"I had to punch above my weight," says Imperial CFO Mohammed Akoojee

Imperial Holdings CFO Mohammed Akoojee says 2018 must be the year where "it all comes together".

By Toni Muir

Mohammed Akoojee believes that when things work out in a certain, unexpected way and you look back and connect the dots from where you are to where it all began, things somehow make sense. “My first choice at university was medicine but I didn’t get in,” the group CFO of Imperial Holdings says, recounting one of those pivotal moments in his career. “I was good with numbers and produced good results in maths and accounting at school, and always said I wouldn’t be upset with a career in accounting – as a fall-back.”

And what a fall-back it proved to be, with Mohammed now being one of the youngest CFOs of a JSE-listed company. “Where I am now, looking back, this was the best thing that happened to me,” he says, adding that there was “no human hand” that guided him to his current role. “During my career so far, I have been blessed with opportunities that I pursued. I was faced with key decision points along the way; choices I had to make that ultimately led to where I am today.”

After qualifying as a CA in 2003, Mohammed set his sights on being a banker. “It was something that appealed to me, the idea of a Wall Street banker,” he says. However, as with medicine, he couldn’t get into investment banking – a very competitive and cut-throat field at the time. Instead, he took a sideways step, accepting a job as an equity analyst for a stock broker, Nedcor Securities. Through this role, Mohammed says he learnt a great deal about different industries, the stock market, and company valuations and analysis, and also built good relationships with numerous CEOs with whom he interacted – all things that would prove to be a great base for the role in investment banking that he knew would one day come.

Dream job
Fast-forward to January 2006, and Mohammed found himself working in his dream job – as a corporate financier at Investec. His experience as an analyst gave him a great advantage, as he already analysed many of the companies on the stock exchange and had a good contact base with CEOs to whom he could pitch deals. He worked at Investec for close on four years before a new opportunity arose with Imperial. Mohammed had advised Imperial on a transaction and impressed them with his knowledge and talent, which lead to him being offered a position as their in-house M&A executive – one he graciously accepted. It was the start of a career at Imperial that is still going strong eight years later.

At the same time as Mohammed took on his role as executive director – strategy, mergers and acquisitions, and investor relations, Imperial began an expansion of its logistics business into the African continent – a region where it had no meaningful footprint but saw immense opportunity. Mohammed recalls:

“It was an exciting time for me as I learnt a lot, travelled continuously and got to know many people. The exposure to fast-growing diverse economies, industries and countries was invaluable experience. I enjoy travelling into Africa. It’s fascinating, with bountiful opportunities. During this time, I got to know the businesses and people in our African regions logistics business really well.”

In 2015, after six years in the M&A role, Mohammed decided it was time for him to gain more business and operational experience to add to his deal-making abilities and so he took on the role of CEO of Imperial Logistics – African regions, overseeing operations across 11 countries on the continent, outside of South Africa. He calls it a “great two years” and says through it, he learnt what it meant to run a business across multiple and complex jurisdictions. “There was never a dull moment during my tenure as CEO of the African regions business. Each day was different,” he says. “It was exciting, and leading great, talented people in different countries was fulfilling and a massive learning curve at the same time.”

Big shoes
During the company’s most recent restructure, Mohammed was brought back to the group’s head office and is now the group CFO for Imperial Holdings. He replaced multiple-CFO-Award-winning Osman Arbee, who Mohammed calls a “seasoned and highly respected CFO”, adding that Osman left “big shoes to fill”. He says: “It’s a great opportunity but I’ve got to prove myself. It’s a job with immense responsibility. I am focused and concentrating on delivering to the best of my ability. If I do this job well, I can look back and see it as one of the most important successes of my career.”

Mohammed says the transition back into the finance office was simple enough and credits the years of experience he gained in between for this. “As the executive responsible for M&A, I had a good understanding of the key functions of the head office as I worked closely with the group CEO and CFO for six years before moving to my role in Africa. That experience and knowledge base made my transition into the CFO role easier,” he says.

“Before I became the CEO for Logistics – African regions, I was very much a functional specialist, looking at deals from a corporate finance perspective. The role in Africa helped me to develop a completely different skill set – leadership, operational expertise, leading through people and strategy.”

This knowledge base is critical to his role as CFO, Mohammed says. “If you’re a functional guy who hasn’t been involved in the business, it’s very hard to be practical and make decisions having thought through the various issues. Ultimately, we must make decisions that impact the business. If you don’t understand the dynamics of business, it’s hard to make decisions about strategy, people and capital allocation – a key responsibility in my current role as CFO.”

