Finance Indaba Online panellists say it takes two to pilot the business

How CFOs have stepped up from being number crunchers to value-added executives.

The CFOs role has evolved over the years from being the head beancounter to becoming a strategic business partner to the organisation and the CEO. Last year, this was especially true as CFOs stepped out beyond their traditional roles to help CEOs navigate the Covid-19 crisis.

In an Impact Session at the Finance Indaba Online, three top finance professionals shared how their roles changed during the crisis.

Unilever vice president of Africa Mikateko Tshetshe said her role largely remained the same, although the executives used a team approach to navigate the conglomerate through the pandemic. Unilever products and services were deemed essential during the lockdown, and the company had to strategise to keep their operations going under the new restrictions. “Our key priorities were amplified in the pandemic. We had an obligation to keep our employees safe while supporting local and global operations,” she said.

She described the challenges of having to source raw materials locally because borders were shut. “We had to prioritise research and development teams without compromising the quality of the newly sourced materials, while ensuring supplier continuity.” There was tremendous pressure to ensure that the home care and hygiene products maintained high standards in the era of a highly contagious, airborne virus.

Mikateko and the CEO also had to band together to protect the business revenue and bottom lines. “From a macroeconomic perspective, we see the impact this has had on our consumers’ shopping behaviour,” she said.

The insurance industry was also affected drastically. King Price Insurance CEO Rhett Finch, who was the company’s CFO at the time, said he had to help the company adapt to the new normal. He explained that risk had changed overnight, because vehicle usage drastically reduced during the lockdown, meaning that premiums and insurance products had to be adjusted accordingly.

“We had to figure out how to adapt and take advantage of the crisis,” said Rhett. So King Price launched its new pay-as-you-drive insurance called Chilli. Launching a product comes with its own set of challenges, coupled with navigating a crisis. Rhett said the situation had to be managed as a team.

It also took a team effort to weather Covid-19 at Investec, according to CFO Nishlan Samujh. He said the executive team, which included the CEO and COO, helped staff adapt to the new normal. The senior team also got a window into their staff’s daily lives and struggles, brought on by the lockdown. “Some staff members were sharing accommodation, and others didn’t have the infrastructure to work from home,” said Nishlan.

Investec was also separating from its asset management arm. The deal had to be finalised in the days leading up to the shutdown. “There were a fair number of execution aspects of the deal that still needed to be done, and making sure we could follow through,” explained Nishlan. He said it took the CEO, CFO, and exco team to come together to navigate the business through the separation, while adapting to the new normal.

All three CFOs stressed the importance of open and honest communication to ensure a successful working relationship between CFOs and CEOs. Mikateko said she learned a lot as a young, black, woman CFO.

Mikateko said it is essential to build the psychological safety to show up to work as yourself. “Age, gender, and race are recognised, but it doesn’t define you or your skills,” she said. “I became confident and comfortable to build a strong relationship with the CEO,” she said, which allowed for candid conversations about uncomfortable subjects with the CEO.