Changing mindsets and looking to the future, a chat with Brigid Mosola, Walter Sisulu University CFO

“When I came on board the staff were demotivated and unproductive. There was no teamwork and they did not trust in each other. It was a disaster,” says Brigid Mosola, CFO of Walter Sisulu University (WSU). In this exclusive interview with CFO South Africa, Brigid, who has been CFO for around 18 months, and who was recently placed on a precautionary suspension by the University’s new Vice Chancellor pending charges, speaks candidly about the state of the university’s finance department, the challenges of restructuring and building staff morale, and making unpopular decisions.

"People aren't used to hearing 'no', so when you say 'no' it's seen as a stumbling block, and you get told but you're holding back the institution's activities."

What was the state of the department when you joined? How does this compare to now?
"WSU was under administration from 2011 until early 2014, with a CFO appointed soon after the Administrator and his team left, who vacated the position within three or four months. Thereafter, an acting CFO from within WSU's finance department senior management was appointed as acting CFO until I arrived. One could say the use of consultants within the finance department was a norm. When I came on board I called a meeting with the finance team (across all four campuses: Umtata, Butterworth, East London and Queenstown) and explained that I was permanent, not a consultant, and was here to work with them - I had been appointed on a five-year contract as of December 2014 - and that I was one of them. I think they were worried I wouldn't stay for long. I really had to motivate them."

"What I found as well was that there was no teamwork and they did not trust in each other. There were, and still are, a lot of contract employees - some of them on contract for more than five years. This has contributed to the distrust of any new person as that person is immediately seen as coming to take over an existing employee's tasks. I meet with them regularly so that everybody gets a chance to talk at the round table. I also include everybody in email correspondence so that there is group responsibility. We've come far but we still have a long way to go."

"WSU is currently undergoing a restructuring exercise which will result in some of the employees leaving, after agreeing to take Voluntary Severance Packages (VSPs), in order to reduce excess staff and, as a result, our huge payroll costs. There was a communication breakdown between HR and finance when the communication first came out. The finance staff were immediately highly insecure and went on a go-slow. I had to go out and see all of them, along with the HR director, to explain the situation. It helped to motivate and reassure people. For my department, I also asked the finance staff if they were applying for a VSP to tell me, and we would talk about their home situation, see if that was the best option for them. I managed to talk some staff out of leaving. The first group has since been released (end of May 2016). We'll recalculate before releasing the next group."

"My role in all of this is to ensure we have the funding. Initially the university wanted to release all of them, but that would've meant over R200 million in severance packages. The only way the University could approach this process was to have it done in stages - group employees eligible into categories and released in order of some predetermined priority levels determined."

What does your role entail and what are some of your key responsibilities?
"My main responsibility is to ensure that the university is financially sustainable and that we aren't solely reliant on the funding we get from the department of higher education. If we are dependent on that funding, we need to use it properly so we can sustain ourselves into the future."

"We are introducing an investment culture now where, instead of keeping the excess in a cheque account. The sad thing is that if people know we are going to get money, they start spending before its actual receipt. There's no looking to the future. So now I have to be that person who says, 'But if we spend it now, what's going to happen tomorrow?'."

"My other main focus is student debt. We have high student debt and it is crippling our cash flow. The type of students we have depend on financial aid, as well as bursaries."

Was there anything you changed after you took up the position of CFO that was implemented before you were appointed?
"There was a lot of expenditure done outside of our accounting system. In other words, proper accounting processes were not followed. I had to change that so we could stick to process and monitor our own cash flow. No invoices were being checked. A lot of the basic things, for example, internal controls, were just not being done. I also changed the business processes to move towards three-year contracts rather than one-year contracts that were in place - introduction of contract management processes. Other than that I've worked hard to get staff motivated, more productive and accountable than before.

What are some of the challenges you face and how do you deal with these?
"People aren't used to hearing 'no', so when you say 'no' it's seen as a stumbling block, and you get told that you're holding back the institution's activities. Dealing with this kind of mindset has been very challenging, but being principled has helped me a lot. I've had to explain that it's nothing personal, this is just work and processes need to be followed. I do bend a little though but not too much."

Where do you find the personal motivation to stick it out, given all the challenges and difficulties you've encountered?
"When I sit at home I think, if this university closes, about 26,000 or more students will not have a place to study, the WSU community at large will have nowhere to work either. To be honest, we are talking about black students. They will not have anywhere else to go, because many other universities are expensive and they just cannot afford the fees they charge. I also think of the finance staff. They need to be motivated so that they can be engaged employees. I must say, I've had some positive feedback that keeps me going. So there's good and bad. It's very challenging for me. I just think that if we can turn things around and are sustainable, our efforts will not have been in vain. It would be nice to know I contributed to that."

Tell us about your career leading up to taking this position. How does this post differ to previous?
"This is my first CFO role. I started my career as a teacher. I taught high school Economics for five years and lectured business management for two at Vista University. I joined ABSA Corporate in Johannesburg on a graduate trainee programme and also worked to convert my qualification to a B. Com in Accounting degree by studying part-time. That took another five years. I then received a bursary from PwC in Johannesburg and did my articles with them as well. That's how I came to be a CA (SA)."
"Soon after completing my articles and qualifying as a CA (SA) I left PwC and joined Transnet in a financial management role for five years before moving to VWSA, in Uitenhage, as a Manager responsible for Risk and Insurance first, thereafter responsible for Financial Accounting and Reporting, as well as Employee Benefits (Pension and Provident Funds) Investments Reporting. I was there for four-and-a-half years."

"VWSA was the hardest place I worked in because there weren't a lot of black people in senior positions, to put it bluntly. As a result, I had to learn to compete and prove my worth every day. It was also very male-dominated. There I arrived, female and black. But looking back it toughened me up and thickened my skin because I had to stand up for myself."

"Transnet was a good environment as well, and the position was senior (Financial Manager also responsible for Internal Auditing and Procurement). But the cultural dynamics at VW were so different. I'm glad I had that experience, it prepared me for this role."

What have you learnt in these various roles?
"At VWSA I grew the most on both the personal and technical levels, in knowing what I stood up for; and learnt to be resilient and strong. At Transnet I was exposed to strategy at a high level. In the environment I'm in now, it's as if all the experiences gained over the years, including the teaching and lecturing roles, have moulded me into the person - CFO - I am today.

In your opinion, what is the single most important skill a CFO should possess?
"Treating people fairly. Being regarded as a person who is professional and has integrity is as important. Because we are financially trained, we tend to be strict but fairness is important as well. Hence I always say, if I do it for a senior manager I must do it for a junior, and vice versa. You need to be principled as well."

How important is big data? What can or should the CFO do with this data?
"It's very important - especially its accuracy and completeness. It helps you to make decisions, especially now with these VSPs - you have to explain to the Council and its sub-committees, as well as at other forums, the consequences of all actions taken. Data is important, and not only in its quantitative form but also its quality is very important as it helps to inform not only at operational level but at strategic level as well."

Which achievement in your business career are you most proud of?
"The motor industry has an "Automotive Investment Scheme" which enables companies in the automotive sector to receive back, from the dti, a certain percentage of the funds spent on capital expenditure. While I was there we managed to get in excess of R800 million back as a result of this scheme. I was personally responsible for that."

Aside from your own career successes, what are you most proud of?
"My son. Sometimes I don't know how I managed to bring him up! He is an old soul and very logical in how he views things. He is 18 years this year but has achieved so much - in my subjective view as his mother. He's been exposed to a lot as well. He's thinking of doing a B. Com in financial modelling. He says I work too hard and therefore doesn't want to follow my route!"