Five siblings, five exceptional professionals. This is the remarkable story of the Kathan family: one medical doctor, one Deloitte executive, and no less than three CFOs. We sat down with Veran, Christine, Justine, Mark, and Sunita to talk about the forces that shaped their lives, what motivates them, and their hopes for their children.
"Geoktrooieerde rekenmeester!," almost in unison, Veran, Christine, Justine and Mark cry out the Afrikaans term for chartered accountant and then burst into contagious laughter, with their only non-accounting sibling - Sunita - joining in too. The joyous burst has been prompted by a warm recollection from their childhood, when one day their mother came home and started chatting to them about a future career as auditors.
Working as a bookkeeper at the local municipality, mother Mala compensated for her lack of formal training in accountancy with a natural flair for the work. One day, she had asked one of the auditors what it entailed to become as CA. He jotted down some information, entirely in Afrikaans, providing initial bemusement and then years of amusement.
Many decades later, four of Mala's five children are top finance professionals and one is a doctor. "We can probably thank our mom for our careers as chartered accountants," confirms Christine, award-winning CFO of mining giant AngloGold Ashanti and - with a previous stint at Sasol - probably the country's most famous female CFO.
"She was a huge pillar of strength for us and so much of our work ethic and approach to life in general is shaped by who she was and the values she lived by."
As the accomplished siblings reminisce about their childhood in Queenstown, their younger selves are in the room too, listening to their mother's advice once more as they complete each other's sentences, laugh, joke and debate with all the ferocity of loving siblings. As the oldest sibling, Veran is the natural spokesperson, which is why the five have gathered in his comfortable residence in Bedfordview, although the conversation takes the sisters and brothers right back to the Eastern Cape. "Our mother was hugely influential shaping our personalities and giving us direction," says Veran, now CFO at Vodacom Business. "She was incredibly hard working, resilient, humble and determined despite the challenges so many women of colour faced during the 70s and 80s in South Africa."
Pair of shoes
The challenges the Kathans faced are hard to comprehend given how they are now highly respected voices in boardrooms from Sandton to Buenos Aires. Originally from the windy city Port Elizabeth, when their parents divorced, the kids moved to Queenstown with their mother. It was the height of apartheid. "We were really poor and shared a tiny single room home. One pair of shoes covered school, soccer, cricket, athletics and Sunday best for church. When they wore through we used cardboard inside the shoe." says Veran. Queenstown had schools for whites, blacks and coloureds and they were required to attend the coloured school and learn in Afrikaans. "The challenge was immense but our mother never allowed us to wallow in our situation."
Their memories of their childhood are vivid but not bitter. "We walked five kilometres to school and five kilometres home each day, come rain, shine and winters in the Eastern Cape," says Justine, twin sister of Christine and member of the Africa Executive Committee at Deloitte. "Our home was tiny but filled with love, faith and discipline. We had nearly nothing, but in so many ways we had so much." Although their dad Jude didn't live with them through those formative years, he had high expectations of the children. "When we talked on the phone he was always quizzing us about our academic performance and it really drove all of us to excel at school," recalls Justine.
They have come a long way from Queenstown days, but the bond is palpable between the five, who all live within a few kilometres of each other. Listening to them disagree on some of the details from time to time - who was or was not the dux scholar, which sibling did what and which year certain events took place - paints a picture of what mealtimes in their family home were like.
No longer pariahs
In the early eighties, their mother fell in love with an Italian. Their relationship across the 'colour line' was illegal under the apartheid regime's Immorality Act, so in 1982, the family packed up and moved to Mthatha (then Umtata). This new environment was much less restrictive than life in Queenstown. "In so many ways we caught a glimpse of what South Africa could be and it was incredibly exciting. We were no longer pariahs, we shared the streets, the store, the barber, school and everything else with people from all walks of life and it was a revelation" says Veran.
Their mother took up a position in a local pharmacy and by 1983, Veran had started his matric year. There was very little money and certainly not enough to fund a tertiary education. However, one interaction inside the pharmacy shaped their lives and careers forever.
Christine is quickly into the story: "A school teacher was in the pharmacy being helped by my mother and remarked that Veran was a bright and capable student with a particular flair for accounting. When she asked my mother what Veran was going to do next year my mother said she was sure he would look for work. It just so happened that this woman was married to a Mr Neville Thomas, then senior partner at Coopers & Lybrand Umtata - she promised to put in a good word."
