Forty-year finance veteran Daan Ferreira reflects on a rich career

Outgoing CFO of Astral Foods Daan Ferreira says finance has evolved into a more rewarding field.

Daan Ferreira joined Astral Foods as group financial manager when it unbundled in 2001 from the Tiger Brands group, and he became the CFO in 2009, something he says has been a huge highlight.

“As CFO of the Astral group, I was part of the management team that decided on the direction the group would take. It has been about thinking strategically, and getting it right – while streamlining it as we went along. Furthermore, as we have grown, it also had to allow others within the organisation to have the freedom and space to decide how to conduct their daily work and take ‘ownership’ of that part of the organisation for which they are responsible.”

As retirement looms, he reflects on this opportunity: “I don’t think I’m more special than others. I feel very grateful that out of many people who can do the job, being in the right place at the right time allowed me to occupy this position. Since qualifying as a CA, that was an ideal.”

Always evolving
The field of finance has changed over the decades, he notes. “When I started my career after concluding articles in the early 1980s, it was in many ways a different world. As a junior accountant you walked into a situation where there was a clear and strict hierarchy. It was much more formal, and in that type of environment it was unlikely that you would get pulled into business decisions unless you were very senior.

“Back then, we consolidated financial results on rolls of paper which you would fold over, attach together and would be two to three metres long. Later on, we used personal computers and spreadsheets, and doing a financial year-end statutory consolidation still involved a team of five or six, working almost non-stop for two weeks. But today, thanks to developments in software and IT communication, it takes one person, together with a good bit of planning, only a couple of minutes to achieve the same and more, at Astral.”

Daan says the field has become much less formal and rigid, which is clear, for example, from dress codes and how people address each other. He says this shift is a good thing as it allows conversation and exchange of ideas, which always results in better decisions. “I think it makes for much more rewarding careers today in all levels of management.”

Always keep learning
He says a lot has changed since he came into the profession and many of the accounting standards studied in university at the time are not applicable anymore. He points to major shifts in International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) which came into force in the 2000s. “They replaced almost everything that I had studied about accounting standards in qualifying as a CA. The requirements were new and introduced major change.”

He advises young entrants not to forget what they were taught, but always be willing to learn something new. “It is every person’s own responsibility to keep on learning and to keep up to date with changes. Focus on areas that impact the business and keep up with new policies and requirements. Do a lot of self-study and reading and if necessary, consult with experts, external auditors and make sure you understand everything that impacts the company very well,” he says.

Always have an opinion
He says technology, systems and environments may change, but as a finance professional you can never walk away from “knowing the numbers”. Even if you have integrated IT systems helping you, you must always know the source or origin of the numbers and understand what the numbers are saying. Only with that understanding can you contribute to the business with confidence. It’s the responsibility of a financial person to understand what the impact of any decision will be on the results of a company.

He says input has to happen at each level of the business, across units and the group, in order to tap into that source of knowledge and experience one would many times find in an organisation. “At Astral, we regard each and every financial manager as the CFO of that business unit, with full responsibility, just on a smaller scale. That approach works well because you then have a substantial number of people contributing to decisions and also taking full ownership of decisions being made.”

He says how you experience a career in finance depends very much on the organisation’s culture and management style. “I’m privileged to have spent so many years at Astral, which has an open culture, with a participative management style. Business decisions are made after frank discussions involving sometimes multiple team members, where people can bring different angles and query things. Apart from being able to participate in discussions which are many times outside financial disciplines, one always has to look at it through a lens of what the impact on profitability and return on investments will be.”

Succession planning
With his retirement date set for early 2023, a successor has been found and the handover process has already started to allow for a sufficient transition period. He believes that changeovers should be seamless and also allow for the transfer of institutional knowledge and insights.

“My successor is a very capable individual with excellent technical abilities, who fits into the culture of the organiz\sation and will be able to work well with the existing management team.”
As a listed company, it has been important for Astral to communicate the change in the CFO well ahead of the time to all stakeholders.

Post-retirement plans
Daan heads into retirement thankful that the company experienced many successes and that he was able to be part of it while he was at the helm of the finance function.

He plans to retire in the Southern Cape in George with his wife. It is close to the sea and also not too far from a farm he owns in the Karoo, where he undoubtedly will spend some good time in the peace the Karoo offers.

In 2004 he completed his 20th Comrades Marathon, and while he now runs at a more relaxed pace to keep fit and healthy, he plans to keep it up. He is also a keen motorcyclist and looks forward to travelling to see more of the beautiful parts of the country, on and off the beaten path, and especially in remote areas of the Karoo.