From finance to the top (Part 4): Overseeing an unbundling then taking the reins as CEO

According to fresh results from this year's CFO Day Survey, nearly three quarters of all CFOs are eyeing the top job and aspire to be CEO after their current role. And their ambitions are not unrealistic: a third of all CEOs of the JSE Top-40 are previous finance executives. But what does it take to scale the highest summit? Which different skills are required? How do you move from numbers to people and strategy? CFO Magazine spoke to five former CFOs who were promoted to CEO to find out what it takes.

The biggest leap in transitioning from CFO to CEO was thinking more about strategy and people than numbers, says Mohammed Akoojee, Imperial Logistics CEO. “If you get those two things right, financial performance will follow.”

In June 2018, it was announced that the long-planned unbundling of listed transport and mobility group Imperial Holdings into a logistics business, Imperial Logistics, and Motus, a vehicle value-chain business, was a reality. It was believed that the separation would enhance the two units’ long-term fortunes and strategic focus.

Mohammed Akoojee was the CEO of the Logistics African Regions business at Imperial Holdings, when the Imperial Holdings executive and board asked him to assist with the unbundling in the capacity of the group CFO for Imperial Holdings. “I am an ex-investment banker and was head of M&A for the group. I had wanted to get operational experiences, so that’s why I had taken on the Africa region role in 2015.”

After the conclusion of the unbundling, he was appointed as CEO designate of Imperial Logistics, but when CEO Marius Swanepoel tendered his resignation, Mohammed took up the role. “My path to the role of CEO of Imperial Logistics was planned – I was to implement the unbundling of Motus and when Marius retired, I would take over.”

He was prepared for the position by his various roles in the company over 10 years. “I was a functional specialist, doing all the M&A for the group, and working in investor relations. Then I went into an operational role as CEO of the African Regions business, which I knew well because I had been part of the process of acquiring them.”

He says that there was a big shift in focus, going from being a functional specialist to running a business with 3,000 people across 12 different countries. “You can’t be in the same mode, so you have to change your style. But you still have the same core strength in terms of what makes you successful, so you can lean on that.” 

One of the things he’s had to do is work on his EQ, which he says is a lot more important than IQ for leaders. “It’s how you engage and motivate people and get them to buy into your ideas. Sometimes you have to convince people, which is something I’ve learnt is very important over time. As I’ve moved through my career at Imperial, I’ve had to sharpen those skills to get the best out of and lead through people.”

He says that while his initial strength lay in the finance side, he’s had to become more strategically focused since he became a CEO. “A CEO can’t spend all his time worrying about the numbers. You have to change gear and think about strategy and people development. I believe that if the business and people strategies are right, then the financial performance will reflect that. My job is to get those first two right, so that the numbers will follow.”

He says that the mark he’d like to leave behind is for Imperial Logistics to be immediately recognised as one of the benchmarks in the industry. “When you think logistics, you think of a large global logistics firm – I want us to be there. We don’t have a global brand position and people don’t immediately think of joining Imperial when they graduate. So I’d like to build a legacy of becoming a brand and employer of choice. I am focused on that.”

Mohammed says that because he spends a lot of time away from home, he spends any free time he can with his family – his children are 10 and five. They don’t compromise on spending holidays together as a family, and he says that they particularly enjoy beach and action vacations.

“I’ve seen the value of travelling. I’ve seen how it’s helped me to develop and grow as a person and I’d like my kids to have that – an opening up of perspective on life.”  

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