Jo Pohl - CFO Ubank: `CFO needs to adapt a far more pro-active and predictive approach`

Ubank (previously Teba Bank) appointed Jo-Ann Pohl to its Board as Chief Financial Officer in June 2007. Prior to her appointment, Jo – as she prefers to be called – who is a qualified chartered accountant was at Barclays Africa where she began as a Corporate Merchant Banking and Treasury Performance Consultant for Africa and the Middle East and then moved back into finance as a Regional Financial Controller before being promoted to Head of Finance for the Pan-African business. Ubank is the 9th largest Bank by assets with deposits of over R3bn and has become a well-recognised banking brand in the country.

Jo is a highly principled, driven, energetic self-starter with the clarity and confidence to succeed; whatever moment of truth is faced. She was a top student at Rhodes University and is currently studying towards the University of Wales MBA at Robert Kennedy College. She is passionate about people and this is evident in her involvement outside of her professional commitments and recognition as a finalist in both the 2009 Feather Award's Courageous Woman of the Year, and CEO Magazine's Most Influential Women in Business and Government Awards in 2010.

Jo has been elected as a chairperson on the CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) Southern Africa board, is a participating member of the Institute of Directors, deputy chair and trustee on the Chamber of Mines Retirement Fund, a mentor on SAICA's Black Entrepreneurship Initiative, an ACCA workplace mentor and a Cancer Counsellor (amongst others).

Having grown up in small mining communities where her father, a rock engineer, worked on the mines, joining Ubank has been much like coming home! She joined the Bank because she'd like to play a significant role in making a difference as she contributes to building a Bank that will serve our market with integrity, passion, pride and excellence.

The bank currently employs over 900 staff members, of which more than 30 work in Jo's financial department. Its growth strategy will be to offer its product suite to blue-collar industrial workers. With the workforce in the mining industry in secular decline, it had little choice but to expand into other industries if it wanted to grow.

1) What do you enjoy most about your job and why?

What I love most about my job is balancing the challenge of real-life issues and business operations, approaching them with the technical and leadership skills of a CFO. However, being a CFO is no longer just about numbers and reporting on them: the required technical skills of a CFO are by now much more a base-line issue, almost a "licence to trade". To make the added value of a CFO relevant to the business is what excites me. Also, I love the fact that I learn new things on a daily basis - as well as being able to teach them to others - I find that a very enjoyable and rewarding aspect of my job.

2) How do you perceive the role of the CFO has changed in the last five to ten years? Please give examples of the perceived change.

The role of the CFO has become much more dynamic and as I said earlier, significantly less about numbers and reporting only. The CFO has shifted from somebody who is technically competent and a support function to that of a strategic thinker, who needs to understand the real business operations, the overall strategy and how to make this happen, not just its numbers. The modern CFO needs to complement his or her technical skills with a greater sense of business competence and leadership skills, no longer just internally focused but well aware of the impact of external factors.

3) How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next say five to ten years?

Well, the world is more global today, and therefore has become a lot smaller than how we knew it when I first started in Finance. A CFO needs to anticipate based on that fact, which means he or she needs to be able to interpret the changes around them and predict how this will impact their business, the industry etc - both in the developed and in the emerging world i.e. what it means for us and for our business.

The CFO thus needs to adapt a far more pro-active and predictive approach. While the global world might appear smaller, it means in fact that our opportunities are a lot bigger - we need not just look at what changes mean for our clients or our industry, but look at the broader picture. The future CFO needs to be on top of that, in order to continuously add value to the business, proactively shift its focus to the next step as business becomes more agile.

4) Would you say that accurate forecasting and budgeting is still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets? How do you deal with the volatility?

It definitely is still feasible, but the nature of the process has changed considerably over the last years. The way I see it, budgeting is a line in the sand; needed to get out of the starting blocks. However, we need to be far more flexible and versatile in our approach, taking all real life events into account - while previously we might have done so, but didn't really expect them to happen. Well, look at the crisis; they can really happen! Scenario planning is now the order of the day and understanding how to adapt or die is what has seen the survival of some (and failure of other) businesses.

At Ubank we have adjusted our way of budgeting and forecasting to this new reality, by looking at things and interrogating trends much more regularly than we did. Instead of looking at forecasts every six months, we now sit down every month to look at the forecast numbers, while keeping in mind four different scenarios that can occur with various iterations and mitigations considered for this. Every month we do the necessary tweaking to our forecast assumptions, which is how it has become a far more integrated process as it feeds into the operational targets and plans. The formal forecast and budget processes still remain half-year and annual calendar events, but monthly reviews ensure that Finance and the value add remain relevant and timely. Great information that is too late has no real business value.

