I came to finance less by design and more by default

“I am operationally focused and have good attention to detail and follow up. If there is a problem I determine immediately what the issue is and address and follow up with management and hold them accountable,” says Melanie Chong, FD of Oakbay Resources and Energy Limited, a company in the business of mining and exploration of energy-related resources. Oakbay mines coal for the local market and owns one of the largest uranium resources in the world. It also mines gold as a by-product at its uranium mine. We caught up with Melanie to talk about her role at Oakbay.

Tell us in brief about your current role and responsibilities.
"My current role entails oversight of the financial function, such as payments, management accounting and budgeting, as well as daily operational performance monitoring and management in line with budgeted expectations. Other areas of responsibility include interaction with stakeholders such as regulators, shareholders and management, and dealing with the extensive requirements and governance of being a publicly listed company. The strategic direction of the business in line with our vision to increase shareholder profits and, ultimately, value, is also my responsibility."

What are some of the challenges you face in this role?
"Ensuring that management at both of our operating mines meets their respective budgets. Daily operational challenges such as equipment breakdowns, stock of key reagents and timely payment of suppliers are a daily challenge."

"Adherence to listed entity regulation and mining regulation is also a challenge. Both of these sets of regulations are onerous and stringent."

In addition, labour relations and the low grade of our gold mine will always be part of the challenge of Oakbay Resources."

What are your plans while in this position?
"I intend to implement stronger internal controls and processes. In the first few months we have made a lot of progress with more stringent procurement and payment processes but there is still a lot to do. I would also like to explore value-adding opportunities in the mining-related space that is aligned with our strategy and vision, and maintain a strong operating cash flow month on month for the 2018 financial year."

Prior to becoming FD you were the Chief Risk Officer. Tell us how you came to change roles.
"I was appointed to the role when our previous FD stepped down. As the Chief Risk Officer I was responsible for the implementation of the Risk Management Framework, compiling a Top Risk Register and coordinating with operating mine risk management personnel and the Risk Committee. In addition, I assisted with the corporate governance and board reporting coordination and drafting of certain documents. I was involved with daily operational performance reporting for the gold mine, as well as liaising with external audit, drafting financial statements and project managing the integrated annual report. All of these combined activities led to a good understanding of the business and development of working relationships with mine management. Two years in this role made the transition to FD relatively smooth."

Tell us about your previous role at South Ocean. What do you consider your greatest achievement in this role?
"I am still on the Board of South Ocean Holdings Limited. It is a listed entity on the JSE and my greatest achievement has been taking on more responsibility. I joined as an independent non-executive director and member of the audit committee. Within four years I became the chair of the audit, social and ethics, and remuneration committees. I also held management accountable for the proper design and function of the internal controls and risk management."

"A good working relationship with executive management and my fellow board members has been essential in performing this function."

What are your strengths as a finance lead?
"I am operationally focused and have good attention to detail and follow up. If there is a problem I determine immediately what the issue is and address and follow up with management and hold them accountable. This has resulted in improved operational and financial performance of the mines in terms of meeting budgets together with a strong mine management team."

Until recently you were VP of the Business Women's Association of South Africa. Tell us about this.
"The Business Women's Association of South Africa (BWASA) is an amazing organisation made up of women who are very passionate about furthering women's economic empowerment. I learnt a lot personally about myself and moved from being the National Treasurer to a Director to the Vice President. These various roles gave me valuable learning experiences in finance, management and stakeholder relationships."

"After five years of contribution, including assisting with fundraising to ensure the sustainability of the organisation, I felt it was time to allow other women who want to contribute to such a great organisation the opportunity, and so I stepped down from my role as VP. My focus shifted instead to my professional career."

How did you come to pursue a career in finance? Did you ever consider a different career path?
"I came to finance less by design and more by default. In hindsight, however, I am very fortunate in my choice. It has proven broad enough to lead to more general management type of roles. I have also had my own fashion business, which was a great passion and a lot of fun."

In what direction would you like your career to progress next?
"As this is a new exciting role for me I would like to remain for some time in order to fully accomplish and experience it. I would like to become more operationally involved, as I find mining very interesting and would also like to contribute strategically to the company in the next year."

What keeps you busy outside of work?
"During the period when I was very involved with BWASA I had a very active social life, which was focused on networking. I enjoyed this period but now have a less active social life, but still active, as I enjoy interacting and meeting new and interesting people. I always have time for a good conversation and a point of view that stimulates the mind."