I like to set high goals for myself and enjoy the journey to achieve them, says Motus CFO, Ockert Janse van Rensburg

Motus Corporation CFO Ockert Janse van Rensburg is extremely ambitious - literally - having climbed some of the world's highest mountains

By Toni Muir

“My forte has always been juggling things. I suppose that’s part of a CFO’s job these days – juggling many different tasks all at once,” says the Motus Corporation’s chief financial officer, who confesses that he is an “extremely ambitious person”. Ockert spoke to CFO South Africa about his career, which has seen him progress quickly through the ranks, had him involved in a massive management buyout, and pushed him to climb some of the world’s highest mountains.

Ockert has climbed several of what he calls “meaningful” mountains above 4,000 metres, and says the European ones stand out as the more memorable because they were “extremely dangerous”. He proudly shows several photographs of himself standing on the snowy slopes of one of the mountains he so courageously conquered, ice axe in hand, broad smile on his face. “If I set out to achieve a particular objective, I will plan, direct, organise and control it until it’s done. I think that’s the way I go about things.”

As a leader of a team, you need to be very deliberate to scale scary summits, says Ockert.

“Even though you know where the final destination is, it takes time to get there. You eat an elephant one bite at a time. Never try to put the ultimate goal in front of your nose right at the beginning. Rather, put the final objective in the distance and understand that you need to achieve countless numbers of small things along the way."

"When you are taking a team along on a journey like that, it would be overwhelming to expose everyone to the larger objective on day one. Over time you will expose everyone to the final destination, but you have to put different stretched, but achievable, goals in front of them on a continuous basis.”

Hydrate and fuel
The key to this is continuous appraisal and interaction with your team, he says. “When you climb mountains, you have to do exactly the same. You have to hydrate and fuel your body and you need to monitor the team you are travelling with. The health and progression of every team member will determine the ultimate success of the task at hand.”

Trust is another important factor, the CFO says. “You need to explicitly trust the people around you. People working for you must trust you fully, and you need to trust them. On day one I’ll trust you completely. You don’t have to earn trust in my team, I’ll give it to you, but if you break that trust then it’s on you.”

Such a driven individual must surely have had his career plans mapped out from early on? Ockert says that although he’s always had a passion for numbers, there was a brief moment when he thought he might be better suited to the legal profession. “After becoming a CA, I did an H.Dip in corporate law. Maybe that got it out of my system! But in truth, it put me in good stead, as a lot of what passes across your desk as a CFO is rooted in legal matters. So, it’s been hugely beneficial. I now have a better feel for some of the legal aspects and it gives me a different perspective on certain situations.”

Gaborone
Ockert completed his articles at PwC and although he says he never wanted to be an auditor, he spent a significant chunk of his career – 12 years – at the firm. At the age of 31, Ockert became an audit partner at the firm and also gained some valuable African experience by agreeing to move to Gaborone, Botswana, to run engagements there. He convinced his wife that the move would be a good one, and with one child in tow, off they went. “It was a complete let-go of your natural environment and a leap of faith,” Ockert recalls. “It was quite a lot for the family to get used to, but it was worth our while to experience different things. Otherwise you get too accustomed to your life in a certain kind of mould.”

Two years later, when he returned to South Africa in 2007, Ockert found himself working in commerce, experiencing a “total change of profession”. He joined Foodcorp, at the time the third-largest multinational food producer in South Africa, which was non-listed and held by private equity.

“I remember the interview with the CEO of Foodcorp. He said if you want to come, then join. I said I didn’t know if it was going to suit me and he said, well I don’t know if I want you either, so let’s do a six-month contract and see how it goes. Six months turned into almost eight years!”

“Being part of one of the largest privately held, completely debt funded entities in the country really was a roller-coaster ride. One moment I was still learning the industry as the new CFO, and suddenly I found myself giving presentations to large international investment companies that were either trying to buy the shares or buying our listed bonds all around the globe. Coupled with rating agency and quarterly listing reporting, my life changed completely, and I realised what it was like to travel to London for a day. It wasn’t even funny when I told my family on a Sunday that I was flying to London in the evening and would see them again on Tuesday for the morning school run.”

But then, Marikana happened. “In September 2012, the international shareholder consortium, had a complete change of mind and wanted to sell immediately. We found a suitable buyer in the form of Remgro, who decided they wanted to merge this business together with their chicken and sugar businesses, forming RCL Foods.”

Motor businesses
“With all the excitement suddenly taken away – I needed a new challenge (mountain).” Without really looking, Ockert’s next opportunity arose in January 2015, with Imperial in the automotive industry. “I wasn’t sure I would like it, but I was up for the challenge,” Ockert says frankly and with a laugh. In July 2016, it was decided that Imperial’s motor businesses (vehicle import, distribution, retail, rental, financial services and aftermarket parts businesses) would be consolidated into one. The new company, Motus Corporation, was bedded down by January 2017, with Ockert as CFO and former award-winning group CFO Osman Arbee as CEO.

In forging a new consolidated entity, different personalities with their own deeply rooted working ways were now also asked to work together and create a new common vision and mission. It was thought that one of the best ways to get everybody acclimated was to change the location of the offices, so that the working space was new for everyone – a key facilitator of change. “We felt quite strongly that people would need to feel like they had a new sense of belonging. With a new building, we could create a new culture. Also, on day one, everybody suddenly needed to learn where the kitchen was and where to make coffee.”

In this regard, Ockert says they encouraged the staff to get to know each other and says people had to learn how to interact. He did his homework, he says, learning a little about each person, and working hard on how best to position them in the office space, which he intentionally made very open-plan for the finance staff. 

According to Ockert, one of the things keeping him most busy in his current role since starting at Imperial has been articulating the business strategy and ensuring strategic alignment of all the business interests. “There were a few non-core types of businesses that weren’t strategically aligned to what Imperial - and now Motus - wanted to do. Part of my function was to bed some of those down, so either decide where they’d fit into a bigger structure and amalgamate into other entities, or dispose of them entirely. 

Ockert says the company has disposed of over 20 entities in the last year and recently announced some newly aligned acquisitions.

“The new acquisitions we are making are consistent with Motus’ strategy to deploy capital and its vehicle retail expertise in pursuit of growth and return beyond South Africa. These will also be bulkier in size to make a more meaningful contribution – one where you will see a noticeable difference to both the top and bottom line. We will also ensure that they fit into the company’s long-term strategic plans.”

Starbucks and Billabong
At home, Ockert has a wife and two children – a son age ten and a daughter of 13. He says he spends as much time as he can with his family, as he feels “having that connection is very important”. He says, “I spend time with each family member individually, too. You need to have the dinner or spa date experience with your wife; you need to find out what makes your teenage daughter tick – maybe Starbucks coffee and shopping at Billabong. My son wants to hit balls, so on Saturdays we play golf.” He adds that his family is also very fortunate to take proper family vacations whenever they can. “This is a very demanding work life. It’s a proper 12 hours. I’m the person who makes coffee and breakfast for everybody every morning at home, because it’s what brings us all together,” he says.

Asked if he ever manages to switch off completely, Ockert considers before answering: “There will probably always be something. I think learning how to switch off is a bit of a skill that you need to teach yourself. I worry about lots of stuff, but it becomes a bit of a discipline as to how you switch off, and this is different for different people. You have to figure out what works best for you and your own routine.”