CFO Graham Mears: from the Big Hole to a massive MBO deal

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Graham Mears, CFO and partner at M&C Saatchi Abel, has gone from the big hole in Kimberley to a 17-year career in London, and has just implemented a massive MBO deal.

CFO and partner at M&C Saatchi Abel Graham Mears came back to South Africa after 17 years in London, and is now hands-on in the financial operations of the biggest independent advertising agency in the country.

Graham is passionate about BEE. “The point of BEE isn’t about getting a certificate with the right score. You need to remember that it’s actually about real transformation, which is something that I am truly passionate about.”

Since November of last year, Graham has been diligently spearheading a management buy-out, marking a significant milestone with its official announcement on 10 April 2024.

M&C Saatchi Group South Africa's local leadership has agreed to acquire the business for £5.6 million (roughly R134 million) from M&C Saatchi. This milestone represents not only a substantial financial transaction, but also a resounding vote of confidence in both the South African economy and the prospects of M&C Saatchi Group SA.

The acquisition will also significantly accelerate the group’s transformation agenda, which has been a strategic imperative since day one.

Graham describes this as his greatest career achievement and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to flex his muscles as CFO. It allowed him to leverage his expertise, contributing significantly to the success of this transformative endeavour.
The project required months of hard work, meticulous due diligence and complex problem-solving.

The lesson he took away from this career highlight was that in the beginning, there are so many variables and unknowns you must get comfortable with. The key is to stay calm and focus on handling tasks in the right order and one by one.

Once completed, not only will this buy-out make those South African entities entirely locally owned, but it will uniquely position the M&C Saatchi Group South Africa as the biggest independent agency in the country that is still a valued affiliate of a famed global network.

Leveraging global expertise

What Graham found from working abroad is the way he interacted with his colleagues in the UK is completely different than at home. There, he found that people are usually more measured in how they deal with colleagues, not going for transparent honesty as is generally the case in South Africa. “They won’t say something without thinking about the matter, what to say, and how to get it across.”

At the same time, the Brits are very social and will hang out at a pub with each other at the end of a hard day.

Graham, who chats with CFO SA surrounded by art hung on M&C Saatchi Abel’s walls to inspire staff and clients alike, says he takes a more South African approach to managing people. He allows people to work things out themselves in the workplace, coming up with their own solutions, even though he will act as a sounding board.

“That process can seem frustrating,” he says, “but in the long run, people learn.”

Articles also led to new contacts and new friends, which have been a critical part of who Graham is today. “Those contacts and friends that I made at Deloitte are very much a part of my life right now.” The M&C Saatchi Group’s tax partner is one of those, and he has a network of advisors he can call on to bounce ideas off. He also met his best friend at Deloitte, and they were each the best man at each other’s weddings.

Graham completed his articles at what was then Deloitte & Touche and moved to London after being seconded to Deloitte & Touche in Miami. During his time in the UK, he worked at several companies.

His last international position, at Razorfish, was as CFO/COO for Razorfish's Europe region. At Razorfish, Graham managed a successful earn-out, while dealing with the Y2K changeover during the dot-com boom at Lehman Brothers, and also raising venture capital at European Technology Consultants, experiences which stood him in good stead in areas from investment banking to advertising and startups.


Small-town boy, big ambitions

Before heading to London for 17 years, he found himself in the “big city” of Cape Town where he did his studies at the University of Cape Town. This, he says, was a big part of his development.

“It took a while to get my head around moving to a big town. And I guess I've always had a kind of small-town mentality. Whenever you meet people, you get the standard jokes about the Big Hole.”

Graham has been back in South Africa for nine years now and has spent that time working in the advertising sector, first at JWT and then at M&C Saatchi Abel.

He considers the fact that he was able to go from being a “simple Kimberley kid” to competing on a global arena in London as a big success.

“Needing to prove myself on a bigger stage, being in charge of the finances of large companies and managing significant projects internationally has always been really important for me.”

Another aspect outside of work that he is keen on is sport, especially on water. This had to be put on ice when he was in London.

Having started water-skiing at a young age, his ambition in this area was fuelled by an American glossy magazine, which was also an entry-point, albeit subconsciously, to the world of advertising. “A really thick, glossy magazine called Water Ski, which was a US publication, was my entry into the sport. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it every month,” he says.

Graham jokes that he might have opened up a waterski school had he not become a CA.

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