CFO Cedric Miller tasked with turning Altron around

Cedric Miller took on the role of group CFO of Altron in May last year after a long and fruitful career with Standard Bank. He's relishing getting to grips with the finances of an ICT empire, while playing an active role in delivering on CEO Mteto Nyati's vision for the transformation of Altron.

After 16 years at Standard Bank, Cedric Miller was the unexpected candidate who took up the role of CFO of Altron, where he is part of the executive team charged with implementing CEO Mteto Nyati’s turnaround vision. Cedric’s career – and indeed his life – has been characterised by these unexpected leaps forward. 

Cedric grew up in the Northern Cape on his father’s farm, and when he visualised his future, cities were not the backdrop. “I never thought that I would work in any kind of city,” he says. “The biggest city I knew post-school was Port Elizabeth. Anything bigger than that was completely outside of my reference.” 

As a child, Cedric believed that his future career would involve working with his hands – he anticipated being an engineer or electrician. But his plans took their first unexpected turn when he overheard his mother talking about one of her old school friends, who was from a neighbouring farm. He had become a chartered accountant and lived in Johannesburg in a house with underfloor heating. 

“In those days we didn’t have electric geysers on the farm, so we had to make a fire outside if we wanted hot water,” Cedric says. “But here was someone who lived with underfloor heating.” 

The image was so appealing that it shaped his career decisions. “I had no idea what they were, what they did or how to become one, but from that day onwards nothing else existed for me other than becoming a CA.” All of his preparation and subject choices at university were hyper-specific so that he could write his board qualifying examination. Two months after he turned 22, in 1991, he qualified. 

In 1993, Cedric completed his articles at Wolmarans Kruger Chartered Accountants and was promoted to senior audit manager. In 1997 he was invited to become a partner at the company. Then from 2000 to 2003 he served as a senior financial consultant at Finmap Financial Services

In 2003, Cedric joined Standard Bank as a senior manager tax accountant. He moved up the ranks in the company to become CFO of Personal and Business Banking. Then, in 2019 he was approached by one of the key shareholders of Altron in response to a referral. “Leaving Standard Bank was a very difficult decision to make,” he said. “I was very happy there and had been entrusted with significant responsibility. I also had a very capable team.” 

Having said that, the growth potential of the ICT sector, and in particular Altron, interested Cedric. It was the quality of the people that he had met during his exploratory discussions, from the board members and Mteto, right through to the exco members, that eventually swung his decision.

“I had been with Standard Bank for 16 years,” Cedric says. “A lot of my thinking about finance and the transition from being a finance person that used to do management information reporting to someone who looks at finance completely differently in a business context developed at Standard Bank.” 

Although Altron is a very different environment from Standard Bank, Cedric says the things you focus on to be able to move from a traditional finance function to a much more value-adding function aren’t very different. “It’s a universal thought process and attitude that one can deploy in any industry within the finance function.”

Cedric thoroughly enjoys his new job as the technology solutions company’s CFO. “It is always great to have a good balance,” he says. “It’s about having the ability to deploy and implement what you have learned and also to continue learning new things.” The role provides exactly that for him. “From an industry perspective, there are a lot of new learnings, but it also affords me the opportunity to guide and lead a team, and to be instrumental in them reaching a level of maturity.” 

Transforming Altron

Cedric is on a journey to build a ‘One Finance for One Altron’, and is bringing the well-ventilated One Altron strategy into the finance space. This involves spending time with the various finance functions across the group and sharing his experiences while allowing them to ask questions irrespective of seniority. “It is important for me that they get to know me as a person and not this shadowy figure from head office,” he said. He is transparent about where they are facing pressure within the group and how people can assist within their sphere of influence. 

“I am very passionate about what finance can be like in the medium-term and how we should organise ourselves to leverage the available technologies, capabilities and skills we have, irrespective of where these skills reside within the group. Often these skills reside outside the finance function,” he adds. Where appropriate, he shares feedback from group exco meetings, operational review meetings, analyst and shareholder communities, as well as from his personal network in the world of finance. “I find the better the team is informed about the issues of the day, the more forthcoming they are with solutions.” 

Cedric explains that his finance exco is not an exclusive club. People from IT and operations have standing invitations to the meetings and they are often instrumental in finding solutions to problems or working out how to improve existing processes. He is also deliberate in stressing the importance of making sure the success of Altron as a group is first priority. “Internal competition is always healthy, but not if it comes at the expense of the group. It is of no use if an operation wins the battle, but the group loses the war – so to speak.” 

The responsibilities of his new role are quite broad, but he says that success in most things comes down to good communication, whether it’s with his own staff, the organisation at large, the investor community, the CEO, the executive committee or the board. 

“I find that I have a lot of conversations between the operational areas of the business,” Cedric says. “I think that, traditionally, finance was too far removed from the operations and the customers of the business, whereas today I see the proximity between them becoming closer.”

Cedric is also a member of the executive committee and board, where he has to take operational information and decide what is relevant to customers, growth areas, and how the company is tracking against the group stated objectives. Mteto’s vision is that Altron doubles EBITDA in five years and Cedric has to ensure that the CEO has the relevant information from a strategy perspective. “I have to do whatever I need to do in order for Mteto to be successful in the execution of his strategy.” 

