Eskom's acting CFO Anoj Singh: "Exposure the key to career development"

As one of the quiet men behind Transnet's relative success - for a State-Owned Company (SOC) - CFO Anoj Singh was recently drafted as acting Eskom CFO, joining his Transnet chief Brian Molefe at the battling power utility. Singh started working at Eskom and already messages from Megawatt Park have started to become clearer. Only the future will tell if the top executive, who won 2 CFO Awards in both 2014 and 2015, will save Eskom.

For the publication of our first CFO Magazine, published last May and available here, we exclusively spoke to Singh. We chatted about the surprising appeal of working in the public sector and the things CAs can learn while working in a complex organisation like Transnet (and Eskom!). 'Exposure' is a word Singh uses a lot. It's the reason he enjoys working in a challenging environment and he believes it's the key to a successful career when you're an aspiring CFO.

"First of all, and most people will tell you this, you need to enjoy what you are doing," says Singh when asked what advice he would give talented young finance professionals who see themselves as the leaders of the future. "Be excited by challenges and be the best you can be. To be a successful manager, there are personal attributes you need to have, but you also need an environment that allows you the space to develop."

"There is a reason entities like Transnet are state-owned. They do things that private parties don't have the risk tolerance for."

Although government and SOC jobs don't have sexy or lucrative reputations, one of them could be exactly the right place to start as a freshly qualified CA, Singh suggests. "From an exposure perspective it doesn't get more complex than at a SOC or in the government. There is a reason entities like Transnet are state-owned. They do things that private parties don't have the risk tolerance for." At the same time, the number of interesting jobs is growing rapidly in the 'quasi-government' sphere. "Over the last couple of years we have grown a lot and we now have approximately 150 CAs within Transnet. Ten years ago that was less than 50."

Surprising appeal
Working in the public sector shouldn't be under-estimated; it can have a surprising appeal, says Singh. "It is a personal thing. It is the challenge, I think. There is rarely a month, week or day that I am not pushing my own boundaries. That motivates me. You have the best opportunities to develop yourself. There are always competing objectives: commercial, socio-economic and regulatory. I don't think I would be as challenged and exposed in the private sector. I sometimes wonder what comes after Transnet for me? There is very little out there that is equally interesting to me, there are very few complex organisations like Transnet."

Singh says Transnet is "probably" one of the healthiest SOCs in South Africa. "We are outward-looking. Our focus is on letting South Africa Inc. grow. How do we make the county more competitive? Making a difference is also something that is crucial to me personally: we are impacting people's lives, creating jobs, providing economic benefits and developing skills. We're a different organisation to the Transnet of 7 or 10 years ago; we are now competitive. I really enjoy being successful and putting my function at the heart of the business. We grew revenue 30 to 40 percent in the last 3 to 4 years and we're able to generate good amounts of cash."

Audacious plan
Transnet has been in the news a lot because of their Market Demand Strategy (MDS), which includes a R330 billion commitment to infrastructure expansion. "We fully understand what is happening on a macro-economic level, but despite the downturn we are continuing with our audacious plan. We said let us understand what the long term view on our main commodities looks like. A short term decision would not allow us to plan for the next boom. We think the markets will be down for another 3 to 5 years but we are looking beyond that."

"There is a broad consensus that counter-cyclical investments bring their fair share of risks. Given the fact that we are state-owned, we are required to take that risk where others don't. It is the right thing to do for the country. At the same time we are looking at diversification like providing parking for empty containers, investments in Africa that don't put the balance sheet at risk and looking at capital optimizations."

"Making a difference is also something that is crucial to me personally: we are impacting people's lives, creating jobs, providing economic benefits and developing skills."

The MDS program required finance transformation in the most literal sense, Singh explains. "The team is significantly different now. We had a team that had the skills required for the disposal of assets. We needed a different type of skill to execute MDS. Once we had MDS approved, we needed to deliver. Capital integration and assurance as well cost effective funding have been important. We need to manage capital risk at a different level, having had to borrow R130 billion. You can't do that with a traditional Finance team. You need skills, innovation and experience. We needed a function that could analyse, pushing the boundaries of thought leadership and therefore we have enhanced the team considerably."

  • Stay connected, up to date and in the loop on what is happening in the world of finance and keep track of newly published expert insights and interviews with CFOs and CEOs. Become an online member and receive our newsletter, follow us on Twitter and join us on LinkedIn.