Employees should treat the company's resources as their own, says a.b.e. Construction Chemicals CFO

"This adds perspective on a short-term, day-to-day basis when decision-makers within organisations are faced with choices," says Philip Nottingham, a.b.e. Construction Chemicals CFO.

You are CFO of both a.b.e. Construction Chemicals and Chryso Southern Africa, with the former part of the latter. How does your role thus work, overseeing finance for both?
“a.b.e. was purchased by the Chryso Group in 2010. I joined a.b.e. as CFO in 2013 and became CFO of both companies in February 2016. While both engaged in construction chemicals/products they are very different entities and structures, as dictated by their products and customers. Chryso SAF is ‘higher up’ in the construction chain and sells to Readymix Companies and other companies involved in the earlier stages of construction projects, whereas a.b.e. sells to contractors ‘finishing’ construction projects products for waterproofing, flooring, general construction, silicones and sealants, and the like. a.b.e. also has a retail aspect, which makes it very different to Chryso SAF.”

You’ve been CFO for five years. Have you seen a lot of changes at the organisation during this time?
“Yes – mainly in the size and scope of teams. Our depressed economy continues to mean trying to do more with less in order to improve or even just maintain profitability. Currency volatility continues to complicate our lives and make margin management more complex, while depressed overall growth means everyone is fighting for their share of a shrinking (or at least not-growing) ‘pie’, making most sectors very competitive. Across the construction landscape we have seen how the ‘traditional’ players in the SA construction sector have been struggling to stay afloat, as we have a huge shortage of major infrastructure projects.”

What does your role entail? Is it focused more on strategy or day-to-day finance? And what are you currently working on?
“My role is fairly well balanced between the two but probably more focused on day-to-day aspects. While my ‘permanent’ office is at Chryso, I still spend a significant part of my time at a.b.e. Fortunately, the businesses are both on the East Rand and are not too far from each other, so travelling between them daily is possible without hours spent in traffic!”

“We are spending a lot of time on cash management currently with numerous projects underway across both businesses, focused on Inventories, Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable. Some are internal projects and some include outside consultants.”

When you first joined, one of your main tasks was to roll our more efficient automation. How has this maintained itself over the years? And how have you upgraded the automation process in recent years?
“We recently implemented Accpac (Sage 300) at Chryso SAF. This meant implementing a new Manufacturing system at a.b.e. first, which was very challenging. At the end of the day, businesses are still about people, and despite social media and the abundance of technology, many people still are not adept at accepting change. Sometimes it is still difficult to get people to accept/understand the very basics – which for me is if it happens on the floor it needs to happen in the system (and vice versa).”

“Both businesses are now on the same ERP system, which should offer some opportunities going forward. We are currently also implementing an upgrade of a group-wide reporting system which will help to standardise the reporting elements across our numerous operations across the globe – Chryso has 30 manufacturing facilities across 20 subsidiaries and is present in over 100 countries.”

What is the toughest lesson you’ve learnt in your career?
“If you make a mistake, admit it, apologise, and move on. At the same time, make sure you offer some ways to correct the error and also what you have and will do to make sure it does not happen again.”

What sort of a leader are you? What traits do you feel are important in a leader?
“I think I am reasonably easy-going and people in general seem to like working for me. I am supportive of my team members. I do try and push people to think and act differently and not to just continue doing the same thing because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’. I encourage the use of technology to make things easier whenever possible.”

What do you think are some of the toughest decisions leaders today face?
“Wow. I think there are lots and lots of these. Unless you are a psychopath, I think any decision affecting the lives of others is tough to make. I think lately, lots of leading business people are frowned upon wrongly due to the acts of a minority (Steinhoff, KPMG, McKinsey, etc.) Most leaders do have the interests of ‘their people’ at heart.”

Considering the events of late last year with Steinhoff, and earlier this year with several other companies, what do you think finance executives most need to do to build and maintain the finance brand or profession?
“Tricky one. From my perspective I always ask employees to think of the companies’ money and other resources as they would their own. This is useful in that it can add perspective on a short-term, day-to-day basis when decision-makers within organisations are faced with choices.”

“From a ‘big picture’ perspective, the problem is perhaps how executive inventive schemes are packaged. Everything you have read on executive incentives over time says executive incentives should be long-term and based on more than just financial results, but these schemes are still the norm, and this simply incentivises actions that are not in the best interests of the company at all – and certainly not long-term. Until the majority of executive incentive schemes change, this will continue.”

How did you get interested in finance? Did you ever consider another career path?
“Every bloody day! My father was a bank manager for most of his life. I think that first sparked my interest in finance (I would use the Telkom ‘BELTEL’ system [anyone under 45 is probably going to have to Google it] to pay my own pocket money into my account – under his supervision of course!). There was never really anything else I wanted to do, so the progression from high school to varsity (I went to UPE now NMMU) and then onto articles at Deloitte PE, was pretty much laid out from the start.”

What does the rest of this year hold for you both personally and professionally?
“Soon we will enter ‘budget time’, which includes completing our forecasts for the remainder of 2018. This should keep me out of mischief pretty much until the end of the year.”

How do you spend your downtime? What do you do to relax and unwind?
“I am not a big sports participant but am a big sports watcher! There’s not much sports-wise I will not watch! I am also a bit of a car nut – convertibles in particular (Johannesburg has the best convertible weather in the world, in my view). I currently have a 2017 Ford Mustang Convertible, a 2008 Mercedes SLK55 AMG, a 2006 Honda S2000 (Supercharged) and a 2011 Backdraft AC Cobra replica. I spend a fair amount of time looking for new acquisitions (limited by finances and parking space, unfortunately). I love animals and we have five dogs, two cats and whole lot of Koi!”