Kantar's Inacio dos Santos on consolidation and managing the growth of the CFO role

Great CFOs must be entrepreneurial, says Kantar's Inacio dos Santos, CFO Africa & the Middle East

Inacio dos Santos, data and consulting company Kantar’s CFO for Africa and the Middle East talks strategy, consolidation and automation with CFO South Africa.
 
Tell us in brief about your current role – is it focused more on strategy or day-to-day finance tasks?
An overall strategy is formulated globally for our business. We then need to apply that strategy within an emerging market environment. We implement the strategy at a country and regional level, applying what’s going to give us the best business results. I am a lot more involved in the operational strategy within our territory.

People talk frequently about strategy in all contexts of work, but I believe it’s a “big” word used too frequently. It’s more about how well we execute the plans within the strategy that matters. A lot of my time is spent ensuring and guiding timely execution. When it comes to decisions for investments such as capex, major leases, new and replacement talent, I facilitate it, ensuring the business case is relevant to our strategy. The agency business is volatile; hence it’s about constantly evolving and finetuning our tactical execution.

Within finance, my core focus is on forecasts, driving revenue with sales teams, procurement with suppliers and clients, acquisitions, pricing, staff management, working capital and operational efficiencies. At a transactional level, it’s about constantly optimising processes and reducing risk through new technology. We get exposure to global best practice from shared service centres and look to implement locally.

You were part of the Kantar back office consolidation in 2016 and saw the restructuring of the finance team – tell us about this, including challenges and lessons learnt.
Initially, as with any consolidation, there’s hesitation and anxiety, then you pick yourself up and get on with it. We had three to five brands coming together. I was the FD for one of the brands. The other big brand had its own CFO. In that sense we were frenemies as we were still part of the same group. The reality is, there is only one CFO position. In those instances, you’ve got to go up against someone else and that’s always difficult, but you must believe in yourself. If you get the job, someone else doesn’t and that’s when you have a lot of empathy for them.

Regarding lessons learnt, with so much happening and essentially running a business that in real terms essentially tripled in size, I had to up my organisational skills using different technology. My mailbox became unmanageable. I used various Microsoft tools, team sites, SharePoint, etc, really looking at my workflow and trying to manage it optimally. Change management also became very important during this time and applying different techniques in the process was critical to success. I had to focus on my strengths and be clear on short-term goals.
 
You were involved in several greenfield startups in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – what did these experiences teach you?
It’s been a fantastic experience to see different places in the world. From a business perspective, it opens you up to new cultures and ways of thinking. You can’t come in and slam-dunk your previous way of doing things because it’s simply not the same. You get a lot of experience and exposure to different tax systems, as well as legal systems and labour practices. If you can spend more time upfront investing in training of staff around processes and systems, that will benefit you massively in the long run.
 
How did you come to pursue a career in finance? Did you ever consider a different career path?
From a young age I was drawn into business. My parents had their own business – I come from a Portuguese family and my folks had different small retails businesses – so from a young age I worked in the stores and gained solid basic commercial experience. I went to UJ for one year and was totally against anything to do with accounting. I wanted to work on the stock exchange. I went to Australia and there were only two degrees open to me: accounting or logistics. I chose accounting. When I returned to South Africa, I studied my honours part time and did my CA. I was very fortunate that my boss at the time was very supportive of my career and development.
 
What has been the toughest lesson you’ve learnt in your career?
Strictly in finance, the respect for internal controls. That is very important! White-collar crime is only increasing, and I have unfortunately had some of these instances in our business. There’s always pressure from the business to transact faster but respecting internal finance controls is something you should never overlook.

Also, you’ve got to respect cultures when you move outside of South Africa. We’ve opened up businesses across Africa and the Middle East and it’s just different and you need to respect that. People think and operate differently. What works in South Africa is not a blueprint for everywhere else. You need to apply strong emotional intelligence and discipline to your approach outside of South Africa.
 
What would you say has been the most difficult decision you’ve faced in your career?
On a few occasions, and more recently with tough economic growth, when you need to resize your business, which ultimately leads to staff retrenchments. When you have a decision to make on efficiencies, business performance, outsourcing a function, or technology substituting manpower, it can be very emotionally taxing, especially when you know the people personally. We are all human after all.
 
What do you think makes a great CFO?
A CFO must be trustworthy, and I think that comes with sincerity. You need to be honest and realistic. People respect you a lot more if you are authentic. I believe good commercial decision-making skills based on numbers and not emotions are crucial. You’ve also got to be an excellent partner to your CEO. That comes in the form of advice, pushing back and loyalty – because there will be times you lose business, gain business and relationships will be tested. When things are difficult it’s easy to jump ship, but you’ve got to support your CEO through good and testing times.

The other thing is being entrepreneurial and knowing your business well – you must have that in your DNA. To be a great CFO, you’ve got to be entrepreneurial; it must be at the forefront of your decision-making.
 
As a young CFO, what makes you most excited when you consider the future of the finance industry?
What gets me excited is the automation around closing of the books and internal controls. I think this is going to cut out a lot of fraud. I think now is the time we can be ever more entrepreneurial in our roles because the numbers are the numbers. I think businesses are looking for good commercial advice and I think we as CFOs have the necessary skills and can help lead the business with our CEOs.
 
In your opinion, what do you think is the toughest challenge facing finance professionals today?
I think if you are a traditional bookkeeper, automation is a threat. If you’re a senior finance professional just reporting numbers, you are at risk. That role will get downgraded and you have to move into a more advisory role. But if you’re an expert, there will always be work for you. There will still be a lot of specialist-type functions around the different accounting standards – I don’t think automation will terminate that.
Ethics is a massive problem. As a profession, we are supposed to be the backbone of good corporate governance. The public trust us on this and restoring this trust is going to be a huge task.
 
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? What does the future hold for you work-wise?
A larger portfolio or new industry, possibly even a CEO role would interest me. I like leading people. I’m an entrepreneurial person and I enjoy the commercial side of the role.
 
What are your interests outside of work?
I enjoy my football, golf, cricket and am a very competitive person. Whenever I play sport now, even with friends, there’s always a competition on and bragging rights up for grabs. I believe you need to have a good physical balance, otherwise the demands of the job will drain you out. Also, I’m very interested in digital automation. We have a mobile division in our business that I like to stay close to, see their latest developments and assist them with their challenges.