Education equals success: Mervyn Coopen, FD of Strato IT Group

“Education is more important than anything else and will take us to the next level. I believe that helping to educate the masses in our country is a good and very necessary thing,” says Strato IT Group’s financial director, Mervyn Coopen. “Because education is often a key differentiator between you and success. I place emphasis on that and carry that message everywhere.”

The CFO today is said to be less a bean counter and more a business leader. Would you agree?
“Yes; these days it’s a well-rounded and strategic function focussed on developing goals and strategies for the organisation. A fundamental aspect of this is seeing beyond the current years.”

What do you most enjoy about the CFO role? What do you least enjoy?
“I enjoy the forward planning and strategic thinking aspects, as well as the flexibility of the role. As a director of the company, I have a lot of latitude in my role and can get involved in any area and step into other shoes and do what is right for the organisation because I’ve earned the trust and respect of the board. I quite like the flexibility and freedom to get involved.”
“What I don’t enjoy is that sometimes the hours are long, and you have less free time over critical periods. That said, modern technology has made this somewhat easier.”

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in finance over the years? How have new technologies such as Cloud changed the landscape?
“I can speak from a vantage point in terms of knowing both ends of the world – I’ve done everything manually and made it balance on paper, but the technological advancements in finance, reporting and modelling gives you a competitive advantage of having information at your fingertips. These days a variety of business intelligence tools mean you can download information and tailor it and put it into a report or pie chart, for example, and everything is just so much easier.”
“I am a big cloud man. I believe that cloud is the thing. It has significantly changed the landscape. Cloud gives way for you to focus on more exciting aspects of your role. The scalability and flexibility of the solution makes capital expenditure disappear altogether, which gives you better control of your cash management. One of our fundamentals is that we don’t buy anything on credit, so the scalability and flexibility of cloud gives us the latitude to manage our cash properly.”

What value do you place on mentoring and how much time do you spend coaching others?
“I think it’s important and believe that we could better focus on this area of learning. We get so busy and caught up in what we are doing that we forget about mentoring and coaching the younger generation. I’m a firm believer in handing over the baton to youngsters.”
“We’ve actually been strategising around this specifically and have a system in place where, every second Monday evening we take a different team – especially the younger employees – and we roll out whatever they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve and we try to assist them. From a business perspective, you don’t get that sort of training on the frontline. When we put these youngsters at the frontline they’re in the deep end a bit, so we try to coach them.”

You are a regular at CFO South Africa events. What value do you feel they add for finance professionals?
“I enjoy networking with like-minded individuals. I believe that at a gathering of finance professionals, almost everybody is on the same level and is treated equally. I think the topics are relevant to organisations and I like that the speakers share real experiences. That assists us immensely."

'It gives you a certain comfort to hear other CFOs have the same issues that affect their organisations, and sharing helps us all to avoid repeating those same mistakes. These sort of networking events take experiential learning to a whole other level. Back in the office for us CFOs, it can be lonely.”

You are currently studying towards a BCom degree and an MBA. Why, at this stage in your life and career, have you chosen to pursue this?

“There are two aspects to this, we have a graduate programme in the organisation because we have several senior individuals in the company who are also senior in years, so their skills might vanish in a few years’ time. Thus, we sought out graduates to take on these roles. There are so many people walking around with degrees these days that to separate the men from the boys we said ok, let’s get people with honours degree and above only, so I said if we are doing that, I need to embark on this myself. I decided about three years ago to pursue this."

Pictured left: Mervyn at the 2016 CFO Awards

"I’ve put my degree on hold, though, to finish the dissertation aspect of my MBA. My dissertation is on leadership. I think we need to look at sustainability in leadership. I enjoy helping people and steering them in a direction, because a lot of people have no direction in life. From a leader perspective, this helps me to help others, so that I can practice what I preach. For the last two years I’ve spent almost every Saturday in the office doing this.”
“My ambition in life is to write a book before I turn 60. I’ve interviewed close to about 40 different church pastors because I want to write a book on what happens to pastors’ wives when pastors pass away. I’ve found that, being in the church, people disrespect pastors’ wives when their husbands die.”

Outside of work you are an active member of the community. Tell me about some of your work here and why this is important to you.
“There’s a saying: if you want to get the job done, give it to the busiest person around! I believe that I have so much to offer and that my personal success is not measured by how much I can acquire but by how much I can give. I’ve been involved in the church for over 30 years, in various ways, and it’s in my blood to help people. I think, coming from an impoverished background, it hurts me to see people in the same situation where I was 40 or so years ago."

"If you can help one person and can change one person, I believe it has an osmotic effect back into the community. I hope that’s what I leave behind one day. Assisting people gives me a sense of achievement. Helping people is my modus operandi in life."

"When I turned 50 I said, for the first part of your life you strive and you want to wear the best clothes and drive the best car and travel the world. I think it took me 17 years before I could buy my dream car, and now, so what? I’ve lived in a modest home in Sandton for 18 years. In terms of acquiring things, you can only sleep in one bed at a time, so having a ten-bedroom house won’t make a difference. We are a simple, humble bunch as a family. I believe there’s no need for that sort of thing. For me, it’s about being significant in life.”

One of your activities is an adult-based education project. How important is education to you?
“Education is more important than anything else and will take us to the next level. I believe that helping to educate the masses in our country is a good and very necessary thing. From our background and upbringing, Indian families want to ensure we educate our children. Because education is often a key differentiator between you and success. I place emphasis on that and carry that message everywhere. I’ve been involved in many school organisations and I speak at a lot of schools from a motivational perspective. I have a great sense of joy seeing people move from one level to the next and raising the bar.”
“I started this adult-based programme single-handedly and I still do it. I go to the Alexandra community centre, it’s a hive of activity. I get there in the morning with my computer and my printer and create email addresses for some individuals and help them and coach them in writing up a CV and then ask them to come fetch it from my office or otherwise I print it on site for them. I connect people with jobs and try match people I’m in contact with to available jobs. I use my office here at the company and our receptionist helps as well.”

What keeps you up at night?
“My MBA – but that’s temporary. I think what’s on everybody’s mind is, are we going to be in business next year and the year after, and how do we navigate our way out of the economic climate? I think a lot of people are feeling the burden. We are always asking, what’s our next port of call, because our business is consulting, so we need to work out what we do next.”

What brings you joy in life?
“To see someone less fortunate than I am, to see them prosper and succeed and make a career of whatever they want to achieve, that brings me joy. More especially, if I’ve been instrumental in assisting them and it’s making a remarkable difference, that brings me joy.”