMA and National Treasury regulations. Implementation only starts in April of the following year. Plans and budgets are completed before even half of the current period is out. So what is approved in October may be overtaken by events come April.

Our business is very much linked to what happens in the wider economy e.g. changes in government procurement plans affect laboratory testing volumes. More and more, we have to depend on forecasting.

How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next five to ten years?
Risk management is going to become a key part of the CFO portfolio - despite the fact that different industries and companies tend to follow divergent risk management practices.

CFOs will become increasingly preferred for the COO role because of the cross-cutting nature of finance. (Most are currently playing this role without the official title.) Because of complexities in the environment, people are more and more relying on Finance people for advice.

CFOs should get more involved and become part of what is going on in the business. Everything that goes on in business has financial implications, but as a Finance person you cannot make any decision unless you understand the operations.

You naturally become part of Operations. Finance cannot afford to sit in specialization - we do not have this luxury. If I go to a laboratory and say we cannot afford to buy a piece of technology, I have to know what I am talking about.

The integration of organizational systems, to aid decision making and risk management, is going to become a priority for CFOs.

How do you perceive the status of cooperation and lifelong learning between finance professionals in South Africa?
There is much division along membership lines e.g. CA, ACCA, CIMA, etc. A huge section of university degree holders without membership to professional bodies have no mandatory CPD requirements. The pace of changes in accounting standards, IFRS, means the training model is inadequate. Local bodies can learn from the AICPA and CIMA joint venture to create a model that works locally - especially on CPD training.


What do you see as the greatest challenge for South African companies in the current global economic situation - and for the finance industry in particular?
South Africa is attractive to global players because it is viewed as the gateway to Africa. It follows that global companies prefer to set up operations in SA and use them as a base to expand across the continent. This has an impact on margins (unless local companies can become efficient and adopt better ways of doing business). The rise of China creates both opportunities and threats. South African companies are being forced to adopt clean production techniques to reduce carbon footprint. Maintaining access to export markets is going to be challenging.


Who is your role model or mentor? And what did you learn from them?
My mentor is Mr Richard Mutasa, my first manager (twenty years ago). He always emphasised the need to continuously improve and challenge oneself. I embraced his advice and it has never let me down.

What vital piece of advice would you give young ambitious finance professionals?
Lay a solid foundation by improving your qualifications and deepening your expertise before you aim high. You will need that to stay at the top.

Bright was also an honoured attendee of our CFO South Africa Round Table and Café March 14th at the Maslow Hotel. If you would like to attend one of our events as well, please take a look at our event page: /events

Round Table attendees March 14thIn the picture: Melle Eijckelhoff (CFO SA), Sizwe Nkosi (Metmar Limited), Warren Prinsloo (Jasco), Mangadi Dikotla (Africa Oil), Muller Strauss (African Bank), Jobo Moshesh (SITA), Christian Campagna (Accenture), Bikash Prasad (Olam International), Ryno Matthee (Accenture), Jo-Ann Pohl (Standard Chartered Bank), Vincent Masilo, Bright Amisi (SABS).

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].