We need to tackle the real risks facing SA, says Barloworld Logistics' Thobeka Ntshiza


FD of Supply Chain Management, Thobeka says business must stop being superficial about risk management.

“We, as business, are sometimes superficial about risk management. As much as we value the risk register, we like to keep it tidy and clean. We don’t like to poke the bear. But we need to say: this is the risk, this is what’s bringing companies down. It is not interest rates exposure; it is bad bosses, bad decisions and white-collar crime. We need to be hard core and tackle the real risks, not just the fluffy stuff,” says Thobeka Ntshiza, finance director of Barloworld Logistics: Supply Chain Management.

Thobeka, who joined Barloworld in February this year from Aveng Infraset, fervently believes that business needs to be brutal when talking about risk, or we can forget about driving change. “We never include bad management on the risk register. But that’s the reality,” Thobeka says. “Often management is not truthful,” she continues. “There’s a saying about speaking truth to power.”

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While there’s plenty of talk around managing interest rates exposure, currency exposure, cybercrime, macroeconomic factors, and socioeconomic factors, Thobeka argues that everybody skirts around the genuine issues. “Don’t just list socioeconomic factors, be specific, say that our education system in South Africa is in trouble,” she says. “With the state that it’s in currently, where are we going to find talent in the next ten to 20 years? Most of corporate South Africa is far too quiet on this. Yet, the adverse impact that this is going to have on business in the next ten or 20 years is huge.” 

Education should concern anyone doing business in South Africa right now, Thobeka says, because it directly impacts the talent pool that businesses are going to be selecting from in the near future.

“We are already in the fourth industrial revolution. And in that space, there’s not much need for people who can only do transactional or manual type of work, as technology can take over a lot of that. The future needs problem-solvers and producers of solutions. But we aren’t teaching our kids and our graduates to be problem-solvers.” 

Social media
Thobeka says she recently undertook an exercise where she gathered feedback from various social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to get a feel for what conversations were happening. The results surprised her. “What people are talking about versus the risks we list are completely different. On social media, we talk about education, corruption, unemployment, health, and the prohibitively high cost of data,” she says. “We talk about the Gini coefficient in South Africa and how the gap is growing bigger every day. Companies in the FMCG and retail space should be worried – who’s going to buy their products if people are getting poorer?”

Thobeka believes that risk is in the eye of the beholder. “If you take, for example, the SABMiller transaction, a person domiciled in Germany or Singapore, versus a person sitting in South Africa, has a very different perspective on things. This influences the country risk rate they give. A person in Singapore will likely perceive South Africa as high risk, and choose to avoid it, whereas someone like me, who has done business in South Africa for years, has a different perspective, and perceives the risks as low. Now, this isn’t to say that South Africa is entirely without risk, but two shareholders coming at it from different perspectives will assign a different value. I think this is important to remember.”

While there are numerous valid and quantifiable ‘big’ risks, businesses in South Africa need to carefully consider which of those risks are applicable to their organisation, given the space in which they play, Thobeka says, and then they need to personalise it. “Out of a list of the top ten, probably only two or three are critical to any one organisation and likely to significantly affect them. Once you’ve personalised it, you should consider what you need to do today to mitigate that risk going forward.”

Re-earn credibility
Asked what she thinks some of the most pressing issues – or risks – currently facing the finance industry are, Thobeka pauses before answering. “We have to re-earn our credibility as finance professionals,” she says somewhat dejectedly. I make it my mission that when I walk out of here each day, people say there are still good CAs out there.”

“As CAs, we are guided by a code of ethics and professional conduct, and the fact that there are a few people who have misbehaved doesn’t mean we all have. Unfortunately, it only takes one or two big incidents for the spotlight to be cast over everybody in the profession. There’s a stigma now, and we’ll have to work hard every day to re-earn our place in society and in business."

Thobeka sees the finance exec’s role as a financial custodianship. However, she says, it’s about more than just the numbers. “Finance people need to get up, get away from their desks and out of their offices, because that’s not where the action is. I think finance needs to get out more and be integral in the business and the operations. The more you do that, the more you create a trusted partner,” she says. In so doing, she adds, you’ll find that many of the discussions and solutions are not happening in the boardrooms, they’re happening everywhere. “You’re out there in operations, talking to people, and can experience first-hand what the challenges and strengths are, and learn of any new things. If there are new initiatives, you journey with them,” she says.

Present and available
You need to move to being integral to the business, Thobeka says. “If they see you are interested, present and available, they will bounce things off you more and more often. This is what I bring into my role at Barloworld Logistics – I’ve sat with all the GMs since being here and they’ve talked me through their businesses. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve taken an informal approach, but I’ve never been met with resistance. People want to talk about their business. And by doing this, by staying in tune with what’s going on, people bring problems to your desk before they show up in the numbers. That’s what you want. You don’t want to find out post-event. That doesn’t drive the business forward, that’s damage control.”

What finance needs is to move away from thinking purely finance to thinking business, Thobeka says. “Aveng Infraset groomed this thinking in me. Finance is your core discipline, but now you need to think business. This mindset allows you to be the finance person who can give a greater value add to the business. If you’re going to continuously report the past, you’re strictly a finance person. If you can look ahead and focus on what’s new, then you’re forward-thinking, and that’s what business needs.”

Thobeka’s big risks
“Professionally, changing jobs was a leap of faith and the biggest risk I’ve taken in the last 18 months. But I haven’t looked back. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. Before I started at Aveng I was with Coca-Cola. Even then, I didn’t look back once I decided to move on. For each new path I take, there’s a purpose I want to achieve. Once I do, I can move on to the next challenge. I’m not risk averse, but I am patient.”

“I wasn’t actively in the market or looking for a job, but when the headhunter called and pitched me the Barloworld Logistics role, there was just something about it. I’d been with Aveng Infraset for six-and-a-half years. Manufacturing centres on tangible, clearly defined outputs, and it’s very transactional."

"Supply chain presented an exciting opportunity for me because there are so many moving parts. It’s conceptual, it’s about solutions, it’s a more intangible concept. You have to think differently and devise solutions specific to the customer’s needs.”

“Personally, juggling a career and motherhood. I have twins aged five, and a nine-year old. It was a risk choosing to juggle these two full-time jobs. It’s been hard. I’ve had moments where I feel awful because I arrive home at eight in the evening and all I’m able to manage is giving them a goodnight kiss. But, in terms of fulfilment, they get the best of me because I’m happy. I love working and I love my career. That gives me purpose. Because they have a purpose-driven mom, I can naturally translate that into how I parent. When I’m at work I’m present, when I’m home with my kids, they have all of me.”

This article first appeared in CFO Magazine.

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