Always stick to the facts and don't get emotional, says Takeda FD Debbie Ransby

CFO award-winning Takeda FD Debbie Ransby talks about her success in Africa.

By Joël Roerig

What can a South African CFO do when catapulted into an Egyptian pharmaceutical business that is a complete mess, where people provoke you and refuse to shake your hand, and when your communication gets completely ignored? If you’re Debbie Ransby, you turn that business around completely and have the last laugh. “I can’t sugar-coat it, it was very tough,” says Debbie, who won the Moving into Africa Award at the 2017 CFO Awards for her impressive FD work at fast-growing pharmaceutical company Takeda. While the company has expanded into many African countries on Debbie’s watch, driving the change in the Egyptian business and implementing a robust internal control system stands out as her biggest achievement. 

“When we assumed responsibility for the Egyptian business, the structure and processes had many gaps” says Debbie, who was not just a new broom sweeping clean but also a confident female making a splash in an economy almost entirely dominated by males.

“Every single customer I met was male. One gentleman would not even shake my hand and the interactions with colleagues were also sometimes difficult. Personally, I don’t see gender as an obstacle. I just pretend the issue is not there. My dad gave me this very good advice early on in my career: always stick to the facts and don’t get emotional.”

Immaculate preparation for meetings were Debbie’s weapon of choice and when - the ever-so-crucial - follow-up emails were ignored, she remained cool. “It doesn’t matter how provoked you are, you need to stay polite and professional. Sometimes I draft an email, go for a walk and then come back to it. You can’t allow people to walk all over you”. 

Debbie calls the project “immensely satisfying”. “We worked very hard to implement a sustainable model in line with Global Takeda standards, and as a result, it now reports directly to Takeda’s regional hub in Dubai. We went through a painstaking process of a complete restructuring of internal controls, clearing up agreements with distributors and putting the necessary structures in place. We also hired a very strong local lady to head up the Finance operation, harnessing local expertise and knowledge of Egyptian culture. It was an exciting challenge that gave me exposure to a completely different culture and global treasury dynamics.”

In 2017, Debbie has been busy with replicating the Egyptian success in Algeria. During the last few years, the company has also started doing business in many other African countries like Kenya and Tanzania, while maintaining a presence in Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho. “One of the important things when moving into Africa is to have your eyes wide open,” says Debbie, who worked with Deloitte on a thorough market analysis before embarking on new ventures.

Red flags
During the CFO Awards interview, Debbie told the judging panel that one of her toughest decisions had been to decline the acquisition of a family-owned business in Kenya. “It ticked all the boxes for us and would have seen us gain a presence in 16 countries on the continent. However, during the due diligence process and in interviews with senior management over a couple of months, red flags began popping up. The family politics made me uncomfortable and there were foreign exchange, counterfeiting and infrastructure concerns. The margins were also low. It was a difficult decision for us to make, but my recommendation was to back away from the opportunity.”

Growing up in Johannesburg, early signs were that Debbie would become a doctor, but when doing some job shadowing after her matric, she realised that medicine was not for her. She started studying accountancy, worked at the local Woolworths store and started waitressing at a restaurant called Cafe da Vicenza, right opposite the Sunninghill offices of PwC. “One night, I was serving food and wine to a group of people, of whom one turned out to be PwC’s HR partner Richard Irvine. I must have made an impression,” says Debbie, who soon after started doing vacation work at the firm and subsequently was selected to do articles. “I was at the right place at the right time.”

Keen for more exposure to finance executives and eager to hone her people-management skills, she stayed with the firm and its ‘pharma partner’ Denis von Hoesslin for a few more years. “It allowed me to manage an entire audit. Denis is a perfectionist, so I would work really hard to make sure my first submission was the right submission. He was my first mentor. We share a birthday and we still catch up once a year - on our birthdays.”

Work ethic
After a few years, Debbie joined GlaxoSmithKline, where - as senior finance manager - she implemented JD Edwards’ accounting system and managed finance, legal, budgeting, forecasting, supply chain, business continuity planning and risk management. “Whenever a project comes up, I put my hand up,” she says, adding that this work ethic is also something she tries to pass on to her two young daughters.

In 2008, Debbie joined the Johannesburg offices of the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Nycomed, which was in 2011 acquired by the Japanese competitor Takeda.

“It was my first opportunity in a director role. I inherited a department where the thinking was quite rigid, that had no proper budgeting tool and not many internal controls. I thought it was an amazing challenge. I don’t like to walk into an environment that is easy. I like to fix things.” 

After two years, Debbie also added HR to her portfolio, immediately sensing this was a tough one. “Finance is black and white most of the time, but HR almost never is. It was very challenging and I had to question my own thinking. It was a brilliant learning opportunity at the time and I gained amazing insight into people and behaviour. Once again, it drove home the importance of always remaining objective and not getting emotionally involved.”

In the nine years that Debbie has worked at Takeda, she has overseen an aggressive increase in revenue, consistently outperforming the market, and the company has gone from being 35th to becoming the 20th biggest pharma company in South Africa, with the top-10 firmly in sight. While in Algeria and other geographies the company specialises in speciality care medication, its strong suit in South Africa is prescription driven primary care, focusing on therapeutic areas of gastroenterology, iron, pain and pharmacy/OTC. Takeda also has the country’s only registered melatonin. “We don’t have a huge portfolio, but where we play we do extremely well. We like to say we punch above our weight.”

Market dynamics
The role of finance in the organisation’s success has been evident, with a highly skilled team, increased automation and financial systems that are impressing Takeda’s internal auditors. “I love working in this industry,” says Debbie, who says she is an optimist and certainly not the most conservative finance exec around. “I like the ethics. Our products aren’t desirable - no-one wants to be sick, but I believe that the medicines that we offer really make a difference to patients’ lives.”

The pharmaceutical industry is forever in flux and registering new products is notoriously tedious. “Being agile and adapting to market dynamics has been crucial for me, along with managing expectations and internally explaining change for positive impact,” says Debbie, who has implemented some simple - surprisingly popular - cost-cutting initiatives in the last few years. “We have downgraded our fleet for our sales force. Some of the benefits include improved fuel economy; lower insurance costs, and a lower risk profile of the new vehicles. Our representatives embraced the change as they saw the benefit of paying less tax on a monthly basis. They were also appreciative of the fact that we were concerned about their safety on the road and wanted to them to drive vehicles with a lower risk profile.”

Debbie calls herself a people’s person with improved delegation skills and an ever-growing self-awareness. Gender issues or glass ceilings are not part of her vocabulary. “I honestly believe that it only becomes a barrier if you let it,” says Debbie. “I worked extremely hard to be where I am. You have to capitalise on opportunities. I have never let the fact that I am a woman interfere with that. Anything I take on, I do to the best of my abilities. I am quite hard on my team and set high standards, but I am hardest on myself. I had an excellent education and I acknowledge that this gave me a great start to life. But my philosophy is that life is what you make of it. You’ve got to put your hand up and take the initiative.”