CFO Isaac Malevu serves South Africa with pride and dedication

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CFO Isaac Malevu successfully made the switch from the private to the public sector when joining the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) four years ago. His hard work in leading the corporation through crises was ultimately what earned him the 2023 Public Sector CFO of the Year Award.

After a successful career working for leading private sector brands, seasoned finance veteran Isaac Malevu made the jump to public sector leadership a few years ago

“I’ve always wanted to contribute to the country’s economic and social development. Joining the public sector was an opportunity for me to do this, while also having the privilege of learning the inner workings of government. This move from the private to the public sector has enabled me to get first-hand insights into what makes the engine of our country tick. Better still, I get to serve the country while giving back,” he explains.

Isaac has definitely made a contribution, helping the IDC achieve a remarkable turnaround from a R3.8 billion loss in 2020 to over R10.7 billion in attributable profits in the financial year ending 31 March 2023.

The achievement saw Isaac win the Public Sector CFO of the Year Award, as well as the Transformation & Empowerment Award during the 2023 CFO Awards.

Despite how easy the transition panned out, Isaac acknowledges that there are big structural differences and demands for leaders serving in the private and public sectors. Navigating bureaucracy and legislative restrictions requires a degree of tenacity, he says.

Getting up to speed on all the ins and outs of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) provided a steep learning curve. “It was a stark contrast to the private finance and accounting policies I was already familiar with,” he explains.

Enacted in 1999, the PFMA regulates financial management across national government, provincial administrations, and local authorities. “The sweeping legislation outlines provisions that public finance leaders must navigate when it comes to National Treasury oversight, budgeting/planning processes, procurement standards, reporting requirements, and more,” Isaac notes, “You can’t function as a state-owned entity without a thorough understanding of this PFMA."

The IDC specifically falls under the Schedule 2 classification: public entities that generate over 50 percent of revenue from commercial activities and compete directly alongside private sector companies. It is the IDC’s developmental mandate that makes it different.

“Public sector organisations adhering to PFMA procurement and reporting requirements while competing head-to-head with the private sector, skews the landscape in favour of the competition. This is extremely challenging," he explains. “Before 2017, the IDC operated far more freely in terms of delivering on our developmental mandate, because it was exempt from PFMA. This isn’t the case anymore.”

“As a self-financing entity that relies on dividends to sustain its funding operation, I think we should perhaps be given enough wiggle room,” he adds.

PFMA aside, Isaac has gained an appreciation for governance and oversight mechanisms across state institutions, ultimately safeguarding responsible stewardship is in the public's best interest. This insider perspective likely would have taken far longer to gain had he persisted solely along private industry lines instead.

With time, he has also recognised the rationale behind the more conservative public sector culture: “Given the recent history and narrative around state-owned entities following episodes of state capture, strict governance mechanisms to safeguard responsible stewardship of public funds are rightly in place.”

Private sector advantage

That said, Isaac’s background in the private sector has provided him with an advantage in navigating PFMA lending and accounting standards. He led the IFRS 9 implementation in his previous role as CFO of Standard Bank Corporate Investment Banking’s Client Coverage division.

“My banking experience, particularly in financial markets and stakeholder engagement, has been instrumental in navigating the IDC through the fiscal uncertainties brought on by the pandemic. This background helped me to spearhead a cash preservation strategy and maintain stakeholder confidence, essential for our financial stability and sustainability during these challenging times,” he says.

In addition to the PFMA, leaders of State-Owned Entities (SOEs) must also operate amid input from multiple government stakeholders. The reality is that this adds an extra regulatory burden with approvals required from both the National Treasury and the shareholder representative, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic). Isaac explains that this means “a decision that in the private sector could take a month or a week, in the public sector context could take longer given the extra protocols”.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, however, Isaac has focused intently on managing these dynamics, building relationships, and bridging understanding across stakeholders. “I now have a relationship with stakeholders across the board, because I went beyond just sending emails and got to know them at a personal level," he says, adding that he can now directly contact figures at the dtic, National Treasury, and beyond to interpret the IDC's mission and opportunities to support national objectives.

Through this careful balance of stakeholder interests, he has continued delivering on the IDC's developmental mandate even amid economic crises and while transforming the organisation.

Leading through crisis

When Isaac joined the IDC in October 2020, the global economy had tanked largely due to disruption in the global supply chain brought on by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. By extension, the impact of the pandemic on the local economy squeezed the IDC’s balance sheet. This pushed the company to the brink of collapse – it had suffered huge losses, held unsustainable debt levels, and was faced with potential defaults on loans. Staff morale plummeted to its lowest ebb and, for an organisation whose mandate is to support industrial development and job creation in South Africa, the situation threatened its very existence.