To sum it all up: this also reflects the required, more holistic and proactive approach of the CFO that I mentioned earlier, a more forward looking view into the future and how it may evolve.

5) What do you see as the greatest challenge for South African companies in the global economic situation and for your industry in particular?

I think normality has fundamentally changed - 'normal' no longer exists; it has changed into a 'new normal'. There is no more 'best practice' within this new, normal reality, which is significantly more volatile than the one before. What is fit for purpose, fit for the future and practically applicable are important.

This should have influenced the risk-appetite of many South African companies. I personally feel South Africa can benefit greatly from opportunities it encounters nowadays - it is resource rich, has the assets, location and possibilities. South Africa can definitely draw leverage from the current economic situation, for instance through getting the attention of international investors, and boosting the level of confidence they have in our country. I think CFOs nationwide are critical in attracting this attention and these opportunities as well as identifying them.

6) Which skill(s) do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in his work?

Personally, I think there are three separate, yet interconnected skills any finance professional should have or develop in order to be successful.

  • He or she should have great relationship skills -at all different levels. When it comes to connecting and communicating with people EQ is far more important than IQ; you need both to influence and collaborate effectively;
  • He or she should at all times be able to maintain objectivity and independence;
  • He or she should have the ability to deliver on business results, because after all - that is what counts too!

7) Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of? Please give concrete example(s).

Also to this particular question there are three things that come to mind.

  • At one of my previous employers - a big bank very early on in my career - I was partly responsible for a great departmental turnaround within the company, which was very exciting;
  • Another very interesting achievement I would call the shift in thinking as we built the Ubank culture, this included being part of the executive team who:
  • Implemented a rather radical IT upgrade. We invested a great deal in IT systems to make Ubank more competitive with the larger institutions; launched the Ubank-brand to the market, replacing the established Tebabank brand. It was so good to see it being so well received and welcomed by the market.

In addition to that, I find the work that I do for SAICA very fulfilling. For a few years now I have been a mentor on SAICA's Black Entrepreneurship Initiative, which means I advise young entrepreneurs on their way to success with their start-up business. Over the past years, I have seen two of my teams grow to be young, yet steady businesses, which I am extremely proud of. From a personal perspective, I take much pride in the fact that during this process, my relationship with my mentees shifted from me being their mentor, to me being their peer. Instead of asking me something, they nowadays tell me something. To evolve from being so involved in their set up and ideas, to becoming their sounding board in their success is an extremely rewarding feeling.

8) What three things must you do every single day to feel fulfilled in your work and why?

  1. I must learn or try something new every day, regardless whether the teacher is a very junior person or a highly technical person;
  2. I must be able to share what I have learn, including these newly acquired facts or tools with others around me, or mentor or teach on the job. There is nothing better than watching 'the lights go on';
  3. I must be capable of delivering tangible results, to add value to the company. What can I say - numbers still excite me!

9) Who is your role model in life and why?

These have changed over time with maturity and experience. Actually, my three children (twins of 12 and a 10-month old daughter) are my most important role models at the moment. Only recently they found out that I actually am not a teller at a bank - they couldn't explain nor understand 'what mommy was doing at a bank'. I find it intriguing to be aware of what impresses them compared to the things that impress us. They therefore challenge the way I think, and provoke me to simplify the things I do - in work and in life - to simple, tangible things that can be understood by all and that have an impact that can be explained.

Next to that, there are three books that I have read which left a great impression on me and influenced my life. Malcolm Gladwell - "The Tipping Point" - that book just makes you think completely differently, challenge 'reality'. Secondly I would strongly recommend reading "The Art of Possibility" by Benjamin Zander and lastly a book by William Young called "The Shack", since it really challenges conventional thinking and how this has shaped your perception of your reality.

10) What vital piece of advice would you give young ambitious finance professionals?

If you want to get into finance, it really must be a vocation. Or, as I like to put it: "where your aptitude meets your passion." You really need 'the full package' in order to want and do this and do it well, as well as those skills needed to succeed.

Lastly we ask Jo how ambitious finance professionals can apply for a job or internship at Ubank. She emphasizes the open character of the bank: "Everybody is more than welcome to approach us by sending his or her CV to our HR department or even to me directly." All contact details can be found on Ubank's website -www.ubank.co.za. Ubank also makes use of the network of headhunters and recruiters, and that of SAICA in search of new talent, "which we are always interested in!"

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category: Interviewing the CFO