Supporting Altron’s long-term strategic goals is Mteto’s cultural and organisational transformation project, in which Cedric also plays a significant role. “Mteto has very high standards for his executive committee, he expects us to not only live and breathe the stated Altron values on a daily basis but also to hold our own teams accountable to those standards,” he says. “Given that we are a finance function, there are higher expectations of fiduciary duties towards the organisation at large. While unethical behaviour is not condoned in any part of the organisation, the finance function is held to an even higher standard.”

From an investor relations perspective, he has to be the conduit of information from Altron to the investor community and stakeholders. 

Staying relevant to people around him

When asked what he would like to achieve within the next five years, Cedric says that he would like to add value and to remain relevant to the environment around him. “Five years from now, the traditional functions as we have them now are not going to exist in their current form,” he says. “Where I see the world moving towards is that you have all the right people around the table to solve a common problem.” 

Many of Cedric’s meetings are with his finance people, but he also always has someone from IT or operations in the room. They also access people with data management skills to help them build dashboards. “That’s what I mean by remaining relevant – having the ability to source those skills and having the people with the right skill sets, attitudes and problem-solving capabilities around the table.”

He adds that, in five years’ time, he would like to look back and say Altron has landed all of the big concepts that finance at large is currently struggling with, like rolling forecasts and leveraging predictive analytics. “It’s a long process, but we have to start getting runs on the board.” 

Cedric says there’s also a very strong human element to the CFO role. “You have to think of how you can grow the people within the finance function so that they become more relevant and more attuned to the business’s needs.” 

Cedric believes it’s also important to remain relevant to the people around him, like his family and society at large. “To remain relevant to those people in an era of information overflow you need to think ‘how do you continue to add value in those settings’.” 

He explains that his children are growing up in an era of information overload with so many fake news and social platforms. “Often the latest fashion trends get more publicity than, for example, climate change. Unfortunately, bad news sells, like Covid-19, massive retrenchments in South Africa, political war mongering, violence, and more.” In response to this, his discussions with his children revolve around teaching them to form their own opinions and not have some bot decide for them. He discusses what future they can expect, saying that self-employment and entrepreneurship is something to be encouraged and not feared. 

“Technology is great and should be embraced, but not at the expense of building and maintaining proper relationships,” he says. “Empathy is also not coming naturally anymore for our digitally native children. It has to be taught and demonstrated.” 

He mentors and sponsors five young finance people. “I’ve had the privilege of having three very strong sponsors throughout my career and I reflect almost daily on some of my habits. When I interact with my staff, I can often hear my sponsor’s voices as part of the conversation.” 

His mentorship ranges from giving feedback and helping them see opportunities that they otherwise might have missed. He also spends a lot of time with his broader team imparting learnings that he’s experienced along the way. But it doesn’t stop there. “In my experience, the moment people trust you, they come to you with all sorts of things, whether it is dealing with difficult colleagues or buying their first house,” Cedric says. “I was talking to someone from my broader team who didn’t report to me and we got chatting about kids. She told me about how she was battling with postnatal depression. It was a sensitive topic, but it was an amazing experience to know that people trust you enough to share.”

He adds that, once there’s a strong trust relationship, people tap into your experience on various things, from family life to financial health issues. 

Cedric stays sane in such a stressful environment with a sense of humour. “If you don’t have the ability to laugh at yourself from time to time, your working environment can become a very daunting place.” 

When he’s at home, he completely immerses himself into his four children’s worlds, which creates space for a lot of laughter. His children, ranging from ages eight to 20, keep him on his toes, whether he has to help them to deal with relationship and university problems or decide what they should wear to costume day at school. 

He also focuses less on his own problems and more on the people around him. When someone in his friendship circle is going through a hard time, he makes himself fully available to them and puts himself in their shoes. “That often makes your own problems seem very small,” he says.
 
In his free time

 

Spending time with his family and friends is very important for Cedric. “As work pressure builds up, you have less time for friends and family, so you have to make time for it,” he says. Staying true to his upbringing, Cedric likes to take them to places that are “completely off the beaten track”, where there’s no cellphone reception and he doesn’t have to wear shoes for a week. They also travel through Africa and South America extensively. 

Cedric has a very unusual collection of pets. “We have a big fat lazy cat called Lola. We have a bearded dragon who the whole family loves except my wife, which is ironic cause she brought him home. He’s a very fun part of the family. Then, because I have small kids I have the ever-present hamster as well. So to keep the cat away from the hamster is always fun.”

Cedric is a “more than keen, amateur photographer”, despite being colourblind. He has done extensive photography during his travels through Africa and South America. “This can be irritating for my travelling companions because you tend to stop every half an hour to take a picture of something interesting next to the road,” he says. “It’s like having a birder in the Kruger.”

He likes mountain biking and has done a couple of races. Two years ago he took part in the Trans Baviaans cycle race, which is a 230km single-stage race of which almost half the distance is in the dark. It runs from Willowmore in the heart of the Eastern Cape Karoo through the world heritage site and remote Baviaans Kloof and finishes in Jeffreys Bay.
 
He also has an interest in vintage cars. “I have an old Bentley that I take out for a drive maybe once or twice a month. I have just completed the full restoration of a 1972 Mercedez that drowned, with the help of three other friends. It was an amazing achievement to get a car that was completely rusted and standing in water for the better part of 20 years and get it running again.”