Things aren't always as easy as you're used to: Chris Patricios, group CFO of Primedia

Show your team how much you value them and they'll go above and beyond, the finance head says.

“It’s challenging, but it’s healthy to have a challenge,” says 2017 CFO Awards nominee, Chris Patricios. He could be talking about his work as finance boss of Primedia, which operates more than 50 brands in broadcasting, advertising, marketing, promotions, sport, entertainment and digital media. Instead, he is talking about what he does when he is not working. “I started running six years ago to get fit,” he says. “I got into half marathons, which I still maintain is the perfect distance. I always said I’d never do a marathon. I did four Two Oceans half marathons and thought, ok, let’s give the Ultra - which is 56 kilometres - a bash. I’ve done it twice now. I recently succumbed to some pressure from my running mates and have entered Comrades next year. When I’m training for something, I run six days a week.”

Dedication and a methodical approach are good qualities for any professional, but for CFOs they are pivotal. Chris has been in his current role for six years and with Primedia for nine years. He says that while he may not be “absolutely, outwardly ambitious”, he does set high standards and strives hard for success, without being afraid of making mistakes.

“I don’t like having regrets. Are there things I would’ve done differently in my career, or could’ve done better, yes, there always are. As long as I’m learning from it, then it’s positive."

Barack Obama
One of Chris’s strengths – and indeed one of the aspects he most enjoys about his job – is managing and motivating a team. A leader’s greatest asset is their ability to communicate well, he says; something he strives towards. In his opinion, Barack Obama is “one of the most outstanding communicators” in recent history. “Being able to communicate in the way he did, makes him stand out for me as a great leader. I believe he won people over through the strength of delivery of his communication.”

When it comes to getting the best out of his team, Chris says that giving credit where credit’s due goes a long way. “I believe that human beings thrive on recognition, down to the smallest things, even a simple thank you. The response you get from that is immeasurable. I think leadership includes acknowledging performance,” he says. Trust is also important, he adds, and getting to know your team members helps develop a level of trust. “When you are part of a team and feel valued, you’re more willing to go above and beyond. I try to expose my team to divisional/subsidiary board meetings and audit committee meetings where I can. They need to feel part of the business.”

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Chris recalls how he came to pursue a career in finance: “My parents wanted me to study engineering. My father was in business – he was an entrepreneur – and I knew I wanted to be in business and pursue a career in commerce. I enrolled in a B.Comm at Wits University, and quite early on they present the routes that you can go. The CA route is well set out, it was an attractive option. I got into it almost by default and started to enjoy it. I did vacation work at KMPG and really liked the people I was exposed to – professional and like-minded people.”

His studies took care of the first seven years of life after school, though Chris says he was then faced with the task of choosing a way forward. “The decision to pursue a commerce degree aside, for the first time in your life – now you’re 25-odd-years-old – you’ve got to make a career decision. For me, that came as quite a stark reality check. Do you want to stay in the profession and become an audit partner or get out into commerce?”

Unsure what he wanted to do, Chris decided to take some time out to gain perspective. He headed to London, where he joined Credit Suisse First Boston, and got exposed to financial services. It turned out that financial services wasn’t where he wanted to be but Chris says, having been exposed to it, he was able to come to this realisation confidently.

World Cup
Home beckoned and Chris returned to Johannesburg – “a highly underrated city”, in his opinion. Having maintained his connections at KPMG, he rejoined the firm, though not in auditing. Instead, he started with one of the consulting business units in hospitality, leisure and tourism. “It was interesting; a nice sector to work in,” he says. “It was during the property boom in South Africa. Some of the work we’d do included feasibility studies on new leisure developments. I was exposed to tourism planning work for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

"I was the only finance person in a team of tourism and hospitality peers. It was good because, while they relied on me from a financial modelling perspective, I was exposed to a non-financial way of thinking. I realised that numbers are important but there are always other equally important aspects to a project to be considered.”

After three-and-a-half years, Chris decided he wanted more exposure to being in a business, and joined one of the Servest businesses – a unit involved in golf course construction – as a divisional finance director. “It was a baptism of fire!” Chris jokes about the role. Having always worked in a purely professional environment, he was now exposed to a wide variety of people, from the CEO to the teams working on the ground, he says. “I realised things aren’t always as easy as you’re used to.”

