Ian Blackie - CFO Wesgro: "Advances in technology will put even more pressure on the CFO"

“I would expect people to be able to tell me why they are doing something in a certain way. If the answer is “because we’ve always done it that way”, it really tells me a lot about that person and their attitude towards the company and their work.” Ian Blackie, CFO of Wesgro, was initially placed at Wesgro in November 2010 by Deloitte one a short term contract. He calls himself ‘very fortunate’ to have been offered the position of CFO of the company, as he had been looking for an opportunity to move to the Western Cape for some time already. When he was officially appointed CFO, he withheld from making any drastic changes thus far.

After studying in Pretoria and doing his articles at the then Fisher, Hoffman and Stride, Ian held a few positions in various industries but in the end got most of his training and experience working for Deloitte Consulting, being placed, by them, at different companies and on various projects. But even where he is today, the learning process is far from over: "I try and keep up to date academically and last year completed studies at Unisa in Risk Management and I'm currently writing my CIA exam via the Institute of Internal Auditors," says Ian.

Wesgro is the official Destination Marketing, Investment and Trade Promotion Agency for the Western Cape, located in Cape Town. It is the first point of contact for exporters and investors eager to take advantage of the region's unlimited business potential. Wesgro is also tasked with promoting the Western Cape as a business and leisure destination. Its core focus areas are investment and trade promotion as well as destination marketing, and has a dedicated research unit tasked with providing investment and trade intelligence for business and government partners.

What must you absolutely do every single day to feel fulfilled in your work?
I enjoy the wide range of responsibilities and the involvement in most aspects of the business. I find that there's a lot more networking involved and so I read the papers on a daily basis and keep up to date with local and international current affairs. In the public sector, you get a specific budget with no contingency so you have to be a lot more strategic and expansionary with your spend which is a lot more difficult. Risk management also plays a big part. Going forward Wesgro will be heading up the Saldanha Bay IDZ Licencing Company (LICO) and here there will be more risk and responsibility involved: financial, transactional, etc.

To feel fulfilled every day I need to have made progress with something. That way I know I've contributed and it always helps on the motivational side. As the CFO of this diverse Agency, in many instances you sitting at 30 000 feet and you have to understand provincial and national government policy and how this affects spend and give input because we are the subject matter experts, in some instances. This makes my position very interesting because you get to work with the entire team and get to see the full picture.

How do you perceive the role of the CFO has changed in the last five to ten years?
I believe traditionally CFOs were merely recording and reporting historical data. The focus these days is more forward looking and thinking with strategy and risk management becoming a part of your daily life. Looking at the technological side of the company as well and keeping abreast of what's going on allows you to better manage risk and return on investment.

How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next say five to ten years?
Advances in technology and Management Information Systems will put even more pressure on CFOs to provide fast and accurate information for decision support to the Board. There will also be even more emphasis on Risk Management and Governance. What often is not measured is user acceptance and the up side of managing people is that the early adopters of this allow you to measure your staff and your company more effectively and efficiently.

Would you say that accurate forecasting and budgeting is still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets?
Forecasting and budgeting is not only feasible but crucial. The budget is a planning tool, a control tool, a motivational tool and a means of communication and coordination. Information systems and assumptions must be the best that are available and cater for best and worst case scenarios. This might not be easy but if it was easy everybody would have done it. It is those that can adapt or react the quickest to opportunities and threats that will succeed. And we must remember that in the public sector there's a greater drive for cost efficiency and a push to be able to analyse your financial data and spend.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for South African companies in the global economic situation?Regulation is vitally important. Being globally competitive, adjusting to labour/union pressures and currency volatility. I also think South African companies should be more involved in lobbying to protect their own markets locally in the same manner as most companies are doing in the markets they are trying to penetrate overseas.

Which skill(s) do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in his work?Technically accounting, financial, risk management, governance, etc. would be the obvious skills needed but without people skills and the ability to think both laterally and strategically success would be tough to achieve, if at all. People management is very important because you need to be able to manage and motivate a team.

Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of?
There are a couple of examples of systems implemented which I'm proud of, but ironically it was during a break from the corporate world, when we started our own business in a non-financial industry, that I achieved my perceived greatest success. Starting such a business successfully, especially during the recession period, and doing all the little things which we usually expect others to do in the bigger companies, gave me a new appreciation for our procedures and for the front-line staff and what they do.

Please name something - a procedure or process for instance - that was implemented in your company before you were appointed CFO, which you changed after you took the position of CFO.
I have not made any drastic changes since I've been here. However, I would expect people to be able to tell me why they are doing something in a certain way. If the answer is "because we've always done it that way", it really tells me a lot about that person and their attitude towards the company and their work. An example would be the eWorkflow we've recently introduced which automated our submission process and Purchase Order Requests. The previous laborious, manual process not only killed thousands of trees but caused enormous pressures in terms of effort and time. Now it is an automated, quick and effortless process ensuring compliance and letting managers focus on what they are supposed to deliver. The margin for error has decreased and we now have a workflow which we can go back to, should the need arise.

Who is your role model in life and why?
To be honest it actually varies from time to time depending what's happening in my life. I love reading so especially with biographies I'll try and learn from as many people as possible and how they reacted in various situations.

What vital piece of advice would you give young ambitious finance professionals?
Make sure you get the best possible education, have patience and be willing to learn from everybody.

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, please get in touch with us to arrange an interview with you.Please contact Jurriën Morsch on [email protected].

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