"I remember it clearly, not only because it was a landmark event for my future career, but also because I felt quite embarrassed by my appearance" says Veran. "My long pants were too short and my shoes weren't in great shape, but after a short interview in June 1983, Neville Thomas offered me the chance to start working at Coopers & Lybrand Umtata office from January 1984. I would begin my studies through Unisa and that, as they say, was that".
Twins, Christine and Justine, were also exceptional students and regularly cleaned up the annual school awards evening. "We're not competitive," insists Christine. "But our drive to succeed was immense and we could see a better future through academic performance."
When the girls entered their matric year, Veran had left a very positive impression on Neville Thomas and it wasn't long before he enquired about the two academic superstars. "Anyone who is a twin will understand the need to have their own identity and I was very reluctant to simply follow Veran and Christine into the Coopers & Lybrand office," explains Justine. "I guess that came through and fortunately Neville Thomas picked up the phone to his colleague at Deloitte, literally across the road, and I was offered a chance to start my career there after I completed matric. It was incredibly exciting, but perhaps the thing that made the biggest impression was that the three of us were now all earning an income and contributing."
As Mark reached the end of his Standard 9 year (Grade 11), he dreamt of becoming a doctor. "I applied on my Standard 9 results and was accepted, but it just wasn't financially feasible," says Mark, who was nominated for the CFO Awards in both 2015 and 2016 for his CFO role at AECI. In the end, I was also lucky enough to have an opportunity in the Coopers & Lybrand space, setting me on an incredible career path that I have no regrets about."
Studying part time and working full time was yet another challenge for the Kathan accountants, and they reflect on the times they would finish work and immediately begin studying. Their mother brought them dinner at the office and the studious bunch kept their eye on qualifying. Once board courses began, they would commute to East London and it wasn't long before CA(SA) titles followed their names.
Sunita is the proverbial laatlammetjie, who was faced with an entirely different set of circumstances and in her own words "had the chance to pursue the career I dreamt about". That was definitely not going to be accounting as she set out to be a vet. "When I wasn't accepted, I applied for medicine and it was a good choice."
There is some gentle ribbing of the doctor who wanted to work with animals, and a few rebuttals about being the only one with a personality, but again the love between the siblings is tangible. "I stopped practicing a few years ago to focus on my family and we're busy with a home renovation so I am learning a whole new set of project management skills," says Sunita.
All the siblings feel that they made the right career choices. "No two days are ever the same but my real passion is growing others and being a mentor and coach," remarks Veran. His sister Christine, who scooped the Finance & Technology Award at the 2016 CFO Awards, agrees. "I enjoy having the opportunity to influence the profession," she says, referring to her role as chairperson of the much-vaunted CFO Forum, a collective of the country's most important CFOs that lobbies for optimal regulations.
Justine is also upbeat. "I have been fortunate to have a rewarding career with Deloitte for over 30 years and now also have a responsibility for Africa talent and transformation, which I really enjoy. If you can lead by example and give others the chance to grow, I really believe you can make a huge impact." And Mark adds: "I find job satisfaction in the work, but also in driving fairness in the workplace. It keeps me humble and grounded."
As Veran's children move in and out of the kitchen, the matriarch of this family would be proud to see how close her children and grandchildren remain to the basic values she lived by. "Education is everything and I would be delighted if any of our kids became an accountant. I think it's a brilliant profession for the opportunities it can bring you. Mostly, I hope they recognise the value of their opportunities," says Christine, pondering the future of her own kids.
As the twin who was determined to forge a path for herself, Justine's hopes for her children reflect her strong independent character: "I encourage their individuality and always say dream big. Be positive, respectful of others and learn to make the most of the tough times." Mark and Sunita share some of their hopes together: "I hope they learn to be there for and love one another - family is the most important thing in life. I don't think any of them will be accountants!"
Veran's hopes for his children reflect so much of his own journey - and the journey of these five remarkable professionals. "I hope I can skill and support them to be successful in a world I can't really imagine. But perhaps the thing I want most is for them to have the chance to be whatever they really want to be."
By Graham Fehrsen
This article first appeared in CFO Magazine.