CFO Nishlan Samujh: Keeping the “universal” picture in mind

Nishlan looks forward to what the future holds for Investec, and for technological advancements.

CFOs today are tasked with looking forward and keeping the bigger picture in mind when they are helping their businesses make decisions. Investec CFO Nishlan Samujh takes this quite literally, both throughout his professional career journey, and when he’s looking up at the stars with his telescope.

On the back of a successful Visionary CFO Series in 2021, A2X has once again partnered with CFO South Africa to bring you a series of interviews highlighting South Africa’s best and brightest CFOs, their insights and challenges. Find out how they help lead some of South Africa’s most successful companies in this bi-weekly interview series.

Read all about the 2021 Visionary CFOs here.

 

Freedom of mind
When he was growing up, Nishlan’s mother gave him a lot of freedom to choose who he wanted to be, and from standard seven (grade nine), he knew he wanted to become a CA.

He explains that while there wasn’t wealth in the house, there was freedom of mind, and he always tried to focus on the bigger picture. “I knew that if I achieved good grades in school, my first year of university would be free. If I achieved good grades in my first year, my second year would be substantially covered, and by the third year I was lucky to get a bursary.”

After graduating from university, Nishlan found the same freedom to take ownership of his actions at Investec. “Often when you work in other places it’s about executing on the task at hand. But at Investec, whether I was junior or senior, it has never felt like a task. It has always felt like something exciting you had to try – with the freedom to do just that.”

Twenty-two years later, this still rings true for Nishlan. “The culture here continuously pushes you to bring out the best in yourself and your role. Investec allows you to have a significant level of ownership in whatever you do, and gives you the freedom to operate, influence and be part of the outcome.”

He explains that his tenure with the group has been fascinating as it went through various growth phases – from Investec’s listing in 2002, to navigating the consequences of the financial crisis in 2008, through the leadership transition and its separation into two businesses in 2020, to navigating Covid-19 and the subsequent economic environment.

Now, Nishlan is excited to take on the next phase at Investec, which is to target growth in its two operating markets: South Africa and the United Kingdom.

“Being the CFO at Investec has really been an amazing place, especially over the last six years. With the company only being 45 years old now, there’s still significant growth ahead of us, and I couldn’t think of a better place to be than in this role at this stage of Investec’s lifecycle.”

Growing in uncertain times
Nishlan explains that the key focus area of this next phase is around disciplined growth. “We aim to spend a fair amount of time on our capabilities as an organisation, driving those deeper into the respective markets we operate in, and expanding Investec to a wider client base.”

Investec currently has just over £2.3 billion (around R45 billion) of capital deployed in each of the two geographies it operates in, totalling £4.6 billion (around R91 billion). “In South Africa, we have a good challenge on return on equity with a high level of excess capital, and in the UK, while we have strong business and a wealth business that has been around for a long time, we are still relatively small in a significant market. So there's still a lot of work to be done to grow the business.”

However, like many organisations, Investec had to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. “The most material impact for us is economic activity, and Covid-19 completely changed the economic environment,” Nishlan says. “Some of the objectives we had set out around the growth phase were postponed because of the weaker economic environment.”

He explains that Investec did a lot of work in both countries to make sure that the business was positioned to be both defensive as well as proactive in assisting clients who were also trying to navigate the crisis. “We also had to be very disciplined around risk and have taken a lot of steps to effectively ensure our balance sheet is well positioned and that we measure capital efficiently. Through that, we have reduced some of our investment portfolio exposure in a way that realises value.”

The Russia-Ukraine war has also impacted economic activity, resulting in higher inflation and subsequently higher interest rates. “If the world continues in the way it does, we won’t see the same level of economic momentum, which will affect many companies going forward.”

Keeping the bigger picture in mind, however, Nishlan adds that the business is well positioned to navigate and seek growth.

The way of the future
As the pandemic subsides, Investec has turned its attention back to its growth phase and Nishlan is excited about the technological opportunities that lie ahead. “We’re evolving to a world where internal and external technologies have an easier way to interlink with each other.”

Investec has introduced an open application programming interface (API), which allows some of its corporate clients to access its systems and design how they want to extract information, and Nishlan’s finance team has implemented new reporting tools that have changed the entire process and put time back into the hands of his teams.

He is also excited for new blockchain technologies. “When you move out the smoke and mirrors around crypto, there’s very exciting technology behind it. As we move forward, it will redefine how we interact.”

He adds that, as an Investec client himself, he has been able to become a more global citizen by being able to interact with his wealth accounts and banking facilities in both South Africa and the UK through one single platform.

Nishlan’s passion for technology also extends to his home, which is fully automated and can be controlled from his phone. “I was sitting in New York one day while my wife was at home and I was switching the TV and lights on and off, creating great annoyance.”

He has even solved for loadshedding by installing solar technology in his home.

Looking at the universe
At night, Nishlan enjoys looking through his telescope and tries to understand a bit more about what’s out there in the universe. “We were recently able to see four planets through the telescope with a beautiful alignment that comes around again in 2040.”

His fascination for astronomy came from his pursuit of always trying to see the bigger picture by staying up to date with the technological and scientific advancements. “We’re in an exciting decade with the developments that are happening worldwide,” he says. “The James Webb Space telescope is now operational, and we will soon be able to see the deepest elements of space that we’ve never seen before.”