Bureau Veritas FD Emilie Bigot: A passion for numbers, business and art in South Africa
The French certification company's South Africa FD says her local team have a "can-do" attitude.
Bureau Veritas is a French testing, certification and inspection company. It has existed for more than 190 years, and its name literally translates into “Bureau of Truth”. The company engages in various activities around verifying goods and products from one company for another – including testing the quality of oil or coal, testing for listeria, or even simply counting that the correct number of goods have been loaded onto a truck.
The company has its own labs to complete the necessary tests, and employs engineers, chemists and other specialists. It has had operations in South Africa for six years, and here it employs 3,000 people in Africa and has offices and laboratories in Middleburg, Centurion and Cape Town, offering services in South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
After matriculating in France with subjects that included science, physics and biology, Emilie originally wanted to be a doctor but confesses to being afraid of blood, so she opted for a career in business and then in finance. She graduated from Skema, a French business school, with a master’s degree in management finance, then worked in London and France before coming to South Africa on a diplomatic contract with the French embassy.
While on this posting, she was offered her current position with Bureau Veritas, and she jumped at the opportunity as it is a well-known company in France, and gave her the opportunity to stay in South Africa.
“I had been attracted more by project management and commercial activities before. I am also a very creative person and had worked on the strategy, sales and marketing side of business. When I came over as a diplomat, I worked on the Trade Commission, advising French companies that wanted to work in South Africa – my sector was finance and IT – and that’s how I met Bureau Veritas.”
In her current role, she has two focus areas – one of which, of course, is financial controls, ensuring that the correct systems are in place to minimise financial risk.
“In finance, you need to understand beyond the figures. There are technical areas especially where you want to reinforce controls to make sure that there are no human errors. So I focus on controls at every level, improving processes.”
She says that she does not neglect the strategic side of finance, however, and also spends her time on building the company for the long term.
The human element
Another key focus area for Emilie, perhaps surprisingly, is human resources. “It’s actually so important. I have to support the people who work for us with technical skills, and I need to give my people a sense of why – why they work for this organisation, why they do their job, what their purpose is. It keeps people loyal and motivated, and it’s key to have a good team.”
She describes her South African team as enthusiastic. “They are always willing to make a plan. Everything is possible. ‘We’ll fix it. We’ll find a solution. Whatever it is, whatever it takes.”
She says that one of the biggest leaps she’s had to make professionally is to accept that technical competence wasn’t all she needed to get the job done.
“I’ve got good communications skills and I am technically good in finance, and I thought that was enough to be a finance director – but not at all. When I realised that I needed leadership skills and to be able to focus on people, I realised I still had a journey to go on. Our VP, Sal Govender, has leadership skills – she’s qualified and is working on her doctorate – so I was really inspired her. I talked to her and tried to imitate some of her processes. I read some books. And I questioned what I was willing to do. I tried to go beyond my boundaries, to be more open and adapt.”
As a leader, she believes she is democratic, giving everyone the opportunity to speak their mind. She describes herself as “a bit of a millennial” in her outlook, attempting to engage everyone in her team, listening to their points of view and attempting to make them feel that their contribution is valued.
“Also, I am not a big fan of nine-to-five schedules. I want people to be flexible. What I care about is results and delivery. I have people working from home sometimes. And I try to keep people happy by doing little things like sending flowers, because happy people work harder. I need an organisation that works smoothly, and the more effective people are, the better our output becomes.”
Emilie also tries to encourage the women in her team to be “bold and fierce”, because that’s what she would advise her younger self. “Women lack self-confidence compared to men. I tell them to go for it. Go get it. Men are doing it. Be more confident because there is no limit to what you want to achieve. A person gave me the role of finance director, they believed in me, and now I need to do the same for somebody else. I need to help those men and ladies in my team to get recognition and promotion. I feel like I need to give something to someone. I want to pay it forward.”
A creative mind
Emilie is highly qualified in business and finance, but she has another passion – art. She paints, draws and does screen printing, and is a frequent exhibitor at a gallery in the Victoria Yards.
“People don’t understand how I can be creative and also a fan of financial controls, figures and maths, but I see both activities as a bit geeky – one in front of a computer, the other in front of a canvas.”
Her art, she says, is influenced by French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau, French abstract painter Dominique Rousseau and Austrian figurative painter Egon Schiele. She gets her ideas from fantasy and dreams, and makes art to show that there is beauty in everything, and to heal and make herself whole. “Sometimes I see a moment in my head or the real world that captures a cinema aesthetic and then I want to recreate it.”
Her creativity shows in her life choices as well. She believes it is important to be down to earth. She drives a Yaris and lives in Melville. She spends a lot of free time in a studio at the Victoria Yards, even taking care of the gallery when the owner is out of town.
“Even at work, I do basic things sometimes to remind myself what the job was before. I’ll take on work if the team is busy. I like to get my hands dirty. I can be everything – an artist and a finance director, an executive and someone who connects with the rest of the population.”
She’s also tried to get to know South Africa in her time here, having travelled to Cape Town, Durban, the Eastern Cape and the Karoo. “I love it here in South Africa. It’s such a beautiful country. The nature is beautiful and the people are so friendly and have such joie de vivre.”