Discovery Vitality's CFO Senele Mbatha: We need to be slick, efficient, smart and relevant

Senele says CFOs will continue to be asked to do more with less until the economy grows.

Senele Mbatha was recently appointed as the CFO of Discovery Vitality. CFO.co.za met with him to find out about his journey into finance, the future role of the CFO, the challenges of the economy and why he believes that leadership is like volleyball.
 
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you end up in your current role?
I grew up in Osizweni and finished matric in Madadeni, just outside of Newcastle. I am a proper township boy. I was free-range in a semi-rural town, then went to the University of KZN, where I did a B.Com in accounting. I decided I didn’t want to be a CA and so I did my Honours in management accounting. I then landed a job at EY, and one of the partners said that I must go back and do my CTA, so I did. 3 years later I qualified, but stayed until I was a senior manager. I didn’t want to be a partner, so I decided it was time to leave. I moved to AIG where I held various roles, including the chief accounting officer for South Africa, and then for Africa. I was promoted to CFO for Africa, looking after Uganda, South Africa and Kenya life and short-term businesses.

Then the Discovery Vitality CFO opportunity came up two months ago, and here I am today.
 
What challenges and opportunities do you currently face?
It’s an exciting role. Within Vitality, we are part of the group’s operations, and are involved in every company. If Discovery launches a bank, we support that. So there’s a lot of opportunity for us. Like all companies in South Africa, though, we are dealing with the fact that the economy isn’t growing as it should be, and customers are expecting more. So we need to be slick, efficient, smart and relevant. That will continue to be a challenge going forward – being asked to do more with less – until the economy starts to grow.


 
What was your toughest day?
I was still doing articles. It was the first time I was involved in letting somebody go. To separate facts from emotions is not easy, and it’s important to always reflect on that. The person had done the wrong thing that was against company policy, and I found it out. As a supervisor, I had to report what I had found, but it was hard. I spoke to someone senior about it and they said I had to do the right thing so I could sleep at night. That’s stayed with me forever.
 
How did you choose a career in finance?
Where I come from is semi-rural. There was no library and no career guidance. All I knew is that I wanted to work for a bank. And to work for a bank, you need to study accounting. So I applied for a B.Com accounting, and when I got to university, I started to learn more about the careers that were open to me. I didn’t want to be a CA or do auditing, which is why I chose management accounting. But then Sugan Palanee, the partner at EY I mentioned, twisted my arm, and I’ve never looked back.

In the end, I loved accounting. Auditing is one of those subjects I think we need to find better teachers for. It’s an exciting career, but the way that they teach it at university isn’t right – it’s just endless notes, rather than anything inspirational about the importance of the role.

What do you think makes “the Future CFO”?
In the past, the CFO used to be “those nerds that know their numbers”. Now the business wants us to lead strategy, run with it, look into the future and advise. But I believe that with all the automation that’s happening, the future will want us to be human beings, to listen, to sympathise and to continue providing value to shareholders and the business, but more importantly to be relevant to the industry and environment we are working in. I think that’s what’s missing currently with CFOs – we are the heartbeat of the business, but not the heartbeat of the environment we are working in.
 
How are AI and the Internet of Things changing the way that CFOs work?
With automation and specifically robotics, we are getting to do things that we didn’t get to before. Before, we were trying to get over the line and close the books. Now we have the time to analyse, think about it, advise better. It’s given us that platform. And more importantly, it gives us and the shareholders comfort that we are doing things efficiently – not just trying to push paper, but understanding processes and people, so we can run the business better.
 
What is your leadership style?
I always say that I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. When I am happy with what you have done, I will let you know. When I am not, you will know that I am not. I am open like that. And I value relationships more than anything. I want to know how you are before I talk about business, because for me, a person is so much more than the job that they do.
 
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I didn’t know five years ago that I would be here. What’s important to me is that every day I must invest in myself and grow, grow, grow, then the universe will take care of where I must be in five years. Every day I work on myself and what I need to do.
 
Do you have a personal philosophy?
I wake up and read before I come to work. Right now, I am reading a book called “Before I Was a CEO”. The person that wrote it finds out the challenges that CEOs faced before they took on their roles. It gave me a lightbulb moment. One of the people interviewed spoke about how he found everything in his life was driven by his purpose, and I reflected on my purpose and realised that I am where I am today because of an event that happened in my life in 1997 – just one even that changed the way that I work and the way that I interact.

I was the volleyball captain of Northern KZN. After a tournament in the Western Cape, I got selected to play for the South Africa team, but I couldn’t take it up because of affordability. But as a captain for my team I got to make decisions in the field. And every day, in everything I’ve done since then, I try to be the captain of my “volleyball” team. I see who is week and needs to be protected and who is strong so that I can push them. Have we got winning momentum and must close it, or are we on a losing streak and must pause, reflect and start afresh?

Realising that about myself has stayed with me. I even try to be a captain at home, where I have a wife and three boys of eight, six and one and a half.
 
What are your interests outside of work?
I like working with the soil and with animals. One day, I will most likely move down to KZN, where I have some cattle, goats, pigs and chickens that I’d like to spend some time with. For now, I work in the garden and plant vegetables. I moved out of a complex so that I could have a garden. On a very stressful day, even if I knock off at 10, I still work on my flowers and vegetable garden.

My kids like working outside with me. They are keen on growing the vegetables, but not that keen on eating them – me too, by the way!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I think that I could have done more if I was more confident about what I could achieve. I was naïve, and in some ways I am grateful for that. I studied accounting because I wanted to work in a bank. If I could go back, I would tell myself to be more confident in myself and my abilities much earlier in life. It would have been good to have trusted in my abilities earlier.