How having multiple interests gives KoneCranes CFO Morris Zack the edge

Morris applies the same passion and intentionality he has for food, wine and the outdoors to his work.

Morris Zack is a multi-passionate individual whose infectious enthusiasm and intelligence make him the kind of leader you want on your team during a crisis. His latest position as business controller at KoneCranes, a multinational in the lifting business servicing the manufacturing and process industries, shipyards, ports and terminals, has been a positive one. “I’ve found it to be a great organisation – globally it is a world leader in what it does. It is very exciting to have a front-row seat to the technological advancements in the lifting area which includes capabilities in remote monitoring and servicing.”

As someone who thrives in the face of change, Zack has found grappling with the challenges presented by Covid-19 invigorating. One of these challenges was that a lot of administration for the region that South Africa falls under is run from European countries, which were dealt a heavy blow by the virus. When it comes to South Africa’s position he says, “We are a strong company from a balance sheet perspective and I believe companies in our position are best prepared to get out at the end of the pandemic relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, smaller companies may fall away and we see larger players buying them out initially.” He asserts that on the upside, as economies open there will be innovation and new approaches to how things have been done, offering opportunities for economic activity to transform and shift in novel ways.

The challenges presented by Covid-19 are taking place in the midst of disruptions which were already impacting the finance discipline, and Zack reckons a lot more study needs to be done by people in finance in respect to digital transformation. “We need to understand what processes can be automated in order for people not to lose jobs, but add value from a business support perspective. In order to succeed in that area, we need to make sure finance functions and internal controls are taken care of. That procedures and systems are robust, and with that, then we can start focusing staff on their value add down the line.” 

Leading during times of crises

Within his team, Zack is encouraging a mind-set change from just running month end or doing accounts, to being able to make a richer contribution, which he says looks like “being able to analyse ideas, increase the business’s awareness of risk and, after applying ourselves, to offer the business-specific recommendations and insights that deliver high value”.

He says that keeping the team cohesive through the pandemic has been “interesting”, that their transition to remote working has been mostly smooth. “For a finance department, there is no reprieve in deadlines. While operations may be shut, we still need to keep running to support essential workers and systems that have to continue functioning.” 

In the beginning of the lockdown, the team had daily check-ins, but these have decreased to two or three times a week. Team interactions have also extended beyond talking about work to updating each other on what they have been doing with family. “People are now relating differently, seeing kids or dogs in the middle of a video chat add a new dimension to our relationships.” 

An engaged people’s person, Zack says his leadership style is one that leads from the back. “I prefer to push rather than pull team. I believe in an inclusive management style that involves the team in decisions that affect them, and considers the team on the team as a whole, as well as processes we have control over and affect us.” He likes to see people excel, achieve and get rewarded for their talents and contribution. He prides himself in not being afraid to take decisions and ability to handle crises, saying that learned behaviour comes with time. “With experience, you mellow out, know what you can or cannot control. You learn that it’s more productive to put energy towards what you can change rather than what you can’t. Remaining calm is a learned art.”  

He believes that leadership is also about looking out for your people. “From a mental health perspective, I realise that some team members need more daily interaction than others. So I have taken note of who needs this contact and made it a point to check-in more with them.” 

The management team has been discussing what the new way of working will look like. “With remote working and hot-desking we don’t need entire teams to be in the office. There has only been one instance where someone had to retrieve a box in the office to complete an audit, but going forward, we would no longer need those physical documents. We have transitioned to a paperless environment. Additionally, we have updated policies to allow email approval to suffice,” he says. 

Curios for tech

A self-confessed ‘geek’, Zack admits to a deep interest the field of technology. “I love gadgets, automation, understanding processes, Artificial Intelligence. I enjoy spending time learning how other companies are innovating. I enjoy learning and even when relaxing or on holiday, Most of my reading is non-fiction.”

Zack’s curiosity spans a wide range of areas, and he loves languages as much as he loves numbers. After matriculating from Germiston High he enrolled for a law degree at Wits. “At the end of first year my dad, who entertained a lot, had a function at the house. I started canvassing his friends’ opinions and what they said about the finance or accounting route appealed to me and I took that path.” 

He gained great experience when completing articles at a small company, whose scope ran from auditing large PTYs, tax work, estate work, company secretarial work and management consulting work. 

A love for food and the outdoors

Not just a man of gadgets and numbers, he’s a collector at heart. His first foray into collecting was when he joined a wine society and he started buying red wines. Unfortunately, he didn’t store the bottles optimally and ended up with spoiled wines. “When a friend asked me about my collection and if I had tried whisky, I wasn’t really that interested. At the time I was only familiar with lousy whisky. However, he offered me some fine whisky. And one sip of the high quality, heavy whisky which smelled like nothing that had ever crossed my nose, I was sold! That was 15 years ago now and I have been steadily collecting since.”

The father of a seven-year-old girl, who also has a talent for numbers, says he and his wife love the outdoors. “If we are not in the bushveld you’ll find us at the coast. Spending time together is very important for us.”

He is also a big foodie; a trait inherited from a family of fantastic cooks. “I grew up learning how to cook from my mom, dad, grandparents and anyone cooking up a storm in the kitchen. My love for food has stayed with me since childhood and I am writing a cookbook as a labour of love.” He started the project ten years ago after realising that there were many dishes he could make from memory and wanted to keep notes for loved ones. His method of relaxing has been met with the same passion and intentionality that he approaches everything with; every recipe not only lists the ingredients and method, but it is also accompanied by a short story.

Cooking is a hobby as well as an expression of his creativity. It marks memories and significant moments in his life, one of the fondest is how he impressed his now wife using a flambé method of cooking. “The flames leaping from the pan made me look like a seasoned professional,” he says.

Zack’s enthusiasm for a variety of interests is a reminder that it’s important to feed all your passions and how rewarding it is to do so.