I look forward to making a difference, says GWK's new Group FD, Johan Geel

GWK's Group FD talks about leaving Afgri after 22 years, his new role in agri, and moving to a small NC town.

2017 CFO Awards nominee Johan Geel recently left his CFO role at Afgri, in whose employ he had been for 22 years, to take up the Group FD role at GWK. His new role required relocating to a small town called Douglas, 100km from Kimberley. We caught up with Johan to find out how things were going. Asked what his life is like now, Johan says, “It’s different. For the first six weeks, I didn’t hear any alarms or sirens. It’s quite a change. Also, I go cycling every morning, which I previously couldn’t do. I look forward to a more balanced life.”

Tell us about GWK and the company’s core business.
“It’s difficult to distil the core business down as it is quite a diverse business and you first need to understand it (laughs). It’s a company focused on agri, but which also has extended investments into the food side. GWK is not a small business – we have a turnover of between R8 billion and R9 billion. There are 54 business units in the company, and we focus on three key pillars: agri, trading, and Farm Foods. The agri business is concentrated on agriculture and associated retail, mechanisation, equipment, etcetera, whereas on the trading side – which I find quite exciting – we do pecan nuts, peanuts, lucerne and cotton, as well as standard commodities like wheat and maize. We also trade internationally. The Farm Foods business is involved in foods, as well as meat, and we have several abattoirs and feed lots. One of our companies supplies meat to Woolworths.”

“We currently operate only in South Africa, with 200 outlets (sites/shops and business points), and have small operations in Namibia, though we are investigating opportunities outside of South Africa.”

How did the opportunity at GWK come up?
“I’d been with Afgri for 22 years. I wasn’t actually in the market for a new job. I knew the Group MD of GWK as I had worked with him many years previously. One day, he gave me a call and asked if I might consider moving to the countryside. When you’ve been at a company for so long, you start to ask yourself what you can still improve or change, and what value you add. I think this helped me to make the decision. I could see the opportunities and the challenges out here.”
 
How have things been settling in?
“I started my new role on 1 February and up to now it’s been quite an easy transition. I’ve had some board meetings and the directors immediately made me feel welcome. There are about 10,000 people living in Douglas – Douglas is where the Vaal and Orange rivers converge, so there’s a lot of irrigation and the countryside is lush and pretty.”

Tell us about your role and responsibilities – is your role focused more on finance or strategy?
“I’m directly responsible for treasury, finance, IT, and running all the projects. Risk and compliance, internal audit and secretarial also report to me. Going forward, my role will include a strong focus on strategy – I will spend about 40 percent of my time on strategy. I look forward to that. As I wrap my head around all the finance stuff, I think the percentage of time freed up for strategic thinking will grow.”

What are you currently busy with?
“It’s still early days, so I’ve been spending a lot of time understanding what makes the business tick. We are in the process of putting budgets together and understanding these and identifying the capital needs; what the working capital looks like and what finance needs to make all of this happen.”

What are you most enjoying about your Group FD role? What do you most look forward to in this position?
“I’ve worked in agri for a long time, but at Afgri, my exposure was limited to maybe four or five products. Here, there are so many – a lot of which I know nothing about. I also need to learn and understand more about what’s important to the farmers and how their operations work. I haven’t been involved in these types of businesses before, especially cattle and sheep, and meat production. You need to understand what makes things go wrong, and it’s very interesting.”

“I look forward to making a difference and working with a new team to make a change – not only in business, but in people’s lives, too. I need to build up the existing team. The guys here are good, for example, the models they’ve built for me in the last few weeks, they’ve surprised me with the depth and breadth of their knowledge. I look forward to all the changes and challenges in the business.”

What plans do you have for the finance team?
“The most important thing is to make each person aware of their responsibilities and then give him or her the authority and the tools to take that on. Many times, you get people managing up instead of down. I’d like them to manage down.”
“I do intend to make some changes to the dynamics of the team. I’d like to bring forward that people manage and focus on what is important. You can’t just do something for the sake of doing it – I’m driven by things like, start with the word ‘why’. Often, we fall into the trap of doing things simply because they’ve always been done. My challenge in all my meetings is to ask why. For example, a report of 50 pages – could that not be condensed into five pages? Wouldn’t we change the way we are doing that? I want to make people more proactive.”

In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing currently happening at GWK?
“What this year might bring for GWK. We are not a transformed company, so we have some goals there. But it will take us time to get there – probably three or four years. It’s a goal we will have to work towards.”