CFO of the Week: Rofhiwa Irene Singo: I am known as CFO Clean Audit

Popularly referred to as “CFO Clean Audit”, Rofhiwa Irene Singo leads the Finance Department at the Department of Mineral Resources, and has a remarkable story of perseverance to tell. Irene, as she prefers to be called, has been instrumental in turning around the failing financial reporting at three public institutions and prides herself in having achieved these under very difficult conditions. “I always knew that I could do it, hard and smart working paid the price. The name CFO Clean Audit resonates well with me and I like it,” she says.

A humble woman from a rural background, Irene hails from Tshilamba, in the Vhembe district of Limpopo formerly known as Venda. She recalls losing her father when she was three years old. "My mother had to assume the role of raising me and my four siblings on her own at the age of 29. "It has not been easy," she says. "My brother was already in university and that made it very difficult for my mother to cope financially, but with the support of her extended family she never gave up on making us realize our dreams."

Irene started her career in accounting by studying accounting at the then Technikon Northern Transvaal, currently known as Tshwane University of Technology. She then went back to her hometown, Thohoyandou, and worked in the local branch of Standard Bank. During those years, there were only one or two banks in the area, which meant that there were always long queues to deal with. However, she strongly feels that this is where the foundation for her successful career in the private and public sector was laid.

Determined as she was, Irene decided that nothing was going to stop her from pursuing her aspirations of becoming a Chartered Accountant. In 1996 when she was working for the University of Venda, she enrolled for a BCompt degree with UNISA (University of South Africa) studying part time "in between three wonderful boys", she recalls. She later joined her husband who was based in Pretoria.

Going to Pretoria gave Irene the opportunity to do the articles with the Auditor General. However because she had not yet completed her degree, she had to start at the Finance Department and later moved to auditing and training. During her articles she was shortly seconded to Deloitte for further accounting work, to maximize her exposure. Auditing itself was never a career that appealed to her. "I didn't like it. You always had to be in people's faces, you always had to tell people where they were wrong and you never had the opportunity to do something about those problems yourself," she says.

Irene worked for a period of time as a Group accountant in the private sector at Datacentrix, and then decided to join government. She was appointed Director of Finance in the Deeds Office and later on moved to the Department of Rural Development, where she spent the longest time and became acting CFO of this department.

In August 2013, she moved to the Department of Mineral Resources, where she was appointed CFO. "I love making a difference and I call myself CFO Clean Audit, because that is where my pride lies", she says. "When I joined the Deeds Office, their audit report came with a qualification, which I managed to resolve. Also at the Department of Rural Development the audit report came with a qualification, which I resolved as well. In my first year at the Department of Mineral Resources I couldn't do much, but with help of my team and some consultants, I believe we managed to get it right, although our audit report has not been published yet."

Asked how she managed to achieved these successes, she highlighted attitude as a determining factor. "You have to find the root cause of a problem and uproot it. You have to find people with the right attitude. People from Department of Rural Development, where I was acting CFO until in 2013, had recently phoned me and said 'yes, we did it'. That shows the right attitude. As a leader, you have to motivate your team. There will always be one or two people that won't come along, so you leave those behind," she says. "If corruption stymies progress, that needs to be addressed. If people have bad intentions, you pick it up very easily. If the Director General and the minister are not towing the line, it becomes very difficult to steer away from corruption. I have been lucky in that sense."

Irene is also responsible for Information Communication Technology (ICT). Working closely with the CIO, she is currently laying the groundwork for automating the applications for efficient registration and execution of mining licenses. "Any CFO hates it when processes waste time and one of my recipes for success is the fact that I refuse to completely rely on consultants, something that sometimes happens to finance leaders in the public sector due to lack of human resource and IT capacity to deliver on pressing mandates," she says. "Most firms are uncomfortable to work for me, because they really need to work for their money. You can't raise the bill every year, without showing improvement. The problem is that often the scope is not clearly defined. As a CFO you want the problem to be fixed and you end up not spending enough time writing the scoping document properly. That always leads to lots of extra expenses."

In between career growth and family, there was never enough time to focus on the qualifying exams. "I have made a difference in my career life, now I believe the time is right to attempt for the board exam in January 2015," says Irene. She is currently on study leave following her dream and hoping to cash in on her perseverance and finally acquire her CA title.

Pressed about her ambitions, she says she wants to work for the government for about four to five years - and give it a go in the private sector by the time she turns 45. "My days are filled with doing everything in my power to not receive a qualified audit. Everything is always about compliance. We don't have time to sit back and wonder 'how can I improve?' But I really want to make a difference in the public sector first, although I sometimes wonder if I can do that properly as a CFO," says Irene. Is the role too inward looking? "As a CFO you don't get the opportunity to look at other departments. That is why I am looking forward to the time when I will be a qualified CA, because I would like to sit on audit committees of other departments to learn, contribute and influence."

As a potential Platinum Member, Irene is excited about the network opportunities that public CFOs like her have acquired since the inception of CFO South Africa. "As CFOs in government, even within departments, we operate within the same environment, but there is not a lot of sharing of information or best practices. There is a CFO forum in the Treasury, but that is all about ensuring compliance and reporting. If we need a sourcing strategy, for example, I must be able to make reference to the strategy that has worked successfully in another department and adapt for my specific environment rather than starting from scratch. As public CFOs we put a lot of effort re-inventing the wheel."


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