CFO Bruce Bydawell likes getting his hands dirty

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Bruce Bydawell has spent the last five years as the CFO of AlexForbes, implementing a new strategy for the company and transforming its finance function.

In 2019, AlexForbes implemented a revised strategy focusing on its core businesses of employee benefits administration, consulting and investments. This meant selling off the group’s insurance underwriting business and unifying their offering to clients.

“We’re not a product-led business, and so reducing what was a very widely-diversified portfolio, inclusive of products such as short-term insurance and life insurance, to focus on our strength of providing the best advice to clients was an important shift in the narrative,” explains the company's CFO, Bruce Bydawell.

He adds that the current focus is to grow market share in the retail space, where there are a number of “exciting things happening”, to get closer to and make it simpler for the retail customer to interact with the business. “It’s difficult to become a retail firm when you are historically and traditionally known as an institutional firm. So, changing to a retail mindset and bringing services that are more directed towards the individual to the fore has been a tough, but rewarding journey.”

Part of this has meant introducing a more digital approach to engaging with clients. “And, where appropriate, we’ve outsourced to providers who have great technologies, such as Glacier,” he says.

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AlexForbes has also acquired OUTvest, OUTsurance’s digital investment platform business. Responsible for mergers and acquisitions in the company, Bruce explains that, although the company wasn’t profitable at the time of its purchase because of its scale, they could see the potential it had in aligning with their retail strategy. “The OUTvest team had spent quite a lot of time and effort building a technology capable of enhancing our digital engagement with clients.”

He admits that M&A is a complex process: “It generally doesn’t matter if it’s a small or a big transaction: it still takes time, a lot of legal and governance processes, and a lot of money.” However, he adds that when you fully understand the value a deal can bring, it’s worth it.

“It’s really about that value, which is not only the top line or the profitability or the return on investment. Obviously, those things are important, but skills and capabilities are also crucial.”

Reclaiming leadership position

Bruce says the company, which had partly lost its leadership position in the industry, has since regained it. He accredits this success to the focused strategy and the strong management team that has executed it. “It’s been very rewarding. We’re all proud of what we’ve done over the last couple of years, which has not only strengthened our business, but brought in some key skills and capabilities.”

Going forward, AlexForbes intends to expand its advice reach through partnerships. This will include partnerships with independent consulting and financial advisory firms to complement its services. This will include extending its offering into new services such as DFM (discretionary fund management) and sustainability. “ESG is a significant issue at the moment. We have developed the skills in-house and aligned with partners to ensure we can deliver grounded insights, practical advice and impactful solutions to clients.”

Finance team transformation

To help improve the skills and capabilities of finance, the function is currently going through a transformation. “We’re about nine months into a four-year journey, and while it’s largely around technology, it’s also about making sure we have the right finance skills in the right areas,” Bruce says.

He explains that, at the moment, a large proportion of the company’s finance team are transactional and are employed to process and deliver data that then becomes meaningful in the management process.

“But, going forward, a lot of that data processing will happen without human intervention – the process will largely be automated.”

While there’s a standard requirement for highly technical and proficient accounting and financial skills in the company, Bruce finds it amazing how much technology and process mapping skills are also required in finance linked to this automation. “For example, in our risk management and governance area we have somebody who can develop robotics and AI to drive automated assurance that analyses and highlights anomalies in our controls environment.”

He says they haven’t done extensive robotic testing yet, but the development focus for the AlexForbes assurance team next year will be around electronic control testing internally for control purposes and risk management.

At the same time, he adds, they will invest in better management reporting and analysis, resulting in a higher level of information going to decision-makers.

Strengths and weaknesses

Bruce admits he is not very tech-savvy and that he relies on the skills of his team and advisers. “I recently attended a seminar where somebody was talking about the future and said every 55-year-old should have a 20-year-old mentor to teach them about new technologies. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m starting to feel a little old when it comes to tech.”

However, the makings of any good leader lie in identifying the strengths of those in their team and harnessing those strengths. “It is best if you can make sure that your team is confident in their abilities; they operate at their best under these circumstances,” he says.

He explains that he tries to build trust with his team by being open and transparent with them – making sure they fully understand the things he is dealing with, while at the same time understanding what they are dealing with too. “You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work you’re asking other people to do,” he adds. “It’s no use you’re sitting in your office and delegating everything, waiting for it to come back to you just so you can make a decision: you have to get involved. You don’t really understand unless you get your hands dirty.”

Bruce also ensures he makes decisions quickly.

“Many people rely on you, and a lot of the obstacles our people face are decisions having to be made. As a leader, you can take a lot of those obstacles away and give direction.”

Keeping busy in KZN

After a previous CFO of the company got him into running, Bruce is still exercising, but hasn’t competed in a marathon for a long time due to the demands of the job being quite significant.

Read more: AlexForbes Group CFO Bruce Bydawell is keeping is real

“I am, however, building up towards hopefully competing in the Knysna half-marathon later this year,” he says.

Bruce and Janet moved out of Johannesburg fairly soon after Covid-19, to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. “It’s a very beautiful part of the country – close to the mountains, with cool weather and lots of rain,” he says. He still travels back to Johannesburg regularly for work.

This Visionary CFO Series interview is sponsored by A2X.

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