“Taking a cue from our esteemed CE TP Nchocho, I realised very quickly that there were three challenges. One was a leadership challenge. Two was the challenge of low employee morale. And lastly, we needed to work on the IDC’s financial sustainability,” Isaac recalls.

Stepping into the leadership void, he worked closely with the CEO and IDC's management team to support a strategy centred on three pillars:

1. The IDC would continue pursuing its developmental mandate.
2. The organisation would focus intently on restoring financial sustainability.
3. Leadership would carefully balance the two, demonstrating that “the two are not mutually exclusive”.

“The first thing was to come up with a cash preservation plan,” he explained. His team reviewed cash flow projections, decided which investments could be delayed, and directly engaged lenders, investors and credit rating agencies.

Through this crisis leadership, within two years the IDC had turned itself around – improving engagement levels, moving from loss to profit, doubling investment approvals to over R20 billion, and disbursing over R40 billion of financial support to the South African economy.

From a financial sustainability lens, Isaac summarises the strategic approach as, “Our mandate is very clear as the IDC. It is to support the growth and preservation of jobs, build industries, and promote an environmentally-friendly, technologically-advanced economy. We aim to industrialise in a better, more responsible manner going forward.”

As a development finance institution, the IDC's purpose is to provide countercyclical investment support over economic cycles, injecting funding when private investors pull back even if it requires taking on additional risk.

Isaac has focused intensely on enabling this through the recent economic crises while balancing sustainability. On renewable energy, for example, the IDC targeted “investing R7 billion to support energy companies by helping them get solar panels”. Under his leadership, the company attained all-time highs of over R100 billion invested in the industry over five years and R40 billion just last year.

“If I look at those statistics, it feels like we’ve done something special as a leadership team of the IDC supported by the board,” he says.

Leading with impact

Part of Isaac’s success stems from his unique leadership style, which is focused on motivating teams based on a shared vision, while still driving accountability. “I want to lead with impact. My style of leadership is results-driven, balanced with empathy, because you cannot achieve anything without people,” he says.

This culminates in an ethos he summarises as care, approachability, transparency, and consistency. “I have a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve, and where we are going People know with me they can always ask: what are the problems we are trying to solve? What does success look like?” he explains.

Keeping teams aligned to desired outcomes helps progress move along briskly.

Whether it's attempting to check the box of employment equity reporting or getting ahead of changing societal expectations, many organisations have started small-scale diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives, often siloed solely within human resources.

However, according to Isaac, diversity and inclusion need to be treated as far more than just a compliance exercise or public relations strategy. Instead, he advocates embedding the promotion of diversity firmly within an organisation's business strategy itself. “It is important because it is a business imperative. When you have different people with different backgrounds, cultures, genders coming together to solve problems, the solutions can be incredibly impactful because of drawing from more diverse perspectives.”

He adds that having teams comprising members with varied lived experiences, education, identities, and ways of thinking leads to higher-quality ideas and solutions. This enhances innovation, sharpens customer insights, and lifts all-round organisational performance over time.

On brand differentiation, Isaac also spotlights how companies known for championing inclusion have a positive reputation and often have a recruiting edge in the competition for top talent . Prospective employees (especially younger generations) actively assess diversity track records and “care about the story, not just the product”, making it a key competitive differentiator.

He argues that driving real change requires re-examining foundations. “This spans leadership commitment, embedding inclusive behaviours into company values and code of conduct, and building diversity metrics into performance management at all levels.”

At the IDC, such foundational shifts have included:

  • Ensuring leadership buy-in: Isaac chairs the Diversity & Inclusion Forum supported by executive commitment.
  • Mainstreaming flexibility: Initiatives like hybrid work policies provide alternate options acknowledging varied needs.
  • Expanding development opportunities: Ensuring internal mobility, secondments and training opportunities, are open to all employees.
  • Inclusive decision forums: Union and worker council voices included in key choices like return-to-work planning.

“Though transforming cultures poses difficulties initially, I firmly believe that the benefits far outweigh the frustrations some may experience short term,” he explains.

Having leaders who continuously communicate and model desired behaviours is key to building trust and momentum. This prevents diversity and inclusion from being viewed as just the “flavour of the month”, a short-lived initiative.

A personal contribution

Despite the red tape, Isaac still considers his choice to enter the public realm as CFO of the IDC one of the most rewarding decisions of his career as it allows him to drive impact at scale through supporting game-changing sectors and investments to boost industrialisation and job creation nationwide.

Beyond fulfilling his personal yearning to contribute to South Africa's growth journey, Isaac has also appreciated the chance to realise major financial milestones, which represents the kind of complex professional challenge he has always gravitated toward. Isaac notes he has always thrived when confronted with a significant “problem to be solved”.

For those finance leaders eyeing their own leap from private to public posts, Isaac’s advice says it all: “Change is hard… but if change is ultimately for bettering individuals, companies and the country, then it’s worth it!”

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