"Cashflow is King" and other lessons from online Covid-19 CFO Community Conversation

Nine CFOs gathered for the first weekly conversation CFO South Africa will be hosting during lockdown.

In the time of Covid-19 social isolation, when South African business is facing unprecedented challenges, CFO South Africa is focusing on bringing executive communities together, to share experiences and learn from others in the same position.

On Wednesday 25 March, CFO South Africa gathered nine finance executives together for a CFO Community Conversation about what they are doing and how they are coping professionally and personally with the threats posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jo-Ann Pohl, Bowmans group CFO, Elisa Mkhize, Clinix Health Group CFO, Nico Esterhuizen, Joint Aid Management International CFO, Ashley Francis, UCT FD, Trevor Mvundura, THINK: Tuberculosis & HIV Investigative Network CFO, Shaveera John, Malander CFO, Craig Sumption, Hatch Africa FD, Thobeka Ntshiza, Avis Fleet CFO, and Mikateko Tshetshe, Unilever VP of finance Africa, joined the discussion, along with Joël Roerig, CFO South Africa MD, John Deane, CFO South Africa community manager, and Georgina Guedes, CFO South Africa editor in chief.

In terms of financial resilience, the CFOs all agreed to the simple basic business principle that cashflow is king. All those who had done sufficient work in this area over time felt that they would be able to weather the challenges of the coming weeks and months.

"From a financial perspective, we aren’t traumatized about the cash,” said Ashley. “That sounds like a privilege, but it’s been a lot of hard work over many, many years. What was important to me as the FD of UCT is to never give a cash problem to the executive, so they can make decisions and set policies without worrying where the case is coming from.”

Instead, the challenges that are now presenting themselves are those of trying to plan for a “what next?” that nobody really understands, and attempting to manage and support the workforces affected by isolation and uncertainty.

"The last two weeks have been pretty intense,” says Craig. We’ve been making plans ahead of definitive positions, and considering ways to look after people’s mental health and wellbeing, making regular calls just to touch base with everyone in our teams." 

Companies in the healthcare sector are dealing with significant pressures, not only from the impending impact that a nationwide shutdown will have on their businesses, but from the very real fact that they will be at the forefront of supporting government in the management of the outbreak.

“The healthcare sector is at the forefront of fighting the epidemic, so we’re mobilising all the resources in our group, looking beyond the business to our responsibility as a true corporate citizen towards the nation,” says Elisa. “So we’ve been spending a lot of time in exco meetings to ramp up our efforts to also support and collaborate with government where we can, in addition to the precautionary measures we’ve already implemented from a business continuity point of view." 

She also admitted to the fact that the epidemic has shaken her on a professional and personal level.

Some of Unilever’s products are on the essential products list, and so Mikateko and the team at Unilever have been very busy ensuring their supply, especially in the face of a global disruption to supply chains. Despite the fact that there’s work to be done, she is thinking deeply about the correct emotional response to the situation.

She says:

“I am consciously trying to be as real and human as I can be. Sometimes as leaders and parents, we want to come across as though everything’s under control. So I am trying to allow the emotions to run through my mind and body, and then step back and consciously decide how I want to move forward. I am staying connected with friends and family and creating moments of relaxation that I need now to cope, stay inspired and motivated.”

And Ashley revealed that even doing the right thing can have difficult consequences that have to be confronted. “We have had to deal with the emotional issues, of students not having families. We’ve told them to call their families and go to be with them, and then found out that they have no mom, no dad, no brothers and no sisters. And that’s what’s most important for UCT – the wellbeing of our students and staff. So we feel that we’ve managed to prioritise that."

The CFOs all agreed that South African business is headed into uncharted territory, and that resilience is the crucial element that will support leadership and the broader workforce through this time. There was great awareness of the fact that lockdown and the resulting business fall out would have a strong emotional impact on all South Africans and people needed to focus on wellness during this time.

One element that everyone agreed upon was that checking in with communities is important.

“Thank you for inviting me to join the conversation. It was really insightful and I enjoyed hearing other CFOs’ views and fresh thinking around how they’re tackling this issue we’re faced with as a nation,” Elisa said.

Craig echoed this sentiment in his feedback: “I enjoyed the session. The interaction is good to do, even more so in these difficult times.” 

Want to get in on the CFO Community Conversation? Contact John Deane on [email protected]