Public sector CFOs must adapt quickly to change, says Irene Mathatho, CFO of the Companies Tribunal

Growing up in a rural village in Mokopane, Limpopo, Irene Mathatho, current CFO of the Companies Tribunal, didn’t have a role model. But she liked to read and loved to learn. “I even found it interesting going to the bank, watching the tellers. I used to think, one day I want to be somewhere in these offices,” she recalls. Discovering she had a natural aptitude for accounting, Irene chose to embrace this, though she laughs when she says she wasn’t aware of all the hard work a career in finance would entail. The Companies Tribunal is an agency of the Department of Trade and Industry (dti). It was established in terms of the Companies Act No. 71 of 2008 to adjudicate applications made in terms of Section 195 of the Act and resolve disputes through mediation, conciliation and arbitration. As CFO, Irene oversees the full finance function. Given the relative newness of the entity – it was established in 2012 – her job is not without plentiful challenges. We chatted to Irene about what she’s achieved since taking up the position and how she’s finding life in the public sector. Tell us about your current role and your team. “I am the first CFO at the Companies Tribunal. When it was established, many of the functions were outsourced to KPMG, including some of the CFO functions. I had to begin by reviewing some policies that KPMG developed and devise my own. I also had to align policies to processes. I’m responsible for the overall management of the finances and the preparation of financial reports, supply chain management, risk management, payroll management, asset management and strategic planning. I also need to ensure compliance with the Public Finance Management Act, as well as that everything complies with generally recognised accounting practices.”

"The Tribunal is relatively new, so it's still a very small organisation in terms of the number of years it's been in existence. The staff here are also fairly new so I'm developing them. At most they've been here a year. The team includes two permanent staff members and an intern."

"In terms of my leadership style, I'm more of a coach and visionary. I've got a vision for myself too: the reason I joined a new entity is that I have a vision of myself building the entity up and growing with it. Career wise this role is good for me, because one day when it's up there I can say I started it. For me it's fulfilling when you see the good results at the end of the day. That's what motivated me to join."

What have you achieved while in this position that has made you proudest?
"The first year was challenging. There were two people here when I started but they resigned - they couldn't handle the pressure of a new entity. So at some point I was alone, which was difficult. This year we have achieved a clean audit - a great achievement, especially when taking into account the challenges of a new and small entity. The processes are there and we've got direction in terms of where we are going and what can be improved."

How do you find working in the public sector?
"It's a challenge. We are driven more by regulations than companies operating in the private sector. Regulations change frequently and because they change so quickly, you don't get much of a chance to wrap your head around them. While you are still familiarising yourself with them, they change! And you have to adapt quickly to that change. That's tricky."

"You need to remain steadfast and have a focus, and always be on the lookout. Once you find your feet and adjust to the environment in the public sector you'll get along fine. I always say you are responsible for your own happiness."

What has been the most difficult decision you've had to make in your time as a CFO?
"I believe if you follow your integrity and do things according to regulations, you shouldn't encounter a difficult situation. You are not there to please, you are there to deliver in terms of rules and regulations. So for me I always follow my integrity and ensure I do things by the law."

While in your previous post at the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA), you obtained the first-ever clean audit for the entity. Tell us about this.
"It was not easy! When I got there, NMISA still had processes and policies which existed while it was still part of the CSIR, and I was only the second-ever CFO. Being in the scientific field, the CFO was more like a support role to them. I had to build up a team - the team was still quite new -align everybody's roles and ensure I had people who were experts in asset management, budgets and financial reporting. Throughout this we had to implement a computer system, because the one we had wasn't performing well in line with what we wanted to achieve. We identified key risk areas that we needed to tackle so that we were working towards a clean audit. I had a plan to report to the Board saying to get a clean audit these are the areas we need to address. It was a team effort. It was a lot of hard work but at last we made it."

How important do you believe it is for the CFO to be involved in strategy?
"You can never have a strategy that is not aligned to your finance strategy. For me, everything revolves around the resources, part of which is finance. When you plan you plan around your human and financial resources. You have to align all of those things. The CFO is faced with the pressure to grow revenue and cut costs, and hence you should be a strategist. It doesn't help using a bigger strategy that is impossible to implement at the end of the day."

What do you consider your most successful professional achievement to date?
"Studying accounting and finally being the CFO of an organisation is a great achievement for me. I always say I'm at the top end of the finance that I've studied."

You completed your MBA in 2011. How did you find this process and what did you learn from it?
"If there's one thing I don't regret doing it's my MBA. It's hard work but it pays off. It opens up your thinking - you think more broadly and become much more knowledgeable in all areas of business administration. If I were to be a CEO at any point in time, I feel I'm better equipped now to handle all areas of the business. It has changed my way of thinking."

If you weren't working in finance, what would you be doing?
"I'd be an interior designer. I love decorating and being creative."

In your opinion, what is the single best thing that we have going for us as a country?
"Diversity. We are different. People can express themselves in whatever way without fear. I like that about South Africa."

With the exception of an alarm clock, what gets you up and out of bed every day?
"Having a goal of what I want to achieve in life. I believe that each and every day you need to have a plan for what you want to achieve. I have to accomplish something for each day, and I work towards that. So I always have a plan, and something to achieve. I take it as it is. Yes, there will be challenges along the way, but you need to achieve just one thing for a particular day to feel successful. That motives me."