ITL CFO Peter Walsh: "Successful transformation requires an all-in attitude"

The CFO Award winner says to treat people respectfully, be interested, and not make assumptions.

Successful transformation requires an all-in attitude, says CFO Awards winner Peter Walsh. He spoke to CFO South Africa about making transformation a part of a company’s ethos and etching it into the hearts and minds of all employees. 

“I firmly believe that the biggest risk to South Africa is not corruption but the lack of economic transformation,” says Peter Walsh, who was appointed Global Chief Financial Officer at ITL, a global garment label manufacturing company that operates in 13 countries earlier this year. The interview followed his being awarded the CFO Award for Transformation and Empowerment for his work at Servest, which he left in April.

Peter says that transformation is something we must get right. 

“White apathy is a big problem. Lots of white people were unaware and remain unaware of what apartheid was and what it was like to live as a black person during apartheid. They are also unaware of what it means to be black, or economically disempowered, in South Africa today.”

In Peter’s opinion, the question we all need to ask ourselves is whether we truly believe, given the right opportunities and circumstances, whether people across the racial and socio-economic spectrum are able to perform at the same level. “If the answer is ‘no’, we will never transform South Africa successfully without enormous hardships,” he says. “It starts with belief and giving people a chance.”

Peter knows what he is talking about. After all, he completely transformed the team at Servest – hence his well-deserved CFO Awards accolade. And his successor at Servest was Thabo Phokane

Read more: Servests' new CFO's vision for taking the company forward

Peter says says that, while transformation needs to be done from a business perspective, it must come from the right place. 

“It’s very difficult year after year to tick a transformation box if you don’t embrace it fully. It’s a bit of a house of cards and ultimately your lack of integrity will be felt. But if you make it part of the ethos of the organisation, it’s easy,” he says.

When accepting his CFO Award, Peter said that what white male South Africans have to do in this country to bridge the gap is a very big task. 

He said: “It’s no longer acceptable to tick BEE scorecards; we have to embrace transformation with every fibre of our bodies.”

A struggle-conscious childhood
Peter’s upbringing has a lot to do with his outlook. Both of his parents were political activists – his mother was a member of the ANC in the 1970s, right in the thick of apartheid, and a member of the Black Sash, and his father was a member of parliament for the Progressive Federal Party. Peter’s mom and dad invited students from nearby townships to stay with the family for months on end, giving them a chance to study.

“I recall clearly, when I was aged eight or ten, being very conscious of my relative privilege, conscious of it to the extent that I felt guilty. It wasn’t a nice place to be – to feel guilty for where and who you are. I remember feeling like, how did I deserve what I had relative to these guys, who not only didn’t have what I had, but who were also being persecuted for all the wrong reasons?”

Peter pauses before continuing: “If you dial that forward, I’ve gone away from that feeling of guilt, more to a feeling of, it is what it is. I was very privileged, but I can’t change that. What I can change is how I contribute from my previously advantaged mindset and position and, in my own way, help drive South Africa and its people forward.”

Peter says one can also use that energy to make a difference. 

“What does making a difference mean? It starts with the smallest of things. It starts with treating people respectfully, being interested, and not making assumptions. If I can be the person who is interested and makes an effort to know what it’s like to be someone else, if I’m being that, then it influences everything else that I do – the decisions I make at work, how I bring up my children, how I carry myself as a human being.” 

Black talent exists
When Peter started in the CFO role at Servest, his finance leadership team was 100 percent white with only one woman. Six years on and it is 70 percent black and 60 percent female. Peter says he recognised that finance could lead by example. “We needed to celebrate our successes and show the rest of the business what we were able to achieve. That it is possible and that it won’t put the business at risk,” he says.

Peter says that while he has “never professed to have all the answers”, with a shifting attitude, he was able to successfully transform his team. “If you had to ask the white members of my team if they ever felt threatened, they would say no. No one was ever ‘got rid of’ to make space. It was very much a case of, people left, and I replaced them,” he says. 

“And it was through opportunity that I found the right black candidates. If we needed to fill a role with a black applicant, we looked until we found one. It’s utter rubbish that exceptional black talent doesn’t exist. It may mean looking at how recruitment is done and understanding that finding the right person may take longer but that should always be the case anyway. The talent is there. It’s a matter of being absolutely non-negotiable. I never had any passengers either. I never had a black person in a role who wasn’t capable.”

Leaving Servest
Asked whether he was actively looking to leave Servest, Peter answers with an emphatic no. “I was enjoying my leave when, on Christmas Eve, an old friend of mine from university sent me a message to call him, which I did. His company, together with other investors, had acquired ITL effective 31 December 2017 and were relocating their head office to London. He presented me with a job offer for the Global CFO role. It was a great career opportunity and the chance for me to get experience in a different field.”

Peter says that making the decision to leave Servest, where he had been for more than six years, wasn’t easy. “It was really tough. I learnt a huge amount at Servest and I worked with some exceptional people. Steve Wallbanks, the current CEO, is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, not just worked with. It was very hard to leave.”

While he may have left Servest, Peter says he hasn’t “upped and left South Africa”, as ITL is very much a South African business. The company was started in South Africa during the 1930s and has deep roots in the country, as well as offices and manufacturing facilities. Peter will still have ample opportunity to pursue his transformation agenda.

“Transformation and empowerment will always be important to me and something I can have an influence on during my time at ITL. It wouldn’t have been in the fabric of my being to win the CFO Award had this not been the case,” he says. 

“In as much as Servest won this award, my new stakeholders did too. They know what it means. And they knew what they were getting when they hired me. South Africa is in my blood. It will always be home for me. I’m not a person who’s leaving South Africa so much as I’m a person who’s following a great opportunity which includes South Africa.”

According to Peter, his new role as Global CFO is a very strategic one, and includes such responsibilities as funding structures, acquisitions, corporate activity, transfer pricing, and tax. He says the shareholders are looking to double the size of the company over the next four years. Currently, ITL is the third-biggest in the world, says Peter, though it has a very small market share compared to the biggest two.

“So, to double our market share, which we believe we can do, is very possible but we’ve got to really push our unique selling points – of which we have several. It’s very exciting to be at the coalface of a company like this.”

Changing hearts and minds
As far as moving South Africa forward is concerned, Peter firmly believes that we all need to be part of the solution if we want to see a different future to our current reality.

And it’s critical to call people out for offensive behaviour, he says. 

“If someone makes an inappropriate joke or comment, call them out, tell them it’s unacceptable. Oftentimes, people are too frightened to speak up, to stand up for what they believe in. But we need to have the courage to do this. We need people who are prepared to stand up and say, I take exception to that. This is what’s going to make a difference.”


He adds: “I’m 42 years old now. I hope that by the time I’m 50 or 52 years old, I’ll have more influence in corporate South Africa and that I’m doing something that’s making a massive difference. But the little things are where it starts. It’s these things which change hearts and minds. And while not everyone can do big things, none of us have an excuse not to do the little things.”