Mohammed adds that through his M&A and investor relations role, he got to know the company very well as he had to present the company to the investment community, with the CEO. “That forced me to understand the business in depth – bearing in mind that Imperial comprises several different businesses across many jurisdictions. My experience to date has been very useful and valuable and I see that as one of my key success factors.”

Punching
“You go through different challenges throughout your career and each one at that time seems more insurmountable than the previous,” says Mohammed. Sitting around boardroom tables with colleagues who are far senior to him in terms of business experience can be challenging, he says. “I became an exco member of Imperial Holdings at the age of 32, and there were people sitting on the exco who were well over their 50s and who had seen many business cycles and had far more experience than me. I had to challenge their views with mine, add value and punch above my weight. I’ve had to do that for most of my career,” he says.

However, Mohammed says, he considers himself fortunate to have been in these positions and to be afforded such great opportunities to begin with. “Now, at 38 years of age, I’ve become the CFO of a very large, listed company on the JSE, which is a privilege not many get, so I count my blessings and look back at those challenges as key development years in my career. It’s one thing to get promoted and get the opportunities, but you’ve also got to up your game and deliver. This can be daunting, and you’ve got to have the courage and confidence to do it. It’s not that you have to prove anything, but you’ve got to be conscious of your role and responsibilities and deliver.”

According to Mohammed, the group’s executive team is an effective joining together of minds, as each member brings a unique skill set and viewpoint, and different experiences to the table. When a difficult matter arises, each is given the chance to put their position forward, before a “good, robust discussion” ensues. “We discuss it and look at it from different angles, and, as a collective, take a decision balancing the pros and cons. It might not be what you had in mind going into the meeting, but it is important that there is an alignment on the decision once it’s made,” he says.

Custodians
According to Mohammed, Imperial Holdings is the custodian of strategy, capital, succession and governance for the group, and as such, the CFO role has a different dimension to that of an operating business unit or division.

“In a group like Imperial, which has operations in both the logistics and motor industries, Imperial Holdings, as the holding company, is the custodian of capital. Sourcing, allocating and controlling capital to achieve returns on invested capital superior to peers in similar sectors and businesses is a key priority and objective,” he says.

Maximising returns on capital and ensuring it is allocated to areas with growth potential, and which are aligned with the company’s strategy, is the biggest focus, adds the finance head. His division is responsible for financial reporting and the integrated report, tax, accounting, treasury, investor relations, and everything pertaining to its listing on the JSE.

According to Mohammed, his focus since taking over the role has been on three areas: effective forex management, presenting the company in a way that is simple to understand so that investors can value the businesses appropriately, and effective balance sheet and capital management.

FX committee
While Imperial has always had an established forex treasury function, it has set up a formal FX committee that looks at the group’s FX exposures and, based on this, implements appropriate hedging and forward cover strategies to mitigate FX risk, says Mohammed. “This was set up to reinforce our focus on forex, given the volatility of the rand,” he explains. How Imperial presents itself to the market is another key focus area, says Mohammed, as this must be done in such a way that the company’s business is easily understood, and the correct valuation for its logistics and motor divisions – two self-sustaining businesses – is easily apparent.

The balance sheet is the glue that keeps the divisions together, Mohammed says. “When you’ve got two major divisions in one group, you get scale benefits and easier access to funding at the appropriate cost. So, the business is still funded centrally. However, our big job here is to ensure we get the right valuation for the individual pieces and do what we must to achieve that.”

Results
“I would say 2018 is the year that we need to deliver on in terms of the plans and strategies we’ve put in place over the last three to four years,” says Mohammed. “This is a very different company today to what it was in 2014. We’ve disposed of many businesses we said were non-core and sold off several properties, and, at the same time, acquired businesses that are in line with our strategy. We’ve also restructured the group and simplified the reporting lines and management structure. If you look at our financial performance over the last few years, it hasn’t been great.”

Mohammed adds that a lot of work has gone into positioning Imperial as two separate self-sustaining divisions. “2018 must be where it all comes together. While it is a tough environment out there, we’ve got to show that all those plans we’ve implemented have created some form of value to our shareholders. You can’t continuously use the adage ‘we’re fixing’. At some point, the fixing has got to show results,” he says.

Mohammed believes he came into this role at the perfect time, too. He says: “2018 is an important year for me as well, having stepped into the role of CFO. I’m ambitious, so I am determined to make this year successful for myself and the company.”