CFO Day asks Jason Quinn about the power of people and technology


Group FD Jason Quinn unpacks how Absa built a pan-African brand by repositioning the bank’s culture.

Once a year, 100 of South Africa’s top finance executives come together for the full-day learning and networking opportunity known as CFO Day. This year, it took place in the luxurious conference hall at The Leonardo in Sandton, and touched on the role man and machine play in the future of work.

As part of the day’s agenda, guests received the exclusive opportunity to ask three CFOs and one CEO their burning questions about integrating technology and people in a meaningful way.

In this article, we reveal Absa Group FD Jason Quinn’s answers to some of the questions asked on the day.

1. Could you provide some context around the power of people in building an African brand?

About 10 years ago, Absa was very much a South African business – more than 90 percent of our assets resided in the country. However, we realised it was over-concentrated, and that we needed to diversify our portfolio so that, over time, we could harness better growth than in just one market.

We combined Absa with the 12 businesses that Barclays operated across Africa with the vision to build a pan-African business. The deal was worth R18 billion at the time; today that enterprise value is worth R35 billion. So it paid off.

But it’s how we got there where my answer lies.

Four years after the deal, Barclays disposed of their shares in Absa, giving us the opportunity to reset the company culture. We went to our colleagues in Absa and asked everyone what they wanted the purpose and values of the business to be, then co-created our purpose and value statement based on the feedback.

Read more: Jason Quinn unpacks the Barclays separation

We focus on empowerment and accountability. We operate our businesses with a federal model, which means every country acts as a standalone bespoke business that is part of the bigger family, but has its own capital and its own local strategy. This is because the markets are very different, and what might work in South Africa, might not work in Ghana, for example.

Additionally, if you’re building an African brand and you’re looking for loyalty from your people, the concept of real ownership in the organisation and real recognition or reward is absolutely important.

We also recently announced a further transaction of R12 billion, which will see four percent of the company’s ownership going to the employees of the company in the next five years.

2. What is the top priority for your business in the next five years, and how is that supported by people and technology?

Today, banks are navigating rapidly rising interest rates. Loadshedding is also having a severe impact on the economy of South Africa. We need to make sure that the actions we take today are going to address challenges like these, which we will probably face for a few years.

But there is still an opportunity to harness the growth that comes with some of these challenges by investing in technology.

3. Are you seeing a move towards greater freedom of thought?

Five years ago, our cost-to-income ratio was 58 percent and getting worse. Today, it’s 50 percent. We didn’t get that right by only improving our customer and risk appetite and capital allocation: we digitised many of our front-end processes.

In doing that, we can really add value through data and analytics that help us plan for different scenarios and futures – which proved essential during the Covid-19 pandemic.

4. Do you have any advice for other CFOs who are looking to integrate their teams with technology?

Set some really aggressive milestones, not only from a delivery perspective, but also from a check-in perspective. You have to regularly make sure everything is on track, so that you can intervene in time when something goes wrong.

You also have to be brave in taking some risks at the point of implementation. None of our programmes were 100 percent perfect when we implemented them, but most of them were fit for purpose and we could fix and adjust them as we went along.

Versions of software also change as time goes on. You might start off with one implementation now, and a year later there’s something better because of how quickly technology is developing. You have to pick your path carefully, in a way that will make those later adoptions easier.

CFO Day was made possible by principal partner Workday, executive partner BDO, and associate partners Allan GrayCaseware AfricaCircitCoupaSoluGrowth and Transparent.

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