Sappi CFO Glen Pearce: We need to get the integrity back into the financial statements

Where we've come from and where we are now makes me proud, says Glen Pearce, Sappi CFO

“I don’t think the role of the CFO changes. The environment changes, but the role and responsibility of the CFO essentially does not,” says Sappi CFO Glen Pearce, who chatted to us about his 21-year tenure at the company, and Sappi’s 2020 vision.

You’ve been with Sappi for 21 years. What keeps you so loyal? What makes you proudest to be a Sappi employee?
“A lot comes down to the freedom to express yourself within Sappi. I enjoy the ethics of the organisation and the people with whom I work. I’ve also had a variety of experiences with the company – I spent time overseas (as CFO of Sappi Europe SA).”
“Looking back at where we’ve come from to where we are now and knowing what can be achieved, makes me proud.”

How has the company changed over the time you’ve been there?
“The company has changed dramatically. When I started, we were primarily a South Africa-focused company. We now have operations in North America and Europe. We’ve expanded substantially over that period. With this, the dynamics have changed quite significantly. This growth and change has been for the better. In terms of our expansion, we’ve achieved what few South African companies have achieved and we’re particularly proud of that achievement.”

In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing currently happening at Sappi?
“We are a global company. Over the years we’ve had difficulty trying to align the various parts of the business. About three years ago we set up our 2020 vision, which included a concept called OneSappi. Over that period, we’ve started to develop a common goal and vision, which is starting to take shape now. It’s really good to see how the different people in the different regions are starting to work together with a common alignment and purpose. That’s very encouraging, especially considering the different cultures we are working with.”

Tell us in brief about your current role and responsibilities. Is your role focused more on finance or on strategy? Which do you prefer?
“At the moment I’m focused equally on both because we are going through a growth phase. So, both are important. I don’t have a preference for one over the other, they both excite me equally. And they’re both important.”

What are you currently working on?
“I don’t work only on one thing, and I don’t work alone, simply because of the nature of what we are doing. We work in teams. With us being in the commodity business, our focus is and always will be on costs across various aspects of the business.”
“I’m also focused on the company’s current growth, looking at various opportunities across different markets. Linked to this is managing our balance sheet and ensuring that this is strong enough to be able to support our plans.”

What achievement over the last couple years are you most proud of as CFO?
“This goes back to setting out the 2020 vision. What really has been an achievement is that we set out to do something as a company and we’ve done it. We announced various gearing targets and cost initiatives and said we were going to make certain investments, and over the past three years we’ve done what we said we were going to. I’m especially proud of that.”

What are you most looking forward to work-wise for 2018?
“This year is what we’ve agreed to be our transition year. We’ve made several announcements as part of our 2020 vision. We’re committed to substantial investments in all three regions – North America, Europe and South Africa, and they’re all taking place this year, so we will be focused on the implementation of those plans. The plans include converting graphic paper capacity to speciality and packaging paper capacity for the North American and European regions and increasing our capacity for dissolving wood pulp in the South African region. Next year we need to reap the rewards of these investments.”

In your opinion, what makes a great CFO?
“I think it’s a combination of financial and business acumen; that you have the financial background to understand the consequences of the decisions you make, coupled with the business acumen to support the team that you work with.”
“On the softer skills side, I think it’s important to be able to work with different people in different areas and under different conditions. Communication is also key in this role, as is understanding of what’s happening to the business and supplying that information to the right people to be able to make the right decisions.” 

With the increase in automation and artificial intelligence, how is the finance function changing? How is the role of the CFO changing?
“I remember reading something about 15 or 20 years ago along the lines of the changing role of the CFO.  I don’t think the role of the CFO changes. The environment changes, but the role and responsibility of the CFO essentially does not. It’s the ability to adapt to the changing environment that’s important. The availability of information and the tools that have become available these days also doesn’t change the finance function, it just enables us to operate better, make faster decisions and be more transparent. I don’t think the basics have changed.”

What do you think is the most exciting thing happening right now in the finance sector?
“The availably of data and the ability to interrogate that data. Although I don’t think this is new, we are only now starting to understand how to use it and what we can gain from it. For example, blockchain, which is something we are just staring to get our heads around. It’s the interrogation and utilisation of that data that I think is most exciting.”

In your opinion, what is the most pressing concern currently being faced by those working in the finance industry?
“We’ve had a couple of scandals lately. I think, on the back of this is the integrity of financial statements and the role that management and the external auditors play. It’s about the upholding of standards and getting the integrity back into the financial statements.”

How did you come to pursue a career in finance? Did you ever consider a different career path?
“I’ve always been interested in finance, I get a kick out of it and I enjoy it. However, I will confess to being a closet marketing guy.”

What are your interests outside of work? How do you spend your free time?
“I like to keep fit. I exercise every day – I run or go to gym – and I swim a lot. Keeping fit helps me to manage the stress of work. Family time is also important to me.”