Scottish Gordon Traill reveals what it takes to lead an iconic South African business through tough times after a year as Clicks’ CFO.
Originally from Scotland, Gordon Traill established his finance career in Europe and made the decision to leave London for Cape Town when his South African wife expressed her desire to return home after years abroad. He initially joined PwC’s technical department, where an opportunity arose to lead the internal audit department at Clicks.
As a leading retail pharmacy chain that has been a cornerstone of the South African business landscape for decades, Clicks proved to be an exhilarating workplace. He was only in place for two months when the head of group finance resigned, and he was approached by the chief financial officer to assume this crucial role.
On the back of a successful Visionary CFO Series in 2021 and 2022, A2X has once again partnered with CFO South Africa to bring you a series of interviews highlighting South Africa’s best and brightest CFOs, their insights and challenges. Find out how they help lead some of South Africa’s most successful companies in this bi-weekly interview series.
Navigating through finance and beyond
Last year the Clicks Group CEO, Bertina Engelbrecht approached Gordon to take over from the previous CFO, who was retiring. Gordon has enjoyed a 17-year working relationship with Bertina and had no hesitation in taking up the role.
Gordon believes that his non-finance positions have played a significant role in his current position. He emphasises the importance of gaining insights into the overall operations of the business, rather than solely focusing on finance.
For instance, he highlights the people-centric nature of their business, where his previous roles since 2018, including managing the property portfolio since 2014, have demonstrated the crucial role of property in driving store growth and overall business success.
He also recognises the vital role of logistics, including distribution centres and supply chain management, in ensuring the smooth functioning of their stores. Without an efficient logistics system, stores would struggle to operate effectively. Furthermore, he acknowledges the crucial role of the IT department in providing support services and enhancing the organisation’s efficiency and capabilities.
By diversifying his experience and understanding various aspects of the business, Gordon has developed a comprehensive understanding of how all the pieces fit together. This broader perspective not only enhances his current role as CFO but also enables him to contribute to the growth and success of the organisation as a whole.
Steering through unprecedented challenges
Gordon’s tenure as an executive at Clicks coincided with a series of unexpected challenges. He says, “You may think that you have overcome one obstacle, only to be blindsided by another. For instance, we had to face the challenges brought on by Covid-19 and adapt our operations accordingly. As a healthcare company, we couldn’t afford to halt our services during this trying period.”
He says, however, just as they were recovering from the impact of the pandemic, the business was hit by the July riots. “This forced us to navigate through a difficult situation, and unfortunately, we lost one of our distribution centres. Nevertheless, we were determined to get back on track and managed to restore operations within a month.”
Furthermore the gradual deterioration in the electricity supply due to loadshedding and a lack of capacity has hindered economic growth, posing additional challenges for the company.
“As a leader, guiding your team through such situations requires unwavering belief in your strategy,” says Gordon. “We have consistently invested in our stores and opened new ones, demonstrating our commitment to growth. In recent years, we have also made significant IT investments to enhance our capabilities as the business has expanded.
“The key is to remain focused and not let distractions sway us from our chosen path. We firmly believe in our strategy and have succeeded in implementing it. Our growth in the South African market is evidence of this. However, sustaining this growth requires continuous investments in our distribution centres and IT systems.”
He says the South African market offers ample opportunities for the company to thrive, but the company must be prepared to invest in the necessary infrastructure to seize them.
Gordon is determined to position Clicks at the forefront of innovation. One particular initiative that he is enthusiastic about is the overhaul of their pharmacy system.
He explains, “Although the current pharmacy system in South Africa is known for its reliability and dependability, it has become outdated, with a primary focus on standalone pharmacies, lacking a comprehensive corporate perspective. Our goal is to transition towards an advanced web-based pharmacy system.”
The initial phase involved centralising their patient database, a crucial step toward a more efficient future. “Currently, we are in the process of executing a proof of concept (POC) for 10 stores, a milestone that is actively underway. Our overarching ambition is to implement the new system across all our pharmacies. The speed and efficiency demonstrated by this innovative system surpass our current capabilities, enabling us to serve our patients more promptly and offering enhanced capabilities that span our entire organisation.”
He says contrary to the existing standalone system, which poses challenges in consolidating data from their pharmacy network, the new system significantly amplifies their analytical potential.
“Our ultimate goal is to roll out the new system to all our pharmacies. I think the speed with which the new system operates is significantly ahead of what we’ve got available today, which means we’ll be able to service our patients a lot faster, and it gives us a lot more capability in views across the group."
Embodying leadership essence
Gordon views his role as a leader as effectively encouraging innovation. He says innovation, often at the intersection of technology and finance knowledge, is crucial for growth.
“By encouraging our team to think creatively, experiment with new technologies, and suggest fresh ideas, we ensure that we stay ahead of market trends and customer expectations.”
He says that combining financial expertise with tech know-how helps his team make informed decisions that align with their goals: “It allows us to use data analysis, predictive models, and emerging technologies to improve our financial strategies, manage risks, and find new growth opportunities. This mix of skills forms the basis of a forward-thinking team, ready to lead our organisation through the challenges and opportunities of the digital age.”
Busy at work and home
Outside of work, Gordon has a busy home life. His wife holds the position of chief growth officer at Deloitte. “Needless to say, she has a demanding schedule. We both have bustling professional lives and a bustling home life too. Balancing these can be a challenge. We’ve found a way by not bringing work stress home with us. We are fortunate to have excellent support, with reliable help at home. So, if we’re a few minutes late, it’s not a catastrophe.
“Having been together for a long time, we’ve learned to manage our work-life balance effectively. Both of us working helps us understand the importance of dealing with work-related matters when necessary, even if it means addressing them at home. In times of crisis, we’re able to support and step in for each other seamlessly.”
As the father of four active boys, he finds joy in seeing what his sons are up to and clears his head with daily runs with the family dog.
This Visionary CFO Series interview is sponsored by A2X.