Finance leaders discuss Covid-19 positives during latest CFO Community Conversation

MTN CFO Ralph Mupita said CFOs' guidance as stewards of value has become super-important.

The fifth weekly online CFO Conversation kicked off on Wednesday night, inviting CFOs to consider the good, the bad and the ugly that’s emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic.

John Deane, CFO community manager, welcomed the group of leading CFOs to the session, mentioning that it can be lonely at the top and so these conversations provide an opportunity to come up with solutions together. He also thanked the CFO South Africa partners in attendance, specifically Lourens van Zyl, sales director at Transparent, Sihlalo Jordan, deputy chief executive of Deloitte and David Hamilton, director at Coupa.

Ralph Mupita, MTN Group CFO and 2019 CFO of the Year, was the special guest for the evening. He set the scene by highlighting the humanitarian impact of the crisis. “Covid-19 has profound implications not only for health and humanitarian impacts, but long-term economic and structural changes for businesses and societies.”

He said that MTN’s base view is that the earliest that things will return to ‘some sense of ‘normal’ will be Q2 2021.

“The next 12 months are going to be very bumpy and challenging. We need to tighten our belts, put our seatbelts on. There are a lot of unknown unknowns right now, but this will come to an end. Businesses need to be ready for the new ‘normal’ so it’s not enough to focus on risk mitigation but preparing for the future as well.” 

He explained that the telecommunications company is putting a lot of effort into coming out of this stronger. “We’re seeing a much greater acceleration of digitalisation  and digital services, that will be irreversible going forward.”

He added that it is good to be among colleagues in the same position, when the CFO is taking centre stage to make sure that businesses are financially resilient and have sufficient liquidity to make it through these difficult times. “Our guidance as stewards of value and sustainability has become super-important in these challenging and unprecedented times."

The group then broke up into breakaway sessions to network and discuss “the good, the bad and the ugly” that’s emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic and their organisations’ responses to it. While various CFOs touched on the terrible realities of having to cut salaries and even retrench in this environment, they were generally far more inclined to focus on the good in the situation during the conversation, after long days spent grappling with the other aspects. 

Ted Willcox from PepsiCo SSA highlighted some of the “good” that his organisation has uncovered in the crisis. “One of our aspirations as an organisation is to focus on doing things faster. There can be some red tape in a big group like ours and we’ve managed to cut through that over these times by getting the right people in the virtual room at the right time and move forward to rapidly close in on decisions.” 

Competition Tribunal head of finance, Devrani Moonsamy said that proceeding with daily outputs through online meeting platforms, digital signatures and other technology available has allowed the company to completely digitalise. “A good thing is that we will continue to work digitally.”

The realisation that work can continue supported by virtual interactions will get companies to rethink their office space commitments. “It’s really possible to work from home and in the long term, I think a lot of organisations will realise that they don’t need big office spaces, which will result in cost savings,” said Standard Chartered Bank acting CFO Joel Ncube

Mark Kathan, the CFO of AECI said that he’s really appreciating the time he is getting to spend with his family. Instead of spending two hours in traffic every day, he’s making time for his children and wife. On the work front, AECI as a chemical company has found opportunities in the crisis.

“At the start of the crisis, we commenced the manufacturing of hand sanitizer initially our staff and our communities as part of our social investment, in order to keep them and their families healthy. But then, some of our customers started enquiring for us to supply them, so it now it’s become a business line. We are also started manufacturing large volumes of sanitizers and disinfectants at our German and US facilities, supplying their governments and customers. Thus there are some good business opportunities that have come out of this COVID-19 pandemic. You just have to be proactive look between the lines for the opportunities.” 

Niniza Sithole, head of finance shared services division at Rand Water, agreed that the loss of travel time opens up new opportunities. “People who haven’t been stuck in traffic are less tired. They can be more creative in their productivity, and devote more hours to the work that they are doing. Covid-19 is forcing us to think outside the box. And not just about your company, but South Africa as a whole.”

Bryan Groome, Verimark CFO, has also found business opportunity in challenging times, saying that feedback has been a lot quicker in the lockdown period. “We’ve opened two online businesses for Verimark, in avenues we all wanted to play in, but time limitations had constrained it in everyday life.”

Broader than the positives for business, are the positives that Covid-19 is delivering for the whole of South Africa. Nonkululeko Dlamini, CFO of the IDC, says that the streets and air are much cleaner than they have been, while Tryphosa Ramano, the previous CFO of PPC, summed it the impact on our nation:

“It’s like in 1994 when we were all working towards a common goal. That spirit of unison and solidarity is back. We are coming together around one vision to make sure that we defeat this pandemic. We’ve never seen our government officials working so hard. It’s a good thing to see that there is the potential to actually do better.”