Christine Ramon - CFO Sasol: `Becoming a skeptic but value-adding agent of change`

“An orderly outcome to the European problems is likely to see the slow and unbalanced economic recovery continue, while a disorderly outcome could easily result in the world slipping back into recession. This uncertainty complicates any company’s business planning and Sasol is no exception.” Says Christine Ramon, CFO of Sasol Limited, one of South Africa's largest companies involved in mining, energy, chemicals and synfuels.

Christine joined Sasol as Chief Financial Officer with effect from 1 May 2006. Ramon was Chief Executive of listed hotels and gaming group, Johnnic Holdings Limited until January 2006. She joined the Johnnic group in 1995 where she held several senior positions including Acting Chief Operating Officer and Financial Director. Prior to joining Johnnic, Previously, she worked at senior positions at Coopers & Lybrand both in South Africa and Italy. Upon her return to South Africa in 1994, she took on the position of Deputy Finance Director to the Independent Electoral Commission while on secondment from Coopers & Lybrand (Johannesburg). A qualified Chartered Accountant (SA), Christine is also a Senior Executive Programme graduate from Harvard Business School in conjunction with Wits Business School.

She serves on the Sasol Limited board - listed on JSE since 1979 - as an executive director, simultaneously serving as a director of various other Sasol subsidiaries. The company has a total nationwide staff of 33 700 employees, of which nearly 1150 work at the financial department of the company. Christine also served as a past non-executive director on the boards of Transnet Limited until December 2010 and Johnnic Communications Limited now Avusa Limited until April 2006. She also formerly served on the Standing Advisory Committee to the International Accounting Standards Board.


1) What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love the diversity of my role ranging from strategy input to shaping financial policies, supporting our growth projects, financial risk management as well as talent management. I also enjoy working with people and interacting with investors and other stakeholders.

2) How do you perceive the role of the CFO has changed in the last five to ten years?
The role of the CFO has become increasingly prominent over the last ten years. There is a closer link between the CFO's performance and the performance of the company. A CFO has achieved his/her main career goal if he/she delivered growth in shareholder value. CFOs are focusing more on improving their effectiveness as a member of the company's executive team, by becoming a skeptic but value-adding agent of change.

3) How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next say five to ten years?
The CFO's role will expand even more than in the past ten years. In short, CFOs will be required to assume more non-financial responsibilities such as strategy, compliance and Information Technology, while still required to constantly drive the performance of the company and be the custodian of the company's assets and financial reporting.

4) Would you say that accurate forecasting and budgeting is still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets?
Accurate forecasting and budgeting is definitely still feasible and it should be a necessity in each company to ensure the performance and growth is in line with the long-term strategy of the group and to identify potential risks in a timely matter. A stronger emphasis should be placed on business drivers such as volumes, costs, margins which are under largely management's control when assessing performance.

The number of budgets and forecasting and the level of detail required have however decreased in recent years to allow the finance team to focus more on sensitivities and scenario planning, both up-side and down-side.

5) What do you see as the greatest challenge for South African companies in the global economic situation and for your industry in particular?
The biggest challenge at present is the uncertainty emanating from global developments, particularly around the European-debt crisis. An orderly outcome to the region's problems is likely to see the slow and unbalanced economic recovery continue, while a disorderly outcome could easily result in the world slipping back into recession. This uncertainty complicates any company's business planning and Sasol is no exception.

The impact of the global dynamics requires us to plan for a buffer for volatility in our balance sheet forecasting as we are extremely sensitive to changes in the economic variables. In addition we have taken steps to focus on the controllable factors in our business such as cost containment, margin optimisation, operations excellence and capital excellence given our large capital expenditure programme.

6) Which skill do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in his work?
A finance professional should be able to interpret and intelligently analyse business information as well as proactively respond to situations and make decisions quickly. In addition leadership guidance and communication skills are essential to foster teamwork and co-operation.

7) Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of?
I was happy to be the CEO of Johnnic Holdings Limited, a JSE listed media and entertainment company prior to joining Sasol. Since joining Sasol in 2006 I have gained exposure to petrochemicals industry and our very exciting international growth projects. I am proud to have supported the successful conclusion of two milestone transactions in the lifetime of Sasol: our Sasol Inzalo BEE deal in 2008 as well as our significant gas asset acquisitions in Canada last year.

8) Who is your role model in life and why?
I have had various role models in my life. My mother, for the sacrifices she made in supporting our family and our career ambitions, under rather difficult circumstances. My dad, for his insight and business acumen and Cyril Ramaphosa, who was my chairman at Johnnic Holdings, for his wisdom and leadership.

9) What vital piece of advice would you give young ambitious finance professionals?
I would like to encourage young finance professionals to pursue their ambitions with vigour. In your work environment focus on continuous development and adding value to be recognised. Remember to give yourself time to develop experience and mature emotionally which is essential for good leadership.

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Category: Interviewing the CFO