Lawrence Weitzman - Guiding Telkom-acquisition BCX through the storm

The acquisition by Telkom, the death of its beloved CEO and the need for a major restructuring have kept Lawrence Weitzman, CFO at Business Connexion (BCX), busier than ever. Twice nominated for the annual CFO Awards, Weitzman has successfully navigated his company through the trials and tribulations and is understandably proud the firm has managed to do well. Managing people in the right way and being a trusted leader is the real reason behind the success, says Weitzman, who comes across as a soft-spoken accountant but has established himself a real leader. “I try and give people space to do their own things and to make mistakes.”

What do you like most about your job?
"It is diverse. I get bored very easily. I like being involved in the business strategy, while still being responsible for accounting. As CFO I am responsible for Internal Audit, Risk and Health & Safety and I look after our properties - we are building a new head office at the moment. Fleet management, Group Legal and internal IT also report to me. I have got a big operational responsibility, which is nice. I have to have a good team, consisting of 170 odd people. But being a CFO is part of my genetics and I still love the technical side of it."

What is your recipe for success?
"Hard work and having a great, mature team that I can trust. I also make sure I understand the details. That helps me gain the trust of people and it makes it easier for me to have conversations. But it does take more time."

"My success lies in how I manage the team. These guys sit here at 8, 9 o'clock at night. They trust me as a leader. It is about a value system, being consistent and backing difficult decisions. Every morning that I am in this office, I go around and greet everyone. I try and give people space to do their own things and to make mistakes."

What has kept you busy lately?
"We embarked on a transaction with Telkom, but we also had a big internal blow to deal with during this time. Our CEO Benjamin Mophatlane passed away, but we are still driving his vision. He was an amazing person. After he died it was a question of how do you keep yourself - and 7000 employees - positive. I remember the first thing we needed to do after hearing about Ben's passing was to draft a SENS announcement."

"Personally, I had a wife and two kids who helped me through that period. We have a broad team and people have different ways of dealing with such an event. He was such a well-known individual."

"We put the Telkom transaction on hold during the mourning period. Because the transaction dragged on it might seem not to have been the right decision, but the delay of two months was good for the people in the company."

Ben's twin brother Isaac has taken over as CEO, how is that working out?
"It is quite amazing in some instances as they have many of the same mannerisms. I have known Isaac for a long time. I used to join Ben and Isaac for lunchtime conversations. Whilst they are very alike, they are also so different. It has taken a bit of time understanding what Isaac's needs are."

What crossroads has Business Connexion dealt with in the last years?
"I can mention two crossroads. The first one was seeking a telecoms partner, which has been a journey of 4 years. We had been down the road with an international partner earlier which did not work out. When Telkom approached us we did believe that it would be a good match. We have already been down the road with them in 2006/2007. Telkom does however have their own challenges, which impacts our employees. They have their cost cutting programs and they are in the news a lot."

"The second one is our restructuring. Customers outsource to us because they want to save costs, which means there is always pressure on the margins. We moved businesses to different places and changed the cost structure. We have also done a lot of work in improving the culture of BCX. We continuously assess people's own values. We assign coaches, mentors and provide management training. We are trying to broaden our continuous improvement, because we believe people will drive change."

What was your role?
"I had to convince our Executive that restructuring was needed. Our structure was not effective enough. We didn't always integrate acquisitions properly. We sometimes did not have one strategy towards one customer and we were duplicating infrastructure."

"When Telkom approached us we did believe that it would be a good match. We have already been down the road with them in 2006/2007."

How does the economy affect your business?
"We provide end-to-end IT solutions to the top 100 blue chip companies in South Africa. We are probably the biggest in retail and mining. All industries thus affect us. The broader economy also has a impact. Our diversity is a way to deal with it, but it also stifles growth because there is always some sector that is doing worse than others. We provide shareholders with quite a lot of guidance in this respect. Until 5 years ago 80 percent of our income came from our top ten customers. That has completely changed and we have also expanded on the continent."

Can the company react swiftly to new realities?
"We are not very agile. It is very difficult to change the mindset of a big organisation. The culture change has been a 3 year journey so far. From the Finance perspective, we do have the ability to change the reporting structure continuously. In the 16 years that I have been in the IT industry I have never reported on the same structure twice. You have to be agile as a Finance team."

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