CCBSA’s Babalwa Sili is always up for a challenge

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Babalwa discusses the demands of finance and data analytics and achieving that elusive work-life balance.

Greater challenges can help one grow, and Babalwa Sili, the financial manager of operations at Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA) is an example of someone who thrives in challenging times. Whether it’s new systems at work or the constant juggle between work and family life, Babalwa faces challenges head-on.

She joined CCBSA in November 2018 as the FM of operations services at their head office. The role was more of a 2IC to the FM of operations and she was promoted to her current role in February 2020.

She enjoys the world of finance, but she initially had dreams of becoming a doctor. “I used to get very good marks in accounting in high school, but it was never really a career that I considered. My mother wanted to be a doctor when she was young, but in those days the only options were to become a teacher or nurse. She probably influenced my dream to become a doctor,” she says.

“When it was time to choose subjects in grade 10, I chose biology and not accounting. It was a tough one as my accounting marks were much better than my biology marks, but I needed biology to study medicine. When I was in grade 12, an auditing firm visited our school and they spoke about careers in accounting. It sparked my interest and I decided to investigate my options. I realised that it wasn’t too late to change focus as the only requirement was good marks in maths. I then applied for a BCom, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Babalwa started her working career doing TOPP articles at Absa. She then joined ABI (a soft drinks division of South African Breweries) as a management trainee in 2008. She quickly progressed to various finance roles within ABI.

“I had strong ambitions to have a full experience of the finance function and it led me to take on an opportunity at Imperial Group in June 2014. At that time, they were taking on CAs to put in a one- year programme as FM Operations trainee, to take on financial director roles within the business.

“I got exposure in caravan retail and in March 2015, I was promoted to the financial director of Beekman Canopies. I was there until October 2018,” she says. “Having gotten the exposure I required in managing the full finance function, I then wanted to explore roles that focus on providing analytical financial support to support and drive strategy. This is an area that I have always loved. I like working with data and building models that enhance reporting and analysis capabilities.”

In every role she has held in her financial career, she has built improved reporting and analysis tools that have helped with problem-solving, provided insights to improve operations, or aided decision-making.

Role and projects at CCBSA
As Babalwa is FM Operations, she reports to the financial director, and leads a team of 42 people. The teams are spread across regions and across CCBSA’s functions (manufacturing, commercial, logistics, third party distributors and the coolers division).

“My role is to provide financial support to the functional directors as well as to the senior regional leadership teams through my regional financial managers. Our role is assisting in building financial plans, reporting on performance, conducting financial analysis that aids continuous improvement and delivery of financial objectives,” she says. “Our role is to also challenge constructively, work together with operations to identify opportunities and deliver on key initiatives while maintaining sound governance and control.”

According to Babalwa, this is an exciting role as it allows her to focus and build on her strengths.

“My passion was ignited back in the old ABI days as a management trainee working with the then strategic financial planner, whose passion was building financial analysis models to improve reporting and analysis. I enjoy unpacking complex problems through data gathering and analysis and this role has also allowed me to build reporting capabilities within the team, which has aided visibility of additional information essential for decision-making. My team gets exposed to operational decisions on a daily basis, and it gives one a broader view of the business.”

Babalwa is enthusiastic about their Project Horizon, which is the introduction of a new ERP system (Microsoft Dynamics). “This is an exciting journey as we constantly need to challenge ourselves to create value,” she says. “I believe that this system will take off a lot of back-office time and empower my team even more to drive the right conversations and transform us to operate at our optimum levels. It promises to offer a more unified, flexible digital reporting platform with analytical tools and real-time insights.”

Babalwa mentions that they are also working on a promo effectiveness tool that can aid her team and the business in doing a more in-depth evaluation of their past promotional offers. “Once completed and working as designed, the tool can be used to optimise future promotional planning,” she notes. “As finance is the gatekeeper of most of the data, we are fortunate to have collected internal data from multiple sources. We need the external data from the commercial team, coupled with their in-depth knowledge and insights, to pull this together. It is a big challenge, and it has taken my brain into a tailspin of worry as the data is complex and outside of our comfort zone. I am however committed to face it with confidence!”

Babalwa is very proud of how they tackled the challenging pandemic times. When Covid-19 started and crippled their top line, they managed to put together initiatives that helped contain costs and they showed productivity in their operating costs by the end of the financial year. They even beat 2019’s performance and the 2020 ratio was also improved in 2021.

Overcoming obstacles
“My very limited knowledge in the latest and upcoming advanced technological tools in the field of analytics and the lack thereof in most ERP systems I have used, have always posed a challenge,” she says.

“Most of the time has been spent building and putting together the tools and thus eating up time where I could be having engagements and conversations with up-to-date data, with operational teams. I spend some of my free time reading up and learning about new tools available. I also encourage my team to continuously try and keep up to date with the latest and to take on learning new things to assist them in improving their abilities to synthesise data, scrutinise and comprehend vital metrics.” She has also enrolled in short courses on data and business analytics.

Babalwa admits that the other major challenge is finding that optimal work-life balance during the week. As a mom of three with a young child on the autism spectrum, she is lucky to have a very supportive husband, but it is a constant balancing act between family time and the high-pressure environment of finance.

“I would personally like to have a more active lifestyle and to make more time for my family. My energy and fitness levels took a significant dive over the past two years. I sometimes find myself missing out on catch-up stories about what my kids did at school. It is a constant challenge to find a balance,” she admits.

“I do make up for the time lost over the weekend and I am now slowly also making some gains in being able to do this consistently even during the week. The support structure that I have from my husband, my helper and wider family as well as at work, has been instrumental in being able to keep things together,” she says.

At home, Babalwa enjoys watching documentaries with her husband and movie days or quiz nights with their little ones. “I also sometimes play tennis with my husband as he is a tennis fanatic and literally spends hours on the court either playing with his club or coaching. I also love travelling with my family but with the pandemic we haven’t been able to do that. I would like to explore more countries in Africa.”

Professionally, Babalwa would like to take on new areas and challenges to push herself outside of her comfort zone and to sharpen her leadership skills, while building stronger connections. She is motivated by her dreams for herself and her family; that feeling of a sense of accomplishment when she ticks off a completed challenge, and to be able to build financial security for her kids.

“I am also motivated by the feeling that I get when I make a difference in someone’s life at work. It can either be by saving them time, helping them to make more sense of something or by helping them to achieve their goals.”

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