How a heritage steeped in Nguni cattle farming created a foundation for Ntobeko Nyawo’s success

The CFO of Redefine Properties says being a finance leader echoes the values he was raised with.

“My late grandfather was a Nguni cattle farmer; it’s a heritage that runs in the family. Growing up around cattle exposed me to the principles of stewardship and fiduciary duty from an early age, and those have stuck with me throughout my life,” says Ntobeko Nyawo, CFO of Redefine Properties.

Ntobeko grew up in KZN where the Nguni breed played a significant economic, social and cultural role in the community. Cattle were a central element in strengthening the family ties and way of life that he saw as he was growing up and continue to be a major means of economic activity.

Ntobeko says looking after the family’s biggest asset is similar to leading a company’s finance portfolio, in that the main responsibility is to protect the business and oversee its growth in a sustainable fashion.

A legacy of lessons
He says there are multiple lessons he picked up from Nguni cattle farming that apply to business. One is growing value and delivering on a sustainable asset, but also taking care of wealth. “If in the morning, you go to pasture with 100 cows but at the end of the day you come back with 99, there’s one missing. It means you need to investigate what happened, make sure you correct whatever took place and put in place systems to preserve what you have. Beyond that, you have to grow your stock for the future. It’s similar to a CFO: when looking after assets you have to grow them responsibly and in a manner that is sustainable.”

In addition to the practical lessons of caretaking, he says one of the values he inherited from his grandfather from an early age was the importance of having the ability to feed yourself. Nguni cattle were a store of wealth and how the family sustained itself, and as something passed on from generation to generation, they hold a special cultural space in his life.

Having decided to pursue a more corporate route, yet retain his values was important to him, and Ntobeko says his proudest accomplishment has been creating a career that has allowed him to do so. “Deciding early in life that I wanted to be a CA and qualifying wasn’t easy, especially in the days when I was working towards it. It was considered hard for a black person to qualify as CA, but I am glad I made it, because it has provided ample opportunities to better myself.”

Succeeding together
Ntobeko defines his leadership style as highly collaborative and says it is based on a fundamental belief that you can’t achieve success alone, but that through and with other people you can achieve a lot. A seasoned executive with over 16 years’ experience, he joined Redefine Properties in February 2021 from Stanlib, where he served as chief operating officer. Prior to that, he was chief operating officer of Alexander Forbes Investments.

He says as a leader, it’s important to enable people to be at their best, explaining that, “When you have the right mindset, health set, emotional set and heart set, people perform at their best when you can tap into all those areas.” As a leader his philosophy is helping people do well because he believes that if those around him thrive, then he also grows and delivers better.

Leading through uncertainty
He says that for him, it’s important to be in a business that is able to innovate and disrupt. “When it comes to innovation, it’s about doing things better and being efficient. For me disruption is about the ability to anticipate and see where the market is going so you can serve your clients better and play in new markets. This speaks to the ability to adapt to service clients and capture dislocation in those markets.”

His personal ethos when solving problems is falling in love with them. “By embracing the challenge, seeing the bigger picture and having the ability to articulate the problem, you can think differently about the situation and connect the dots.”

He says that finding solutions is also a confidence issue: “It's rooted in the belief that you have a contribution to make, whatever the circumstance. For instance, we have been grappling with a pandemic and if you view it purely as a disaster it can be debilitating. But if you look at how humanity has survived pandemics before, and that with all the advances we have made, we are better placed to address the challenges we face than ever before, then you can see yourself as a part of the solution.”

Learning as you grow
“Joining Redefine when I did has presented an opportunity to reimagine what the new business model might potentially be,” he says. “Coming from the worst of the pandemic, this time is about playing a part in evolving a company that will emerge from the pandemic differently and better serve our tenants. Being able to envisage new ways to make meaningful contributions across the value chain requires up levelling yourself.”

He says the transition to the listed property space from investments has tested his ability to manage short-term productivity without losing sight of long-term value creation, which is actually the bigger goal. “Property is a long-term asset class; you have to look at it with that view. In the short term you are faced with challenges that you have to respond to, and you have to respond in a way that serves the long term. Striking that balance in a responsible manner has been interesting.”

The role of the CFO demands that one keeps up with the shifts, and because of that you need to own your own development. Describing himself as a huge reader, Ntobeko says that it has served him well as part of his lifelong learning journey. “I recently just read Bill Gates’s book on climate change, but through the lens of the commitment to sustainable returns that we have set ourselves at Redefine. By reading extensively, you widen your context about world events and how they are likely to impact your investments. You also pick up new ideas and leading-edge concepts that you perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Beyond work
Ntobeko is married and has been blessed with an 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son who he spends time with when he’s not working. He also has a passion for golf, which he plays quite a bit when time allows. He has learned a lot from golf because it challenges him to continuously develop himself and says if you keep at it, you will play better over time.

“At a personal level, I genuinely believe success is about the impact that you make in your community and family. It’s about getting involved in serving others and meeting the needs around you.”