Finance Indaba Conversation looks at how CFOs can drive business strategy

CFOs discussed why and how they can be seen as Chief Value Officers in their organisations.

The role of finance departments and CFOs has evolved. A successful CFO is no longer expected to just crunch numbers and report on financials – instead panellists said they should be a strategic business partner to the CEO and the CIO, ensuring that all key business strategies have their input. 

The discussion arose during a Finance Indaba Conversation sponsored by Workday, and was kicked off by Workday account executive Edward Bass, who emphasised the evolving role of finance departments in organisations. 

“CFOs are in fact Chief Value Officers, because businesses look to them to create value for stakeholders,” said Sandile Ntsele, CFO of Liquid Telecoms. “Finance departments are truth tellers,” he added. “In the past they were just focused on numbers but there has been a shift in thinking, and they now also need to present non-financial information that enhances business decisions. They also have the responsibility of ensuring that financial language is understood by key stakeholders.”

Nerissa Chetty, head of financial control and reporting at UBank Limited, said finance departments have a much bigger role to play in the organisation’s value chain. “Finance needs to be a driver and be sufficiently knowledgeable to understand concepts related to the business at a high level, so we can question the business and influence how decisions are made,” she said.

Sandile said that the tentacles of finance needed to extend to all areas of the business, especially IT. “Technology plays role in providing valuable information to business operations and the finance community needs to play a role in its integration and consolidation. 

“IT is an important key to forming strategies and analysing data. Business decisions are driven by the quality of information received from IT systems,” he added. “It’s important that upstream systems talk to downstreams to provide relevant insights. As CFOs we should be asking what is the purpose of the technology? Is it integrated? Is it providing us with insight or is it just a wasted investment?” 

Mark Stirton, group CFO, Mr Price Group, said the key to ensuring more strategic input from the CFO and their department was through technology. Technology like artificial intelligence (AI), he believes, will free up time that allows finance departments to be more strategic and focused on what he terms as the ‘business of tomorrow’. 

“We need to be insight driven catalysts who pre-empt the future and not report on the past,” he said. “We are currently too caught up in the business of today in our day-to-day operations.”

Mark said that technology is transforming business models and ways of doing business that impact the bottom line. “We’ve seen major businesses like Uber, which don’t have physical assets or infrastructure, and yet they are successful. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a new level of trust in digital, which is shifting business models and platforms. 

“In our business, our merchants are now working digitally, whereas they used to travel around the world to physically inspect merchandise. Necessity is the mother of all invention. None of us ever thought it would be possible, but this is how we are now working.” 

The introduction of AI into financial systems in South Africa, said Mark, was behind the curve compared to the rest of the world, and more had to be done to keep abreast of the changes and ensure organisations were equipping finance departments and CFOs in this regard. But in the meantime, he said, CFOs needed to work smart and ensure they were keeping abreast of technology, surrounding themselves with people who know more than them and ensuring they never lose their appetite to learn.

In conclusion, Nerissa advised her peers to do more to ensure they were leading their organisation’s strategy. “You need to be bold and to take risks to ensure you are indeed the Chief Value Officer in your organisation,” she said.  

“Remember your role is not just gatekeeping: you are also responsible for propelling the business forward,” added Sandile.