Unpredictability, transparency, excellence: a chat with RAF CFO Yolande van Biljon


Yolande van Biljon learnt valuable lessons when the IT bubble burst around the turn of the century, grew into a finance leader at Denel and now has the unenviable task of sorting out the cash flow problems at the Road Accident Fund (RAF). Her recipe for success should work for any CFO: “What scares people is uncertainty. It is better to be open, even if you cannot tell people what they want to hear.”

"What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," Van Biljon says with reference to the start of her career. "If you look at articles… that is a very good place to start. I got exposure to many different companies, from cafés to listed organisations. I then ended up at ITI Online, right at the time that the IT bubble burst. I was extremely fortunate that I could walk into another job, but it was very traumatic for many people and I still carry that message with me - don't take things for granted."

Van Biljon says her professional lessons ran parallel to those of Spencer Johnson's top selling business book 'Who Moved My Cheese?' "If you ignore the obvious, you are surprised when it is suddenly no longer there. So the lessons from that time were: don't put your head in the sand. Be curious, be proactive. We walked out with nothing, but those things add to your character."

"The human part doesn't always come naturally to accountants; that is why we crunch numbers. Numbers don't lie to you."

Although she can talk about it casually now, at the time Van Biljon had to personally tell a lot of people there were no longer jobs for them and a management buyout also came to nothing. "The whole situation did show that we were quickly learning to think creatively and be innovative. It has also made me a much better leader, with more empathy. The human part doesn't always come naturally to accountants; that is why we crunch numbers. Numbers don't lie to you."

180 degree turn
Van Biljon calls the next 6 years at Topmed Healthcare Distributors recovery time, but at the end of it, she was ready for something new. Denel was very challenging. "As a person, as a CA and later as a CFO, I made a 180 degree turn. I learnt to deal with unpredictability. Finance people like order and structure, but in the higher echelons of management the demands on your day can be very different from what you set out to do in the morning. You need to be able to deal with that unpredictability gracefully."

Being part of a team that moved Denel from financial trouble to excellence, Van Biljon says she made sense of the numbers by stepping away from them. "I am the kind of CFO who likes to be involved in operations. I think it is important to be on the floor, to be speaking to people. It helps you make sense of the numbers, but it also earns you respect and trust."

"I am the kind of CFO who likes to be involved in operations."

Being creative and looking forward and outwards are key elements to a successful finance team, Van Biljon has noticed. "The finance team needs to reinvent itself continuously. You cannot be stuck in Excel; you need an innovative way to look at numbers. When my CEO at Denel told me I had migrated from Excel to Powerpoint; that was a great compliment. I started to focus much more on value add, understanding my environment. I really discovered another part of myself."

"Taking Finance into the future"
Van Biljon says she "reached a ceiling" at Denel and decided to take a CFO role at the Road Accident Fund. "There is still a lot of growing to do, about leadership in particular. I really want to take the finance function into the future and transform it to be a business partner to the organisation."

Soon after she joined, she realised that the Road Accident Fund has a huge funding shortfall. "It has been an unexpected challenge. I had to change the way we dealt with treasury and cash management. We have to work with the legal fraternity, which is less forgiving than the commercial environment so it has been an obstacle course of note. I am not sure how successful I am, but I nonetheless think we are in a better position than 8 months ago."

Van Biljon's approach is based on her learning at ITI and Denel. "I really believe in transparency. At least we are not sticking our head in the sand. It is better to be open, even if you cannot tell people what they want to hear."

Van Biljon is looking forward to sharing experiences with other CFOs, not only about technical things like cash management but also about how they get their work-life balance right. "It is just a great opportunity to be exposed to what is out there."

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