Find strength in diversity, says Refilwe Nkabinde, BCX CFO

Four powerful women – a mother, a grandmother, an accounting teacher and a career mentor – helped Refilwe Nkabinde to become BCX CFO at age 37. She spoke to CFO South Africa about her remarkable journey. “I feel equipped with all the tools I need to be a CFO.”

By Georgi Guedes

When Refilwe Nkabinde told her mother that she wanted to be a CA, her mother did not know what she was talking about. "Back then, we didn't have black chartered accountants. I had to explain what it was and why I wanted to be one." She explained that she was driven by a love of maths and accounting, and by the understanding that everything has a financial impact and by becoming a CA you can really influence a company's outcomes.

Refilwe grew up in Pimville in Soweto. She was the only girl between two brothers, and says she was "daddy's favourite" and always got what she wanted. "Our generation [of black people] either came from a family of teachers or nurses and I came from a family of teachers - my mom was a lecturer, and my grandmother was a teacher - so I was meant to be a teacher too,"

She attended Bapedi Lower Primary, where her grandmother was a teacher, and so she was expected to perform. She says that this laid the foundations of her work ethic. "I was hard on myself. Today, I demand a lot from myself and my team - it started from there."

Her mother was trying to work and study at the same time, and Refilwe's grandmother offered to take the children so that she could focus on her work. "My grandmother said that it's not right to go from a school dress to a wedding dress, so she took us and my mother studied all the way up to her Masters."

Refilwe says that her mother was also a "serious feminist", and while she and her brothers were growing up, there was no division of household chores along gender lines. "I mowed the lawn, my brothers cooked, all of us washed the car together. I grew up not seeing careers as being for women only and men only."

Given her current role as CFO, Refilwe often gets asked questions about what it is like to be a woman in a man's world. They are questions she despises. She says:

"I just grew up doing what I wanted, and here I am," she says. "I never really think about it, but when I hear the questions and then walk into the boardroom, I realise I am the only woman - but it doesn't bother me because of my background of growing up with boys and being able to do whatever I want to do, and not creating that filter that says, 'hang ten, you can't look at that because that's for boys only.'"

Spending all the money
It was at Mondeor High School that Refilwe first realised she wanted to become an accountant. Her accounting teacher was a woman called Mrs Hamlet. Refilwe failed her first accounting test - cash receipts journal - and Mrs Hamlet was hard on her, telling her that she obviously did not prepare enough. "The second test was cash payments journal. I worked really hard and got 100 percent. So now my family jokes that I spend all my money because I got 100 percent for spending. But it was a lesson learnt."

Refilwe's accounting skills continued to blossom under Mrs Hamlet's watchful eye. "It could be how she explained the profession to me. She said that these people sit on boards and they help make big decisions for companies. If companies go down, they are responsible. If the company does well, it's because they are doing their jobs right. It energised me - I wanted to be one of those."

So Refilwe broke it to her mother (then explained it to her) and went to the University of the Witwatersrand to study her chosen profession. She did her training at Standard Bank as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) had recently introduced Training Outside Public Practice (TOPP) as opposed to Training Inside Public Practice (TIPP).

"I liked my training and knew where I wanted to go. As I did my accounting training, what really appealed to me was management accounting - dealing with corporate finance and financial management. I knew I didn't want to be an auditor."

She stayed on at Standard Bank, which gave her good insight into the financial management side of accounting. At this time, she also formed a relationship with her TOPP mentor, Vanessa Olver, who was then the director of finance at the bank.

Always demanding more
"Vanessa had a positive impact on my career from the get-go. Her work ethic is great, which linked back to the influence from my gran and mom. She always pushes. That's what I liked about her. She reminded me to always demand more of myself and not just to be happy with mediocrity. If it's not great, it's not good enough."

Refilwe worked in Consolidations for Standard Bank Africa, where she enjoyed learning that there's no single brush for dealing with financial matters in different countries. Then she moved to Risk, still in Africa, and next to Restructured Debt Finance, which she said was her favourite role at the bank. After that she moved into the corporate and investment side of things, which she also enjoyed immensely. "I learnt to understand about my own risk appetite, and which things to look for to get comfort. I appreciate that I have certain strengths but sometimes need to bring in other people's strengths to get an understanding of the assets. That was my big takeout from the banks."

After almost ten years at Standard Bank, Refilwe realised she did not want to be banker and that ten years with a bank would put her in a box. She had a discussion with Vanessa, who had moved on to become the CFO of Business Connexion, as the company was called then, and stressed that she wanted to be a CFO too. This was the point of her journey as a CA, she felt.

When an opportunity came up to be the deputy CFO at Business Connexion, Refilwe applied. She got the job and started working under multiple CFO Awards nominee Lawrence Weitzman (Vanessa was now the Group Executive in charge of the Services Division), and heading up big teams, which she says was one of the skills areas in which she was lacking. She says the highlights were that she gained a better understanding of working capital and good process management, and she had a clear sense of what it is that CFOs do.

Leadership training
At that point in her career, she had only worked at two businesses, and so, when the opportunity to work at Brandhouse - a joint venture between Heineken, Namibian Breweries and Diageo - arose, she relocated her family and children to Cape Town.

"I was their financial controller, working under the financial director, looking after tax, treasury and financial controls. he biggest advantage was that it was a different industry and global company."

After she found her feet, she was promoted to become the strategy and commercial finance director. When she interviewed for the position, she made it clear that this was what she needed to be a CFO here or somewhere else and that she wanted to get on with it. "The biggest careers shift for me was around leadership. Brandhouse had extensive leadership training as a world-class organisation. They looked at the individual and actually honed in on what makes the individual great. They believed that if the individual is happy and living his or her purpose, that will naturally spin-off to benefit the company. What came out of that is that I am clear what my purpose is. I felt equipped with all the tools I needed to become a CFO one day."

Back to BCX
When the joint venture came to its conclusion, Refliwe was given the opportunity to stay on with one of the companies, though her responsibilities would have become smaller. At the same time, Vanessa asked her if she would like to come back to BCX at a time when Telkom was thinking of using its investment in the company to become a big player in the market. "This excited me. I want to be a part of building something new."

She started on 1 February 2016 as the CFO of the newly created company, now only branded BCX and owned by Telkom. "I am happy to come back and plug into my networks. There are a lot of familiar faces who are also happy to be here. We're all trying to build a fantastic company for tomorrow, trying to pull the integration together. There are lots of opportunities and everyone has great ideas."

She says that when she has done psychometric tests in the past, it has shown that while most CFOs are typically very logical and analytical, she is more on the creative spectrum. "When I hire for my team today, I don't look for people like me, I look for people that are different and embrace the diversity of the team because that becomes our strength."