Two years later Chris moved on again, accepting the group financial manager role at Primedia. In May 2011, when the CFO role became vacant, Chris took the leap. He calls Primedia a “great place to work”. He says: “We have a good team here at group level, as well as in the different divisions and in our subsidiaries. We have a great executive team. We all work hard and get along well. This is important because you spend a lot of time in the work environment and if you don’t get along with your colleagues, you’re simply not going to enjoy your role”

Hard times
According to Chris, the current economic environment means his days are busy. “Most of my time is spent dealing with challenges related to performance in a very tough environment,” he says. Hard times mean that reporting needs to be accurate, he adds, as there’s no margin for error. “Trying to say positive is a challenge, so I find I need to keep the executives across the group motivated by consistently highlighting positives in financial performance, while remaining realistic and providing a frank assessment of trading in a tough market,” he says.

Something Chris finds somewhat frustrating about his role is that, as a media organisation, the company is dependent on advertising spend. “But ad spend is sentiment driven,” he says with a frown. “Companies take a view on the macro environment and that view impacts their ad spend decisions, which impacts us. There is so much potential for us as a country to grow but we seem so determined to put the brakes on that and not achieve what we should be achieving.”

One way to mitigate this, Chris says, is to streamline the organisation, and make it as efficient as possible. “We’ve had to look at our cost bases and do more with less – become more efficient. There’s always more to be done but we’re getting there,” he says. “This sets you up for when things do turn – and they will. You will then be well positioned to take advantage of the upswing. We are positive this will happen.”

When the going gets tough, some might be tempted to cut corners, he says.

“Especially in the current environment, it’s important to do what you know is right. If something is wrong, or you think it might be wrong, ask questions. If you don’t get satisfactory answers, let others know. If something just doesn’t look right, tell people. If you keep it to yourself, it’s not going to end well.”

Outdoor advertising
Primedia has several business interests outside of South Africa. Chris says they learnt as much about what to do as what not to do. “Like many South African corporates, we’ve had our fingers burnt in certain territories in Africa and learnt important lessons,” he says. “Our Rest of Africa business is focused on the outdoor advertising business. We saw potential in this and it grew, so we decided to split it out as its own business and formed its own divisional board.”

The focus for growth was on West and East Africa together with the more established Southern African businesses, says Chris. Specific countries included Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya. “We made an acquisition to grow our Zambian business. But, given the significant downturn on the continent, the opportunity now probably lies in consolidating our businesses and returning to what we know, so, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia,” he says, adding that these countries are also Primedia’s biggest successes outside of South Africa.

“Our focus has switched to protecting our investments in those other countries; for example, in Nairobi we put up a large format digital screen to distinguish ourselves from the general advertising clutter; a more focused approach. We have downscaled our growth thinking generally and are reassessing where we are and identifying our risks.”

Chris’s advice to CFOs whose companies are considering African expansion: do as much market research as possible – both formal and informal – and pick the right local partners. “You’ve got to be able to trust your leadership on the ground. Sometimes you pick the partner you think is right and only once you begin trading do you realise the realities of operating in a particular territory,” he says. “In new territories, where things are quite foreign, you have to rely on these local partners for information, and supplement that with expert advisors.” The easy option is to pay a consultant for a country report, he says. “We find the best way to get information on a trading environment is to balance that formal report with informal visits and questions, and speak to competitors, advertisers and clients. The value of an expensive formal report may be less than a nugget of information from someone on the ground who actually knows what’s happening.”

Chris the family man
Chris comes from a large Greek family. The third of four children, and younger than his older siblings by six years, Chris says his childhood taught him how to share and fend for himself – qualities he tries to teach his own children; a daughter, Charlotte, age 10, and a son, Jack, age seven.

A dedicated father and husband – Chris and his wife Tessa Lynn have been married for 12 years – Chris says family time includes involving himself in his children’s lives. “My daughter, Charlotte, plays tennis matches on Thursday afternoons. I block that time out in my calendar to go and watch her play. I can work at night,” he says.

“The tech we are exposed to these days is intrusive because we are constantly available, but it can work in your favour. Most things I can achieve in the office I can achieve at home.”

Asked how he balances his demanding job with his family, Chris says a work-life balance is not easily achieved, but something he always works towards. “Have I got it right, no. Am I conscious about it and working towards it, yes.”