Being a dreamer is key to strategic thinking, says Mali Mothiba, CFO of Progeny Resources Group

"You have to be able to see a future that others can't, and you need to deconstruct that into steps others can take to get there."

Progeny Resources has five business at different stages of their individual life cycles, says the CFO Mali Mothiba. "We have two fully operational business along the beef value chain, and three that we are incubating. At its core it is an agri-investment company, with investments in food production,” he explains. We sat down with Mali to find out more.

You started Progeny Resources together with three partners in April 2015. Where did the idea for the business come from, and how has the business changed/grown in the past three years?
“It was a combination of personal and shared factors. have a background in asset management and finance and have often looked for interesting investment opportunities and ways to maximise returns. I went to the Daredevil Run – a speedo run that Hollard runs every year. While I was there I bumped into an old school friend, who is the current CEO, Jermaine Charnley, and we got chatting. He had some opportunities he was looking at along with our other partner, Luthando Maduna. I started engaging with other opportunities that were out there for investment – focusing in the agri space and trying to do something quite innovative. Initially it was an investment vehicle for the partners but as numbers peaked, so people started contacting us with opportunities. We thought perhaps we were missing something.”

“The company has grown ridiculously fast and the business has evolved over time. It started as a single company and then someone approached us to purchase a meat processing facility, and soon after, an opportunity came to purchase a farm. We then added another farm – doing vegetable and crop production – further diversifying our product mix. An opportunity then presented itself to build grow tunnels – greenhouses. We installed a few and now there’s a market out there asking us to do more. It’s almost as if we identify a need that we have, we go into it, and then build a market as quickly as we can. I spend a lot of my time looking at opportunities that people are presenting to us.”

What made you decide to leave ‘formal’ employment and take the leap to start a business?
“There were two things – the first was my personality. I’m a bit of a maverick, a cowboy, I like to do things my way. I’m from a family of entrepreneurs, so I’ve always heard from my folks the struggles they are having in business. The second was timing. There’s the old adage, when opportunity knocks, you have to answer. The opportunity knocked through some obscure channels. I spent six months asking for my parents’ blessing, but I had to pull the trigger. Even though I was very happy at my then-employer, Futuresense, this felt completely natural.”

Tell us about your current role – it is focused more on strategy or day-to-day finance tasks?
“It’s both. Initially when we had only one company, I was the FD, then it was all about day-to-day finance. As we developed and added more companies, so I started working with teams, and my role changed to CFO. Having teams now manage the day-to-day finance tasks frees up my time to focus on what I love: strategy. In this environment we’ve created, there’s a lot of opportunity to unlock value. Through the delegation of the day-to-day, the strategy gets determined at board level and I have the pleasure of implementing it on the ground to the benefit of everyone in the company.”

In your opinion, what is most crucial to strategic thinking?
“I think it’s two things: you need to be a dreamer and you need to be in tune with your industry. I’ve heard it said, ‘Only wise men dream of what they cannot see’. You have to be able to see a future that others can’t, and you need to deconstruct that into steps others can take to get there. That’s where the strategic direction from big-picture thinking to execution comes from."

"Without dreams I don’t think you can even start developing a strategy. I also think it’s important that you stay informed about your industry. You must know the trends developing and the various market players. You need to survive or capitalise on the opportunities in front of you.”

What are you currently working on? What occupies most of your time at present?
“I’m quite busy with the consolidation of current operations. I think the CFO has an almost group secretary role to play, ensuring all policies and procedures are adopted and work together at all the different sites. Our audits are a good practice that we are reminded of annually by the experts and are a sort of roadmap of what we need to fix each year. We are working to get everything right. We are also expanding into the continent. On 1 August we have operations opening in neighbouring countries. It’s very exciting to be able to grow a business in other countries. I believe life is nothing but a collection of experiences, so I’m looking forward to starting a business in a country I know little about. Our first country is Zimbabwe, because things are starting to turn around there. After that we will look into Zambia and Uganda. Africa has a problem with food security but no problem with arable land. If we adopt a cookie-cutter approach we can take this to several countries.”

What is the most exciting thing currently happening at Progeny Resources?
“Our expansion. We’ve already secured the land and set August as our start date because of the seasonality – we want to start planting in August as that’s the start of spring. There’s a lot of admin – like getting structures in place, understanding tax and local laws. African countries are notorious for people losing money in business, so we have to be careful. But we’ve got great partners all over the continent that we work with.”
“I love this work. What we want to do will change the lives of people – they will be able to feed themselves or we will bring them into an industry where they can work and earn. We work a lot with emerging farmers. It’s amazing how, when you visit someone’s farm, you see how they’ve taken the baton you gave them and run with it. Those people are a pleasure to do business with. To take those famers to the next level is something I love and look forward to in my work.”

In your opinion, what makes a great CFO?
“I believe the CFO is a kind of deputy CEO. He or she has to work collectively and individually with the rest of the C-suite and must work with each member to ensure those levels of responsibility and their needs are met, as well as deliverables. The CFO knows a lot on a granular level and has a thorough understanding of the entire business."

"I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the CFO is often the one who takes over from the CEO when he or she leaves. You have to be obsessive as a CFO and be willing to challenge yourself to learn and grow. It’s not a position for those who want to be stationary in life.”

How did you come to pursue a career in finance? Did you ever consider a different career path?
“I was so busy being a kid I didn’t think about real-life questions. In my case it was accidental. I went to RAU – as UJ was called at the time – for a B.Com. I looked which had the most career outcomes. I chose what is now called a B.Com Finance. Once I finished I joined an asset manager. At Futuresense, I met a lot of CFOs and found the role fascinating. In hindsight, I was essentially being mentored by each person I spent time with. I firmly believe that nothing happens by accident.”

What are you most looking forward to as this year unfolds, both personally and professionally?
“I’m part of a young family – everyone has children except me. I’m hoping for more personal growth too – I’m fairly new to the industry, so I can only develop and learn more and more. On the professional side there are some opportunities which, if we pull them over the line, will increase the size of the business tenfold. This will propel Progeny Resources into the top 10 of the local beef industry. That’s a business which is four years old working in a space dominated by 100-year old family-run businesses.” 

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time, or what does the near future hold for you work-wise?
“I don’t know what opportunities might come up; I don’t know what might happen. I will definitely still be at Progeny, though I think by then I’ll be managing a multinational company working in many African countries. Outside of work I want to diversify my interests. Good financial skills aren’t in great supply. A lot of people have great business ideas but need help with finances. I’ve got some personal opportunities I’m weighing up and will see how they work out.”

What are your interests outside of work? How do you like to spend your free time?
“I recently bought a Harley-Davidson – the street rod kind. So, I like to ride on Saturdays and Sundays. I’ve also joined the HOG in Joburg. I play guitar every now and then, and golf quite a bit. And I exercise I think it’s really important to get lots of exercise.”