CFO Joanne Tanner reveals how she is using her unique storytelling skills to help grow Decision Inc.
In the intricate world of finance, where every decimal point and percentage symbol carries immense significance, it's easy to overlook the fact that beneath the sea of numbers lies another language.
Having been born into a family of chartered accountants (CAs), the CFO role was destined for Joanne Tanner. However, it’s her passion for writing that has set her up for success in the role.
On her journey to qualifying as a CA, Joanne realised that she was good at interpreting financial statements, because she could see it like another language. “To be a good finance professional, you have to be able to interpret and tell a story,” she explains.
“Because I loved English at school, I did a lot of writing, public speaking and debating, which all relates to having the ability to interpret information and relay it back in an understandable way.”
She explains that this has helped a lot in her career, because a big part of the CFO role includes communicating with stakeholders, both internal and external. “We can sometimes get quite technical and lost in our jargon, but the trick is to simplify it and make it easy for someone who isn’t familiar with finance to take that information and use it to enable their own work.”
Positioning for growth
Since joining Decision Inc. at the beginning of April 2022, Joanne’s top priority has been enabling and unlocking growth for the business. In order to do that, she needed to refocus the organisation on optimising cash flow. She focused on telling the story of creating value through generating cash from operations, and how to do that.
“We essentially buy units of time from consultants on a monthly basis,and then sell them to our customers, so we need to have structured project plans in place to keep track of this time. Matching cash outflows and inflows, on average monthly, while generating profitability is important to enable growth.” Joanne and her team worked with the operations and project management teams to build a structure that would meet the needs of the organisation, the consultants, and of the customers.
Together with the CEO, Joanne also had to raise funding for the growth that the business had planned. “Traditionally, banks prefer to lend against large capital assets. It has been quite a challenge to show the banks what the value behind the business is and what the future revenue streams will be,” she says.
They used their rich customer history over the past five years, a lot of which are big listed players in their markets, to demonstrate that value. “We’ve been with these big clients for a very long time and we’re still there because this data modernisation journey is not just an end destination,” she explains. “A company, for example, would start with their supply chain area and see a similar opportunity in finance, and then in HR, and so on.”
The work that the finance team has been doing on cash flow management has also gone a long way in helping the banks understand the language of a services business. “We were able to demonstrate to them what it would look like if we continue to grow according to our new revenue plans,” she adds.
Ensuring a strong foundation
Right now it’s all about tech and data. But Joanne’s career has always been about tech and data. “I’ve always loved it because it enables me and my team to tell the story of the business. You can’t do that if you’re doing manual work to simply report the numbers,” she says.
She explains that Decision Inc. has been modernising itself to position itself for the growth it sees in this space.
“Business is only as good as its foundation, and we have to bring in the right technology to strengthen that foundation.”
Joanne has been very deliberate about fully integrating the group’s management reporting and forecasting globally through an FP&A tool. “We’re using one of the tools we sell to our customers, which is great because everyone already believes in and understands it. I’ve previously had to talk a lot more before I could get everyone’s buy-in.” This tool gives finance and business a common language, which enables operating activities to be translated into financial performance.
“We are also implementing an operational tool that primarily manages project management and our resourcing requirements, critical to Decision Inc.’s global business. At the same time, we’re optimising our ERP,” she adds.
Joanne explains that all of these tools will enable the organisation to connect more seamlessly across its global operations, which is a crucial element of its growth plan. “Because we’re in this digital world and what we do is digital, we’re not blocked by borders.”
This has proven very beneficial for the South African-born organisation, which has grown into London and Sydney already with plans to expand even more in those regions.
“The cultures are very different, but where diversity of thought divides, it can also bring together,” she says. “Data needs and modernisation are not unique, they are ubiquitous globally. And so we can consider the needs of everyone when we create a strategy.”
She explains that the differences come in when they go to market, because each country wants to engage with and see local people in the business. “Our true South Africanacity lies in embracing that diversity, which is what makes us good across all these markets.”
While Joanne makes operating across three different markets sound easy, it holds a unique set of challenges. “It’s important that we bring our cash to where our debt is, because we are still too small in our global regions to adequately raise debt there. So we have to raise debt locally, which poses a challenge from an exchange control perspective.”
Another challenge is largely around tax planning. “We’ve had to deal with transfer pricing because we provide a shared services and global delivery function from South Africa servicing South Africa, the UK and Australia. We also have to consider VAT and international income tax planning, structuring ourselves optimally to remain compliant in all those regions. South Africa has double taxation agreements with these different countries too, so our tax management is fairly complex.”
There are also exchange rate considerations, given the rand’s poor performance against the pound and Australian dollar.
Right place, right time
“Because of the nature of the business, we are seeing high growth at the moment. Everyone wants a little bit of what we do,” Joanne explains.
“With the diverse range of skills we have within the business, we’re poised to keep growing,” she says. “We are in a place where we attract good talent to grow organically. We can now raise funding based on our story, and we’re on a journey to grow inorganically through acquisition as well.”
Decision Inc. also still sees a lot of opportunity for growth in South Africa. “The market in this space is consolidating and we’re looking at some very exciting and unique businesses at the moment,” she explains.
Joanne adds that the company intends to double its size in the next two to three years.
A good leader
“One of my mentors taught me very early on in my career that a good leader adapts to their people and the organisation. You don’t expect them to adapt to you,” Joanne explains, adding that she strives to be that leader.
She adds: “If you want to get the best out of someone, you really have to pay attention to what they need and then adapt your leadership style accordingly.
“Some days I need to be a coach, some days I need to be a visionary, and others I need to take a step back and just support them,” she explains. “A business can’t function without its people, especially not a services business.”
To support her team, Joanne tries to create a learning culture and an environment where people feel safe to try new things. “If you give them room to grow and follow their passion, everyone will be happier and more engaged within the organisation.”
Decision Inc. also has a number of different development programmes, including a talent accelerator programme, where it takes junior consultants and gives them tools to accelerate their development.
Trying new things
When she isn’t telling intricate stories, Joanne swims to clear her head. “It’s led me on quite an interesting journey, in fact, some of the grade four moms at my son’s school have started a water polo team,” she says.
“Normally, we are the ones running around being ‘soccer mom’. We wanted to do something with our boys instead.
“Our boys were in grade one when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, so coming out of it we’ve had to encourage them to try new things and push them to get out there. This team is our way of showing them that it’s okay to try new things, because we are doing it too.”
Joanne’s team is one of two in the country, and yes, they have played against each other in preparation for playing against their sons at the end of the school year. “This is probably one of the only years we stand a chance to win, because they’re going to grow bigger and stronger than all of us soon.”
The team has also had a lot of support from the South African water polo community, with local coaches volunteering their times for free.
The rest of her free time Joanne prefers to spend indulging in a good book, reading new and inspiring stories.